A hundred years ago small craft breweries dotted the Irish landscape. From village to town, frothy ales and robust stouts and porters offered taste, variety and crafted drinking experience. During the twentieth century, technology and industrialisation led to consolidation and turned beer from craft to a mass-produced commodity. The gradual change was less noticed by drinkers who became less discerning and less demanding in their drinking choices.
Maybe it was because we took to travelling more over the past few decades and witnessed similar rebirths of craft brewing in the US and the UK, the demand for Irish craft beers has reawakened. Where there were eight microbreweries in 2008, ten years later, the Irish beer drinker enjoys a profusion of choice with nearly 100 thriving craft brewers today. Much like the taste for fine wines of diverse character, the Irish craft beer aficionado can locally experience beers.
It’s not just drinkers of course as fledgeling brewers and seasoned entrepreneurs have risen to the challenge, embraced their passion and experience and prospered, offering an array of craft brews – some resurrecting traditional recipes and others embracing the creativity of the brewers’ craft offering tastes from away and combining ingredients in new exciting and unique ways. In the land of Guinness, Murphy’s, Beamish and Smithwick’s, we now find drinkers asking for a juicy New England pale ales or a stout sparkling with sour cherry or a stout spiced with Mexican chilli and chocolate. Lower alcohol session ales are featuring refreshing mint or complete ranges of gluten-free beers. Despite the continuing dominance of Guinness stout and Heineken lager at on and off-license locations, Irish beer tastes are diversifying. As overall beer consumption has declined over the past two years, the demand for craft beers has risen 50%. So, what’s the attraction?
Ultimately craft beer is traditionally Irish. More discerning drinkers are seeking a more authentic experience. Looking to find real taste, crafted by individual Irish brewmasters, harnessing Irish ingredients in local ways.
Although many may see the craft beer movement catering to a specific group – young, urban and prosperous males – the consumption of craft beers by younger women is probably one of the fastest growing (and possibly surprising) groups. Craft beer appeals to a broader audience, offering diverse tastes that appeal more widely than those that have in the past been produced for the mass market.
Although most craft beers cost more per volume than cheaper mass produced labels, craft beer drinkers savour these tastes and choose to enjoy less of a better thing. Intriguingly, the initial growth in the craft beer sector in Ireland began during the recession as drinkers became more careful with their spend and chose to spend it on craft beer.
Craft beer is a local product reflecting its local roots, and the naming of beers and breweries reflects this. Franciscan Well, 9 White Deer or Rising Sons combine local place names (Shandon Stout) with mythology (Stag Bán)or reference to local landmarks to engage the drinker and remind them of their attachment to their place.
Irish drinkers are seeking more unique tastes than those offered by macro beer producers. They desire beer made in places they know by people that have a passion for their craft and produce it in small batches for an audience that considers and appreciates their handiwork.
Traditional craft beer recipes demand purer and healthier ingredients and in craft beer drinkers are also seeking a healthier choice. Craft beer drinkers are supporting their local economies, not just brewers, but farmers and pubs that offer unique and diverse ways to satisfy all manners of taste.
It remains to be seen whether the Irish craft beer sector can sustain the rapid growth it has enjoyed, but the fortunate Irish craft beer drinker will undoubtedly continue to luxuriate in the variety of tastes and experiences afforded by the rebirth of craft brewing in Ireland.