PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Ireland produces and drinks far too much beer to be beholden to any one brewery.
Apologies, once again, to Arthur Guinness, but a certain brewery in Dublin best known for producing a trademark dry Irish stout is far from the only one Ireland has to offer. According to the Irish Brewers Association, Ireland is the 33rd-largest beer producer in the world and is the 12th-largest in the European Union. It brews 2% of Europe's beer despite hosting only 0.8% of its population.
It brews much bigger than its weight as well. Despite having a population of fewer than 6.4 million, Ireland brews a whopping 6.7 million barrels of beer each year -- more than a barrel for every man, woman and child in Ireland. Demand isn't quite that great in Ireland, but it's still substantial: Every Irish adult drinks 24 gallons of beer per year, on average, with 70% of that brew made in Ireland itself.
That's four gallons more than the average U.S. beer drinker typically consumes annually. Unless you live in Delaware (25 gallons per year), Iowa (25.4), Louisiana (24.2), Maine (25.4) Nebraska (24.4), Nevada (26.2), New Hampshire (31.9), North Dakota (30.6), South Carolina (24.2), South Dakota (26.9), Vermont (25.9) or Wisconsin (26.2), you're not enjoying beer with anywhere near the frequency of your Irish counterparts. Not bad for a nation of people with a population smaller than New York City.
So why restrict St. Patrick's Day or any other day to any one Irish beer? There is no "official beer of St. Patrick's Day." It's a religious holiday with no more traditional ties to beer than Hannukah or Halloween.
Even if St. Patrick's Day did have an official beer, it's not what Guinness might like you to believe. As much as beer drinkers may love what the nitrogenated dry stout has done for Irish-style pubs and low-alcohol drinking sessions, it makes up less than 1% of the U.S. beer market and is less than a third of the beer drunk in Ireland. With Ireland now producing copious amounts of Heineken out of the Murphy's brewery in Cork, European light lagers have become a force among those not reaching for stout, ciders or spirits.
Of course, there are also a whole bunch of breweries in Ireland that aren't Guinness. Those breweries have a wide array of offerings and have thrived in the shadow of Ireland's biggest brewer. Here are just five that warrant your attention around this time of year:
The citizens of the town of Carlow in Ireland's Barrow Valley malt region have been brewing beer since the 1800s, but it took a craft brewery to get them back into practice.
Founded in 1996, O'Hara's experienced growth similar to most American craft brews. While only a modest presence in Ireland for the first years of its existence, O'Hara's built its footprint through lots of do-it-yourself promotion, word of mouth and exports. The Carlow's roster delves deeper into traditional Irish styles and remind folks that the palates of the nation's brewers were far broader than blackened pints would have you believe.
Their Irish stout is creamy and rich in espresso flavor, but not nearly as bitter as many the dry stouts Ireland produces. Its pitch toward the sweeter side is even more apparent in the brewery's Leann Follain, which tastes like dark chocolate or mocha and produces a coffee-colored head that provides fair warning of its richness. The brewery also produces an Irish red, a pale ale and a wheat beer among its regular offerings, but its recent introduction of Double IPA, Helles lager and barrel-aged seasonals make its beers just as at home in a brewpub an ocean away as they'd be in the snug of a century-old Irish pub.
Some of the greatest upstart brewers have come up in the shadows of brewing giants. New Belgium, Avery and Oskar Blues helped make Colorado a craft beer center despite Coors and, later, MolsonCoors being headquartered right down the road. Schlafly and Urban Chestnut thrive in St. Louis after Anheuser-Busch's merger with InBev.
Since 1989, Porterhouse Brewing has been spreading some of the craft beer spirit around Guinness' backyard by fooling around with Belgian recipes and tweaking beloved Irish styles. Porterhouse has since expanded to a brewery and four brewpubs in Ireland, another brewpub in London and yet another at the New York pub -- Fraunces Tavern -- where George Washington had a few beers with his officers to celebrate their victory over the British.
It hews to tradition only for its Plain Porter, but uses oysters shucked right into the tank to sweeten up its Oyster Stout. It dabbles in pilsner and got Czech brewer Josef Krysel to kick in some Pilsner Urquell Yeast for the brewery's Bohemian Freak Out. Since lager's become so popular in Ireland, as we mentioned before, Porterhouse's lineup now includes its Temple Brau, Chiller and Hersbrucker as a complement to more traditional ales including a red and the borderline-IPA Hop Head.
By cranking up the alcohol content on its strong ales, meeting the country where it's at on lagers and occasionally raiding the American hop pantry for some more extreme styles, Porterhouse continues to take chances in an Irish beer industry known for playing it as safe as possible.
It used to require a St. Patrick's Day miracle to find this stateside, but U.S. beer lovers are about to see a lot more of it in the near future.
This craft brewery in Cork City, Country Cork, has been around since 1998 and is built on the site of a Franciscan monastery and well dating back to 1219, but was something of a local secret until recently. Better known for producing stout aged in Jameson Irish Whiskey barrels, Franciscan Well also takes it the other way with a mild red that sits at a manageable 4.3% ABV. Midle Fuggle and East Kent Goulding hops keep the aroma and flavor at bay, while the malt makes its as smooth a drink as its style implies.
Though its Shandon Stout and Rebel Red make up its Irish core, other offerings including a blonde, lager and wheat round out a fairly simple array of offerings that doesn't seem like the kind of spread to make waves abroad. Just the right executive must have popped into Cork for a pint at some point, as MolsonCoors snatched up the brewery and its brands last year. The North American megabrewer says it plans to leave Franciscan Well to its own devices and let it brew as it sees fit, but also plans to build the brewer a larger brewery and export its brands to the U.S. and Canada.
It basically wants to give it what Carlow and Porterhouse have, only with big corporate backing. That's great for U.S. drinkers who haven't had a taste of the brewery's beers as of yet, but not so wonderful for "craft" beer lovers trying to help out an independent. The beer still stands on its own merits, but is no more independent of MolsonCoors than Guinness is of Diageo.
Eight Degrees Brewing
We don't mean to dwell on County Cork, but this Mitchelstown brewery bears mentioning.
Less than five years old and born amid a crippling recession in Ireland, Eight Degrees has risen to success in a short time by following a blueprint used numerous times before -- albeit not in Ireland. The brewers from Eight Degrees found their inspiration in Washington state and the U.S. craft beer scene. Applying the ethic and lessons of those small brewers to traditional Irish recipes, Eight Degrees turned their porter into a more chocolatey, less hearty version of an Irish dry stout, infused their Irish red with heaps of New Zealand and Australian hops and dumped a whole lot of American Amarillo, Centennial and Chinook hops into their Howling Gale Ale.
They've since built their reputation through small batches of incredibly hoppy IPAs, dark and bitter Cascadian ale, chili-spiced stout and an American Amber stocked with Australian Simcoe, Galaxy and Ella hops. The last one was so well-received in 2013 that they were compelled to make another round of it in February.
This is a brewer that prizes creativity, thrives on experimentation and seems bent on establishing itself as Ireland's equivalent of a West Coast brewpub. They're not going to dumb down recipes for the lager drinkers and they aren't going to steer their beers into the middle of the road just to poach a few more pints. They're a true craft brewer, and they want what the great craft beer corners of the U.S. have -- now.
It's not craft, but it is Guinness' last big in-country counterbalance. Of the Big 3 Irish Stout Producers -- Guinness and Beamish being the others -- Heineken now owns Murphy's and Beamish and produces both at the Murphy's facility Heineken now uses in Cork. Beamish's old facility closed in 2009, leaving Murphy's as the only Guinness competitor operating out of its own brewery.
Granted, that brewery has the Heineken name on it now, but the Murphy's product line is intact. It's also still available in the U.S. -- unlike Beamish, which pulled out five years ago -- and still has its direct lineage to the early days of Murphy's predecessor, the Lady's Well Brewery that originally opened in 1856.
Murphy's hasn't expanded the product line a whole lot in the past 150 years or so. The stout is still a mainstay and exists primarily as a sweet counterpoint to Guinness. Murphy's Red Ale dates back to the early days of Lady's Well Brewery in 1856, when it was brewed as Lady's Well Ale. The modern incarnation has a bit less romance to it after being reintroduced by Heineken in 1983 to appease beer-drinking countries Heineken didn't think would take to stout.
It's been swallowed up by a much larger brewer whose flagship lager is growing more popular in Ireland by the moment, but Murphy's has managed to hang in when Beamish couldn't. We don't know how much longer Ireland's taste for stout can hold out, but Murphy's and Guinness will go down swinging with Heineken and Diageo in their respective corners.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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