In my recent experience in urban Ireland (by which I mean Dublin and Belfast) the craft beer revolution has taken hold astonishingly quickly. The trend has caught on and now many bars are making minimal to exemplary efforts to stock the craft brands. Some new bars are even characterised by this. Whilst I’m unaware of the situation in other parts of the island Irish breweries are springing up thick and fast. So much so to my delight that I’ve started to even found room to find criticisms of it. I wanted to share a blog I wrote around the 2012/13 turnover which expressed my hopes that my own city would at least get with the international programme. I’m happy to say it seems that since then my hopes have been realised. It had been given a name by a peer journalist reviewer but I sadly can’t recall it or have lost record of it.
Every tourist in Ireland, both Republic and North, has at least one common thought in their head when visiting – alcohol. It is a strange thought though, considering all the age-old stereotyping about the Irish and their consumption of booze, that Ireland has actually got a measly amount of its own produce. That isn’t to say that what it does share with the world is necessarily lacking in quality, but, where beer is concerned, an age-old craft that demands punctilious precision has suffered a great deal within the emerald isle at the hands of the triumphant, national favourites in the trade in a way that other Countries have not.
This is a call to people who have some interest in beer and might be getting a little tired of the same old choice between the lagers and the famous Irish port. Those lagers have become popular and standardised to the point of becoming intolerably bland and of a positively wallflower status, to both the eyes and the tongue.
Leaving whiskeys, ciders and other beverages aside, the choice of beer in the genuine Irish pub is like choosing between the different brands of digestive biscuits whilst being denied the whole rest of the tastes available in that area like Scottish shortbread, Viennese biscuits and American-style cookies. The same options of lagers (and Guinness) are omnipresent. Of course, what is popular sells but the problem, it seems, is that in Ireland there is very little exposure to anything other than Budweiser, Carlsberg and the others that you know as well as me. So arguably, most of us know no better.
But why have we got such lack of choice? Rather ironically, a great deal of the blame seems to lie with the infamous black stuff. The rising popularity of Guinness led to the choking of business for Irish breweries, resulting in closure for all but a few. To rhyme off a few numbers for the sake of context, at the start of the nineteenth century there were over 200 breweries in Ireland; by the end of the century there were only 50; by 2007 the number fell to 12. Pretty pathetic when Britain has 850 breweries on last count. How did our neighbour’s tradition of the craft thrive when ours has bordered on the edge of extinction?
Think about the last few bars or pubs you’ve walked into. Do you remember seeing the actual bar? Do you remember the clours that decorated the bar? The colour of the taps? Perhaps a bright array of blue, green and red will spark your memory. The blue of Harp, the green of Carlsberg, the red of Smithwicks and Budweiser: that visual should be familiar to any fairly observational, frequent pub inhabitant These are the colours of the latest giant in the industry to concern Ireland and Britain alike – Diageo.
Diageo was formed from the merger of Guinness and Grand Metropolitan and today exists as a conglomerate of premium alcoholic beverages around the world. They own either the manufacturers of or the rights to retail the most popular beer, wines and spirits. Though on the one hand they do aid in the international marketing of foreign beers they have also been found guilty of shameless acts of corporate bullying.
In Northern Ireland on Arthur’s Day 27th September – a day to commemorate the founder of Guinness, Diageo distributed for its contracted bars, such as the King’s Head, black covers designed to cover the taps of any beers not licensed by Diageo so as to ensure they got no advertising that day and posed no threat to their own sales. Whitewater brewery in Kilkeel, Co. Down fell victim to this desperate effort in particular at the King’s Head bar in Belfast.
Another case of triumphalism which received much coverage and condemnation was the clash between Diageo and Brewdog, a fast-growing Scottish brewing company whose main marketing technique is to explicitly declare their passion for the craft of beer for its own sake. At the 2012 BII Scotland Awards for standards in licensed retailers Brewdog were to win the ‘Bar Operator of the year’ award when Diageo stepped in. The comglomerate titans, who helped fund the event, threatened BII at the last moment by stating that any future funding would be pulled if the award went to Brewdog. Therefore, the award went to a runner up. To add to this farcical debacle the award was presented with the name Brewdog already engraved into it.
This problem of a jealously guarded market that is saturated to such an extent would imply that everyone already knows what they want. It’s an unfortunate fact that an awful lot of Irish beer drinkers see beer as a route to intoxication rather than something to be tasted and enjoyed. Ireland has come to the very crumbling edge of a monopoly state – a monoply that sources essentially from outside of Ireland.
The existing monopoly held by Diageo and now Heineken managed to get into a dominant market position years before the beer-drinking public became concerned about quality or variety. Therefore they have a massive amount of leverage and can make life very difficult for anyone trying to break into the market. They have a powerful grip on both the retailers and the customers because they can afford to discount at will, offer all manner of incentives, and advertise heavily.
The other big issue is the licensing regime. In countries with lots of microbreweries it’s possible to apply to a local authority to be granted a license to serve beer. You can’t do that in Ireland. You have to buy an existing license on a private marketplace that guards the price very closely, since it’s a pension scheme for lots of holders. The licensees also have the political backing to maintain the status quo. The upshot of this is when you’ve decided to go into the pub trade, the overheads you’ve paid out are enormous before the first pint is served. You need to get as many people in as possible, and get them drinking beer with high margins on them. The risks associated with stocking beer from smaller breweries, where there is much less marketing and supply might not be constant, is too great. And so, in surrender to the one-style-suits-all mentality, they stick with the safe option.
That being said, the choice of alternatives is much better than it was a few years ago. In the last 5 years the number of microbreweries has shot up to almost twice in number at 23. There is hope for those longing for a a sharper bite, a creamier pallette, a fruitier aroma and the opporunity to support some fresh local business. Microbreweries and independent beers are on the rise in our land. Indeed Brewdog can be quoted to say, “… even a company as large as Diageo are scared at just how much the beer market is changing. People are now rejecting industrial, generic beers in favour of hand crafted artisanal beers all over the world… and it seems the incumbent players are going to use any means possible, including immoral and dishonest methods to stifle competition and desperately cling to market share.”
I had hoped, foolishly it seems now, that when researching this industry I might find some clever answer to the problem of the beer monopoly or at the very least some realistic advice on how best to vitalise a renaissance of tastes on the island. But sadly it seems clear that it’s just the same old struggle of the small dog braving the big dog. The only answer to be found for influencing this is to actively demand better beer and drink it wherever it can be found. That said, even the most foolish optimist will realise that trying to alter the native Irish drinking habit is a job the stereotypes might have you think impossible.
I thereby urge you, dear reader, when next you go out to the pub, firstly choose a pub with perhaps a more interesting beer menu is concerned: if you’ve never heard of half of the beers you’re in the right place. Once you’ve crossed that rubicon, the next step is simple: try one. Or two. And not to encourage irresponsibly heavy drinking, but try to your heart’s content. You may very well be pleasantly surprised at some of the magnificently fresh and intrigingly eccentric new flavours offered by such delicate works of art. See just how Heinekin weighs up against the likes of Whitewater’s Hoppelhammer or how Guinness pales by comparison to the punchy, creamy sensation that is Eight Degree’s Porter all whilst helping local business, encouraging the practise of an ancient and potentially diverse craft as well as having your mind blown by the world of hops, malt and yeast and all their combined, hidden bounties. To say no to a suggestion like that… well I’d imagine you’re reading this over one too many Carslbergs.