Beers & Breweries of Ireland: Not Just Guinness!
A brief history of beer-brewing In Ireland
Beer brewing in Ireland, just like in many other parts of the world, started from monks who happened to make beer by pure luck. In old times, people quickly learned that dirty contaminated water could lead to diseases, illnesses and even death. Central Europeans drank wine instead of water just because it was by far safer!
Irish monks also realised the necessity of purifying water. By chance, they decided to boil water and add some barley and voila…after drinking the new “water”, nobody was dying anymore! On the contrary, people seemed happier (“beer” contained about 1-2 % alcohol at that stage). So brewing became an integral part of many monasteries in Ireland until the English Reformation times in 16th century. Monasteries were abandoned and beer brewing was no longer a priority.
The brewery revival: Smithwick’s of Kilkenny
With time, brewing started to come back, sometimes illegally, like in the case of Smithwick’s brewery in Kilkenny. Its founder, John Smithwick, was a Catholic and that was bad news. At that time in Ireland, by law Catholics were not allowed to have a business among other things. In 1710 John made a deal with Robert Cole, who was a Protestant but known to help Catholics in need. For a long time, Smithwick’s family were brewing their ales in secret and beer drinkers would be silly to give them up to authorities since they were the only people brewing beer in Kilkenny at that time. We really enjoyed the tour in Smithwick’s brewery and I would definitely recommend it over visiting Guinness brewery.
Smithwick’s export their ales all over the world but normally it goes by the name of Kilkenny since Smithwick’s was too hard to pronounce (you don’t pronounce the “w”). Kilkenny ale is a mid-brew between Smithwick’s and Guinness with alcohol and roast barley content somewhere between the two.
By the way, Smithwick’s shifted its brewing production in 2013 to St James’ Gate in Dublin. In 1965 Guinness bought Smithwick’s Brewery and they operate now as sister breweries from the same Dublin location.
Delicious Irish ales BUT…why to avoid their lagers!
Irish are fantastic in making ale, but yet you wouldn’t find particularly good lagers around here. Best lagers usually come from Germany and Czech Republic. An Irish tour guide told me this is because Irish aren’t very patient and making ales is easier and faster. Lagers require cold temperature fermentation and a lot of time has to pass during the storage process – which makes the whole thing a bit more suitable for patient folks like Germans and Czech!
Also, lager yeast species did not even exist in Europe until 16th century. It also had to endure many modifications by fusing with other strains of yeast and adapting to its own environment. All of which happened naturally during the beer-brewing process in Germany and other parts of Central Europe.
In ales, the yeast is floating on top and feeding on brewing sugars during a warm fermentation process. In lagers yeast is floating in the middle and require colder temperatures for its survival and proper lager fermentation.
Sullivan’s Brewery and the magical Irish red ale
Another great place that we visited in Kilkenny was Sullivan’s Brewery, whose red ale won the ‘best draught beer in the world’ award in 2017! We tried it. It’s goooooood we even came back to drink more of it the next day!
Irish ales could be very different in their taste, but I’ll say I didn’t find the one I didn’t enjoy! Some have a very dominant hops-y zest to them, while others are smooth and gliding down your throat way too easily. If you like ales, I’m certain you’ll find your personal Irish favourite that you won’t forget!
Drink Guinness everywhere in Ireland, just skip the tour!
A separate word about the most famous Irish exported beer – Guinness and its brewery, which is almost half a century younger than Smithwick’s Brewery!
While in Dublin we learned that it’s tricky to get quality Guinness outside Ireland since there are just too many variables to balance! Experiencing proper Guinness is not only about the taste, it’s a lot to do with texture as well.
Outside of Ireland, Guinness quality control team (yes, they do exist!) cannot oversee and check the quality of Guinness. So you end up with some bitter tasting, watery and freezing-cold drink that you immediately hate. But I assure you – Guinness in Ireland tastes sublime!!!
Nitrogen gas makes up about 85% of gas in Guinness head and it contributes to the smooth silk-like texture it has. Depending on the bar, this might not quite work out for Guinness with people not serving it with the correct gas combination in a tank.
You have to serve it between 6-8 degrees Celsius because if Guinness is super cold, it loses it’s taste.
There is also a special technique to pouring Guinness, little of which might be known in many bars outside Ireland.
So really….Guinness is art in itself and it’s a shame we have a very small chance of finding a good Guinness pint outside of Ireland.
Guinness is made with water, hops, yeast and barley, of which 10% is roasted. This is how Guinness gets this typical dark ruby-red colour. It’s an amazing drink and I only started to appreciate it fully after learning more about it.
Anyway, as my fellow traveler Adrian noted in his post, it’s not really worth to pay 20 euros for the Guinness Storehouse tour.
Dublin Beer and Whisky Tour
I learned the above information from a beer and whisky tasting tour run by the Dublin Free Walking Tour company. And of course I strongly recommend to do that instead of visiting the Guinness brewery. The tour is 12 euros and you learn so much about different kinds of Irish craft beers. You also get to taste them which is always a great way to spend an evening!
I hope that after reading this article you would be a bit more inclined to go to Ireland to learn more about Irish ale making. And of course try as many as you can to find the one and only! 🙂
Beers & Breweries of Ireland: Not Just Guinness!