‘A pint of Guinness, please.’
It was the third time I’d witnessed a tourist approach the bar in Messrs Maguire’s and ask, in varying levels of English, for a pint of what is admittedly Dublin’s most famous export. In most Irish pubs, it’s a perfectly typical thing to ask.
But Messrs is not most pubs.
Messrs Maguire’s is a gastropub wrapped around a microbrewery, which means they have a range of their own craft ales, stouts and lagers on tap next to the more well-known ones. When the Guinness folk spotted my five-sample tray of the house’s craft brews, most revised their order.
Craft beers are gaining ground in their one-pint-at-a-time revolution in Ireland’s pubs. Microbreweries and brewpubs have been cropping up around the island, offering diversity and head-scratching menus, to quickly discerning locals and visitors.
There are a few terms I need to remember: the craft brewery is an independent brewery with an annual production of 6 million barrels or less. Compare that to the small-scale microbrewery, which produces less than 15,000 barrels annually. Then there’s the brewpub, which brews at least a quarter on site of what it sells.
Messrs is the only brewpub in Dublin, allowing visitors watch the brewer, Eddie, work on the brews as they sip them at the bar. Some folk keep an eye out for new seasonals, bartender Joann Erickson tells me. “Guys come in to try them and take little notes and compare them. They call themselves the beer-nerds. Nice guys,” she smiles.
Craft breweries have proven they can brew a classic taste, with shining examples including Tom Crean’s lager from Dingle Brewing Company and O’Hara’s traditional Irish Stout. Clanconnel, Northern Ireland’s newest microbrewery, had their McGrath’s Irish Black awarded Champion Beer of Belfast Festival 2010.
Look out for Metalman’s Pale Ale from Waterford, and Red Oak Ale from White Gypsy in Tipperary, who source as many ingredients locally as they can – even growing their own hops. A bottle of Howling Gale from Cork’s 8º Brewing Company is another good bet, which the Irish Examiner described as a “sugary sweetness balanced by a spicy, hoppy crispness, makes for a very lively mouthful”.
Owner of 8º Cam Wallace explains his favorite thing about craft brewing is the same thing that makes it so appealing to the public; “We can experiment and we are very flexible on what we can produce. That’s our big advantage”. Customers like the choices offered by experimentation, shrugs Wallace.
The flexibility of craft brewing is something appreciated by every craft brewer. Gráinne Walsh said she loves walking into the Metalman brewery in the morning and thinking, “I might make a new beer today!”
The Hilden Brewery is the oldest independent brewery on the island, established in 1981. The family-run operation is located in Hilden, County Antrim, and run their own annual beer festival. If you appreciate beer’s sweet sister cider, let me introduce Armagh, a county bespeckled in apple orchards. Both Tempted? and Armagh Cider Company will quench any apple-lusting thirst you may be harboring.
Many breweries broaden their reach with their own pubs, with mighty success. Galway Bay Brewery operates several sister pubs, three in Dublin and three in Galway, all of which offer a comprehensive and scrumptious selection of craft beer and most importantly, the enthused staff to talk you through your options. In The Black Sheep pub in Dublin, I was directed by a wise bartender towards St Peter’s Stout – just amazing.
The Porterhouse opened their Temple Bar branch in 1996, a brave move back in the days before craft brew surged in popularity. “Nobody thought we had a chance – least of all our accountants”, says the owners.
These days, 16 years and six bars later, they’re the two-time winner of the Best Stout in the World. Yep, in the land dominated by a global stout brand, the Porterhouse has snagged Best Stout in the World, twice.
One of the blokes I sat next to in the Porterhouse told me he’d spent his entire life drinking the same big-brand stout as his Dad until one night two years ago, he happened to notice the Porterhouse’s Hop Head ale. Curious, he tried it. He said he hasn’t had a stout since.
After my own day of selfless research, jaunting between the bars of Messrs, Porterhouse and the Black Sheep, I found myself back in a friend’s house and a big-name bottle of lager pushed into my hand. I took one sip and couldn’t believe the difference in taste – it reminded me more of water than the beers of my sample trays.
Those craft brews should come with a warning: may cause taste buds.
You can read more from Erica Reed on her fabulous blog.