THE next stop in the Barstool Traveler series is Ireland. There is far more to the Irish beer than the green beer seen in cups around Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities. In fact, there is more to Irish beer than even Guinness.
The history of beer in Ireland dates bake to at least the 5000 BCE. Beer, that’s beoir, (pronounced be-ah-irr) in Irish, was deeply rooted in the farmhouse ales common throughout Europe.
Irish beers didn’t include hops as an ingredient until the 1700s, as hops are not native to Ireland. That all changed with the arrival of Christianity, when beer production moved to the abbeys.
It is said that as St. Patrick seeded monasteries throughout Ireland he would send his “head brewer,” a priest by the name of Mescan, to set up the beer production facilities to ensure the stability of all the monasteries.
St. Patrick did a good job spreading beer throughout Ireland, leading to the existence of over 200 breweries in the country by the late 1700s -- not bad for a country about the same size as South Carolina.
Arthur Guinness opened Ireland’s most famous brewery in 1756. It might be surprising to learn that Guinness focused on light ales and not the Irish stout that it is now known for.
That changed when porters became popular. The dark, rich porters were an import from England and became popular in Ireland. Guinness tapped into that popularity and quickly grew into a brewing behemoth.
By 1900 Guinness was the largest brewery in Europe and was shipping more beer to England than Ireland imported. However, Guinness’s growth had a serious downside for the rest of Ireland’s beer industry.
During that 100 years the number of breweries in Ireland had dropped from 200 to less than 30, and many of those were Guinness owned. By 2007 there were only 12 breweries in Ireland.
As styles and preferences grew and changed, porters yielded to milk stouts in popularity. Ireland imported much of the malted barley that was used in the production of these sweet stouts. The import of malted barley was taxed, however un-malted barley was not.
In order to avoid the import taxes, Irish brewers switched to using un-malted barley, which changed the taste profile of the beer dramatically. The roasted barley was less sweet, “dryer” with a bitter finish than the milk stouts and thus a new style, the Dry Irish Stout was born.
Curiously, lagers were not popular in Ireland until very recently. The first brewery to produce lagers opened in 1892 but closed soon after. It wasn’t until the 1950s when Guinness began producing Harp that lagers were brewed consistently.
The craft beer industry in Ireland has expanded in the last two decades. According to the Irish Times there are now 63 craft breweries in Ireland, responsible for 3.3 percent of the beer market in Ireland. This is considerable growth as the market share was only 1.2 percent in 2014.
Sadly, the boom in Irish craft beer has not reached as far as Savannah shelves just yet.
There are, however, a few options of Irish or Irish style beers that are available particularly this time of year.
O’Hara’s Irish Red, Carlow Brewing Company. There is some debate as to whether Irish Red Ale is a style on its own or just a variation on an English Bitter, but Carlow Brewing’s 4.3% red ale is an accessible and very drinkable version. Founded in 1997 Carlow Brewing, also known as O’Hara’s Brewing, is one of the few Irish craft breweries with distribution in Georgia.
The Bomb!, Moon River Brewing. As you might expect there is a local option to help celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The Bomb! Is an Irish style dry stout that won the 2014 World Beer Cup Gold Award for dry stouts.
Oyster Stout, Porterhouse Brewing Company. If you are willing to do a little work, Porterhouse brewing is distributed to Florida. Their 4.6% Oyster Stout is worth looking for. Porterhouse opened as a brewpub in 1996 and now has pubs and bars across Ireland, London and in New York.
We may not have much access to Irish craft beer but Georgia now has a stake in Irish brewing. Will Avery, the (former) head brewer at Burnt Hickory Brewing in Atlanta, has recently moved to take on the same position at Galway Bay Brewing in Galway, Ireland.
There may only be a few true Irish offerings beyond Harp, Guinness Stout and Murphy’s, but that doesn’t mean you should drink green beer.