Going to Ireland for a beer and finding more than just Guinness

If there is a motherland for American beer drinkers, it is Ireland.

True, our brewing heritage might reach back to Germany or England, and we seem to have a soft spot for Belgium. But our drinking chops come straight from Dublin, and if you don’t believe me, get off your butt on St. Patrick’s Day Thursday, the national holiday of beer lovers, and go dancing with the leprechauns.

Black stout in a pint glass and the Pogues on the jukebox — the Irish pub is our church, and a pilgrimage to the Emerald Isle is a rite of passage.

Funny thing, though, until recently, American craft beer fans heading to Galway or Killarney or Belfast were surely disappointed with the slim pickings. Yes, there was plenty of fresh, perfectly poured Guinness Stout to be had, but you could get that back home. Otherwise it was the same old same old: Heineken, Carling, Coors, bleh.

“Every pub had the same three products, and for generations that’s the way it was,” Seamus O’Hara, who cofounded Carlow Brewing in the southeast of Ireland with his brother, Eamonn, in 1996, told me in a phone conversation earlier this month.

As little as 10 years ago, there were only about a dozen breweries in Ireland, most of them owned by the big guys.

But things have improved quickly, thanks mostly to new tax laws that benefit small brewers. Today, Ireland boasts more than 75 independent breweries, and O’Hara is widely seen as their pioneer.

“It has become quite a vibrant craft beer scene,” said O’Hara, who was recently appointed chair of the Irish Brewers Association. “I can see it bringing all kinds of energy and excitement to consumers.”

You don’t have to take his word for it. In October, I’m leading Joe Sixpack’s Irish Beer & Whiskey Tour, a 10-day crawl to some of the country’s small breweries and distilleries. Join me as we visit Dublin, Galway, Killarney, the Dingle Peninsula and elsewhere to explore the sights and share a few pints.

Yes, we’ll stop in at Guinness — how can we not? Mostly, though, we’ll focus on small breweries and family-owned distilleries. Places like:

  • Galway Bay Brewery, whose Oslo Bar is one of Europe’s great craft beer destinations.
  • West Kerry Brewery, a real ale brewery where the locals speak the traditional Irish language.
  • Franciscan Well Brewery in Cork, where the Summer Saison was recently judged the world’s best pale ale.
  • Teeling, the only distillery in Dublin, now making award-winning Irish whiskey.

We’ll treat ourselves to plenty of Irish stout, porter and red ale. But like much of the world these days, small brewers are taking their cues from adventurous American brewers. These days, Irish taps are pouring everything from Belgian-style abbey ales to west coast double IPAs.

Even Carlow, which got its start by reviving traditional Irish styles that had been dumbed down by big producers, is now producing barrel-aged ales and single-hop India pale ales.

“People want hoppier beer, more interesting flavors,” said O’Hara.

That’s a big change from the days when an Irish pub merely had to open its doors and crank up the fiddles. The recession, a smoking ban and real estate pressures have cut into the bar trade, he said, forcing pubs to “put beer on the agenda.”

In some ways, it sounds like the American craft beer scene, circa 1998. In other words: the early exciting days of a movement.

Want to learn more? I’m taking over the second floor of McGillin’s Old Ale House (1310 Drury St., Center City) March 23 at 6 p.m., to share more details and some great O’Hara’s ale, including the brewery’s new collaboration brew (yes, that’s now a thing in Ireland) with Virginia’s Starr Hill Brewery. Tix are 10 bucks, online or at the door.

-30-

0