Guinness’s new Irish rivals
Inside the Galway Bay Brewery in Galway, Ireland, a tiny batch of imperial stout lies in Irish whiskey barrels. When brewmaster Chris Treanor’s newest creation is released in late February, it will join a small but growing number of imperial stouts — stronger, more intense stouts — brewed in the country.
On one hand, it’s surprising the trend took so long to start. Few drinks seem more Irish than one that marries the two drinks the country proudly claims to have invented centuries ago, whiskey and stout. On the other hand, considering Guinness’s domination of Irish brewing, and Treanor’s personal story, it’s amazing the Two Hundred Fathoms imperial stout is being made at all.
Like many brewmasters, Treanor’s roots were in home brewing – but his trajectory from a college kid making beer at home to save money to Ireland’s (and possibly Europe’s) youngest brewmaster is uncommon. His is a story that could happen few places besides Ireland, where the burgeoning craft beer scene is promising, but still just young enough for a now-23-year-old to make his mark.
After a series of fortunate events just after college that he compares to winning the lottery, Treanor found himself in charge of the only brewpub in Galway, creating his own recipes to release on tap. Less than a year later, in 2013, Galway Bay expanded to a new facility with a 100,000-litre capacity – more than 12 times the size of the brewery’s original facility next door, allowing him to experiment even further. Beers like Two Hundred fathoms illustrate how far Irish stout has come in the last few years.
Since Arthur Guinness first started brewing stout in the late 18th Century, very few other breweries have successfully produced the beer in its ancestral home. In the 19th Century, Ireland had more than 200 breweries, but in modern times the Irish have had virtually no choice of stout except Guinness, and its much smaller competitors Murphy’s and Beamish. Then, in the mid 1990s, a few independent companies entered the brewing scene and changed everything.
Barry Cassidy, owner of JW Sweetman, the only pub in Dublin that brews beer onsite, said much of the reason it took so long for smaller producers to begin competing with Ireland’s big breweries is because of brand loyalty. Most Irish, Cassidy added, also still lack a sophisticated palate for different types of beer.
“Give us a potato and we can tell you if it’s a regular potato, a roast potato – we can even tell you what county it’s from,” Cassidy said. “[But] we’re terrible with flavour profile… we’re just now starting to get better.”
Cassidy had a point. Even Guinness, the stout by which all others are measured, is not particularly flavourful compared to many of its US counterparts. Don’t get me wrong: I love Guinness. But it’s the subtlety and the creamy, silky texture that make it so enjoyable. In fact, the Guinness Draught we know today is likely a smoother, less robust version of the original. Now at a moderate 4.2% alcohol, a pint of plain, as it’s famously called, has basically become session beer.
Never the less, droves of tourists still head to Ireland on a pilgrimage for a pint of Guinness in the beer’s homeland, and swear it tastes better than in any other place on Earth – there have even been studies that have proved that claim to be true.