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Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Identity of Irish Beer

[Full disclosure. Diageo/Guinness paid for my trip to Dublin, including the flight and hotel. They bought me beers and food when I was out with brewery folks. Diageo Guinness are also a sponsor of this blog.]

You learn a lot when you visit a country. One of the things you learn is what beer people actually drink. In Ireland, for example, we imagine that basically everyone drinks stout, the majority of it Guinness. Nope. Just like everywhere else, lager is king, with as much as (statistics vary) 74% of total volume to something just over 50%. Heineken, not Guinness, appears to be the best-selling beer in Ireland. Again, numbers vary, but it looks like Heineken has about 40% of the market and Guinness about a third. Carlsberg (owned by Diageo) and Budweiser (both brewed by Diageo for the Irish market) are also major players. Craft beer is a tiny, tiny slice in the Irish market, and in 2014 constituted just 1.5% of overall volume. Finally, just to wrap things up, the amount of draft beer sold in pubs continues to diminish and is now below 50%--but how far depends on the stats you consult.

Which raises the question: what's "Irish beer?"

I spent a couple nights with the best Dublin beer guy there is, and we circled around this question the whole time. I will reveal my bias up front. People think about beer in a lot of different ways, and the lens I use is slightly idiosyncratic. I think of it in terms of national tradition. This is a lens that includes not just beer style, but history and culture--the reasons beer styles emerge. It is the only way I know to explain why, say, people in Cologne drink kolsch, but in Munich they drink helles. It's why cask ale, lambic, and weisse beer still exist.

So of course, when I think of the "Irish tradition," I think of stout. That became an even more pronounced compulsion as I walked around Dublin sampling different craft beers. Leaving aside the whole lager thing for the moment, I kept looking for a bit of Irishness in the craft beers I tried, which included:
  • Irish Pale Ale by Galway Hooker
  • Of Foam and Fury (double IPA), 8 Degrees Polar Vortex (Cascade pale), and a chocolate stout by Galway Bay
  • 40 Foot Potato Stout by Postcard Brewing
  • Rosehip Schwarzbier from Yellow Belly 
The Beer Nut was also drinking beer as we went along, which doubled my tally (but don't ask me to recall what the beers were). I went out of my way to look for stouts--I also had a couple at Porterhouse, one of the first Irish craft breweries--but what I kept finding over and over again was ... America. At my last stop, one of the Galway Bay pubs, I watched as the enthusiastic young server and the Beer Nut went on and on about the beers they liked--which were plucked directly and entirely out of the American oeuvre.  Each year, Beoir, an organization founded in part by the Beer Nut to promote craft beer, polls its members to identify the best beer in Ireland. Of Foam and Fury won this year, and it was such a perfect facsimile of an American beer there would be no way to pick it out of a lineup of actual American DIPAs.

There are definitely more craft stouts in Ireland than the US, but it's not clear if this is because breweries are acknowledging a national tradition or to have something on hand for the old Guinness drinker should he happen to wander in. At least among the beer geeks, stout is fine, but nothing to prize or protect.

It's worth noting that although US craft beer is the overwhelming force driving brewing revivals across the globe, not every country recreates our beer precisely. English craft is inflected by the cask tradition; Czech craft is heavily influenced by the pilsner tradition. In France and especially Italy, they take the US as a jumping-off point and have made beers that are unlike anything else. So how a country responds to the American example is not predictable.

The Beer Nut was not only untroubled by this, he seemed to chafe at my suggestion--my American suggestion--that Ireland stick to its tradition. Point taken. The US absorbed Irish culture a century and more ago, and we expect to see it when we return. We expect to see shamrocks and leprechauns and blarney stones ... and pints of stout. We hold Ireland's past against it's present. I can imagine how tiresome that must get.

But I'm still not excited about a future where the entire world brews sticky American IPAs (even when they're brewed as competently as the ones I sampled in Dublin). Pilsner is one of the finest examples of the brewing craft, but the world lost a lot when it swamped native traditions. Of course the Irish will decide what Irish beer looks like, and they'll thank Americans to stay the hell out of the discussion. But here's hoping that in the next two decades, what emerges looks at least a little different than what I saw last week.

(And there is some tradition there, too. Those stouts I now hail as a national Irish expression were originally just London porters. It took decades for them to fork off the original lineage, and centuries to become what they are now. So there's hope.)


How to deal with lager? Since that's the biggest segment of the market, we have to acknowledge it. But as in the US, overemphasizing it is a mistake. Lager swamped stout a long time ago, just like it swamped native beer styles across Europe. But the stats are pretty clear that lager is not Ireland's future.


  1. Thanks for the kind words. Other Dublin beer guys are available.

    As to the question, I personally don't think any answer other than "Beer brewed in Ireland" makes sense. Likewise you can't make Belgian beer in Fort Collins because Fort Collins isn't in Belgium. I would support a movement by Irish brewers to geographically protect the term "Irish Stout" to mean stout brewed in Ireland, as has been done by the Czechs and Bavarians, but I don't think any of the producers are too vexed by the issue.

    And there is a school of thought among the Irish beer commentariat that Guinness isn't Irish because it's brewed by a British company. It's a natural extension, I guess, of saying Heineken isn't Irish when it's brewed in Cork by a Dutch company.

    I think things are complicated enough. I'll go with where the fermenters are, where the brewer lives and where the excise duty is paid.

  2. And also, Guinness isn't the only maker of stout in Ireland. That's far from irrelevant. One beer does not a style nor tradition make. But the history of stout in Ireland isn't the history of one brewery.

    And it's also true that the drinkers are critical to this whole thing. Dismissing Guinness as British ignores the drinkers. Dismissing Heineken as "not-Irish" ignores the drinkers. Lager confounds all of this, but there it is.