You are here
The Irish love a good Guinness... and Jamesons... and Baileys... and Bulmers cider... In fact, the Irish love a good drink, full stop. But it is beer that the Irish really excel at, only rivalled by its mighty whiskey. Ireland is just behind the great beer drinking nations of the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria when it comes to beer consumption per capita in Europe. And although it is famed for its stouts, the thick, dark beer only accounts for 34% of the total Irish beer sold; it’s lager that takes the lion’s share, accounting for a massive 60%, with ale the remaining 6%. The number of Irish breweries may have dropped from over 200 at the start of the 19th century to just 19 today but a growing number of microbreweries are emerging and, besides, what Ireland lacks in quantity it certainly makes up for in quality.
A brief history of Irish beer
Irish beer can be traced back 5,000 years, to the bronze and Iron Ages and Ireland’s early agricultural days, when ale was the drink of choice. Legend has it that St. Patrick had his own brewer and, certainly, the monasteries had a monopoly on the production and sale of ale. Ireland’s oldest commercial brewery, Smithwick’s, even houses the ruins of an abbey in its grounds. Monks used their vast knowledge of herbs to flavour their ales, rather than using difficult to grow hops.
Smithwick’s opened their Kilkenny brewery in 1710 and, by the end of the 18th century, there were 12 breweries in Dublin alone, two of which were founded by Arthur Guinness. Beamish & Crawford opened their Cork brewery in 1792 and Murphy’s opened in the city in 1856. By the early 20th century, Guinness was the largest brewer in the world and most smaller breweries had been knocked out or bought up by the big 3. However, with the advent of the craft beer scene, Ireland now has more breweries than it has at any time since the early 1920s.
Elf Leprechaun With Irish Beer
The craft beer scene
The craft beer movement began relatively late in Ireland, probably due to the dominance of Guinness on the licensed trade. The fledgling micro industry first opened its wings in the 90s with the emergence of brewpubs and microbreweries, heated up in the mid-2000s with a wave of further breweries and, in 2013, experienced a surge of newcomers establishing microbreweries thanks to changes in excise requirements, access to funding, and government-funded training courses.
There are currently dozens of craft breweries either running or at the planning stage, with O’Hara’s and Porterhouse two of the more famous names. Look out for O’Hara’s Irish Wheat, a fruity wheat beer balanced with a bitter hop finish, and its Celtic Stout, a traditionally brewed stout with no artificial additives, as well as Porterhouse’s Oyster Stout, which shucks fresh oysters into the conditioning tank!
Glasses Of Stout Beer
The most famous of all stouts is undoubtedly Guinness - it has been the largest brewer of stout in the world for over 100 years, although Arthur Guinness began his career in 1759 brewing ale. It wasn’t until 1780 that he ventured into what were then called ‘stout porters,’ - in the 18th century the term ‘stout’ could be applied to any beer to denote that they were strong. It was only many years later that stout became associated solely with porter and is now often used to describe any dark beer.
Almost black in colour, with a thick, white, creamy head, Irish stout has a roasted taste with hints of coffee and chocolate. Draught Irish stout is usually nitrogenated, which creates the creamy texture and long-lasting head it is known for. As well as Guinness, Murphy’s, Beamish and a growing number of craft stouts are all popular in Ireland. Murphy’s is the lightest and sweetest of the three big names, a nutty, less bitter stout, whilst Beamish, which has used the same strain of yeast since 1792, has a malty core with light touches of coffee, dark chocolate and hints of spice.
As hops aren’t native to Ireland, it wasn’t until they were imported from England that hoppy lagers began to be brewed in the country. The first lager brewery was established in 1892 but only survived five years and the second didn’t open until 1937 before itself closing in 1954. Lager only really started to be brewed on a serious scale in Ireland when Guinness converted one of their breweries to produce Harp, which was first launched in 1960. A Vienna-style lager, it is smooth, solid and has a bitter beginning which swiftly becomes light, clean and refreshing. Harp is traditionally mixed with an equal measure of Guinness to create the ‘Black and Tan.’ For something completely different, Guinness has now launched Black Lager, which offers the light hops and refreshing carbonation of traditional lagers but with the roasted barley character of its stout, in both its dark colour and fuller flavour.
Red Ale Irish Beer
Most ales brewed in Ireland are in the red ale style. Irish red ales get their light red hue from the roasted barley they are brewed with. They are dry, crisp, hoppy, carbonated, and often characterised by caramel maltiness and hints of fruit. Taking a sip is like biting into freshly baked bread. The number one Irish ale is Smithwick’s, which has been brewing ales in Ireland since 1710, making it the oldest operating brewery in the country, but Murphy’s Irish Red is also popular and itself dates back to 1856.
Something of an Irish specialty, Irish cream ales are worth searching for. Dating back to the 14th century, Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale has a fantastic heritage and is the country’s most popular, as well as being a hit in Australia - alongside Canada, we are the world’s largest importer of Kilkenny. Boasting a rich, malty aroma, a crisp hop finish, and a thick head, it is sweet and creamy but offset with a hit of bitterness.
Stamp Of Green Glass Of Beer
Stout - If you’re sipping a pint of the black stuff, you need to be eating hearty comfort food to match its weight and richness. A meat pie, whether with pastry or mashed potato, will stand up to stout beautifully. Weirdly, it also pairs well with oysters. To pick up on its flavour nuances, a chocolate or ginger cake made with Guinness is perfect. The Guinness gives the cake an added chocolatey flavour and texture, as well as hints of roasted coffee, and makes it wonderfully moist - all of which is heightened by supping a pint of it alongside the cake.
Lager - As the lightest of the Irish beers, the country’s lagers are the perfect accompaniment to delicate fish and seafood, and the citrus notes in an Irish lager such as Harp are enhanced by a squeeze of lemon. Its clean, bright, crisp character also makes it a brilliant foil for fried foods. Toffee and bread flavours in Irish lagers harmonise a caramelised apple tart or pie.
Red ale - The distinct caramel flavours in Irish red ales, balanced with their bitterness, are the perfect match for salty food so they make excellent aperitifs or footy beers served with salty snacks. That sweetness is also a brilliant foil for the heat of Thai or Indian food. The inherent sweetness of lamb also picks up the sweet notes in red ales. Tangy cheeses work well with red ales and, when it comes to dessert, anything with nuts or caramel will be a hit.
Cream ale - Sweeter and subtler than stout, sharp cheeses or a traditional Irish meal of corned beef and cabbage complement an Irish cream ale. Fruity and nutty desserts work well - try a rich fruit cake and swap a cup of tea for a pint of cream ale!