Guinness’s new Irish rivals

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 – until now.

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.

Some say Guinness tastes better in Ireland because beer doesn’t travel well; it’s intended to be drunk fresh. But Guinness is brewed in almost 50 countries worldwide, so most pints don’t have to travel that far (Guinness states all of its draught beer in the UK, Ireland and North America is brewed in Dublin). Then there’s the urban legend that the pub taps throughout Dublin flow directly from the Guinness brewery at St James Gate. But the real reason likely has just as much to do with sentimentality; Guinness tastes better in Ireland just like a glass of Chianti tastes better while overlooking the hills of Tuscany. Going further with the idea that the Guinness’ taste is largely psychological, Cassidy went so far as to say the famously laborious Guinness pour  is more about “theatre” than it is about taste.  

With its harp and shamrock logos, and its monopolization of St Patrick’s Day, nothing screams Ireland like Guinness, giving it more brand recognition than nearly any major beer on Earth. But this brand loyalty, combined with restrictive tax laws and Guinness’s stranglehold on beer distributors, has made it difficult for craft brewers to compete – until recently.

Today, none of Ireland’s three big stouts – Guinness, Beamish and Murphy’s – are Irish owned, which has been a boon for the country’s young craft brewing industry as Irish consumers start to look for flavourful local beer.

When Ireland’s first craft brewpub, The Porterhouse, opened in Dublin’s iconic Temple Bar neighbourhood in 1996, it seemed doomed to fail. But surprisingly to most, it became so successful it soon opened two other locations in Ireland, as well as one in London and most recently one in New York. Part of Porterhouse’s success probably had to do with its design – it has an energetic atmosphere, located in Dublin’s most touristy area, with tables made from copper brewing equipment and a live-music stage that rises through the centre of its three stories. It also makes some very good beer, including the oyster stout: a sweet, creamy, slightly smoky brew with a bit of a salty kick, due to the fact that it’s brewed with fresh-shucked oysters.

The same year Porterhouse started serving pints to its patrons, Carlow Brewing Company in County Carlow began bottling O’Hara’s beer, today Ireland’s most ubiquitous craft beer.

But even with those standout successes, another decade passed before craft brewing really took off. In part thanks to the trailblazers of O’Haras and Porterhouse, and in part thanks to government tax breaks implemented in 2005, the number of Irish microbreweries began to grow. Soon after, breweries like Gallway Hooker outside of Galway, and Franciscan Well in Cork (which was purchased by Molson Coors in 2013) started producing high quality beer. Word about the new wave of Irish beer began to spread. Demand for something different grew so big, microbrewing spread to even the tiniest villages.

In 2011, almost 250 years after opening, the Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna, a village of less than 1,000, started brewing in-house under the name Burren Brewery, called such because of the town’s proximity to the limestone landscapes of the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher. Today, the Burren Red is so popular they have trouble keeping it in stock. While the Burren Black is slightly more bitter, and not quite as silky as Guinness, it still went down easy.

Back in Galway, after I had a small sampler of Treanor’s beer, he recommended I sample a pint of limited edition Kindred Spirit from County Cork’s Eight Degrees Brewing at Oslo Bar and Microbrewery, the brewpub that houses Galway Bay. Aged in 25-year Irish whiskey barrels from Teeling Whiskey Company, Kindred Spirit was a smokey black beer with a subtle hint of oak and whiskey.

That’s the beauty of a country with such a small craft brewing industry – the city’s only microbrewery still supports other local brewers rather than competing with them.