'We're no longer geeks making homebrew in sheds'
Irish microbrewers are thriving as drinkers are far more discerning about their choice of beer these days, wanting to know how their pint is made and its history, writes Tom Prendeville
Over the past couple of years, microbreweries have gone mainstream and are now making good money. And it's not all drink talk either: beer sales have doubled in the past year and are expected to double again next year.
Due to the hands-on nature of craft beer production, pint for pint small artisan brewers employ five times the number of people that industrial breweries employ.
Microbrewers now employ several hundred people; a number which could be in the thousands in the coming years.
It is not all craft and hobby; as a business investment there is money to be made as Irish customers migrate in ever-greater numbers to exotic brews with names like Rebel Red, Trouble Brewing and Purgatory Red Ale. Little wonder the multinational brewers are trying to stem the flow by setting up their own microbrew brands.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, there were over 200 breweries in the country. However, by the beginning of the 20th Century the number went into steep decline due to the dominance of a few large and famous breweries.
By the Nineties there were only 12 breweries left in the country, with most mass-producing beer.
The scene changed in 1998 when pioneers like Shane Long opened the Franciscan Well brewery in North Mall in Cork city. Since then there has been an explosion of new breweries.
Long, who now employs five brewers, talks about how he brought his brewery from a small one-man operation in the back of his pub to an international product that is due to be launched on the American market next year: "I am probably the longest brewer around so I was doing it before it became popular. For the first six years it was a difficult market to crack because customers viewed us as beer geeks mucking around in the back shed with buckets of homebrew. But then it really took off.
"In the past two years the whole industry has been transformed. I now have a waiting list as long as my arm of new customers who want to stock our beers. I have never been so busy and I'm struggling to meet demand. One day last week I ran out of beer – and this is happening right across the microbrewery scene. The new brewery in Kinsale can't keep up with demand either.
"Last year there were 22 microbreweries; there are now 11 new ones in the various stages of opening and by the end of the year the number of microbreweries in Ireland is set to double. It is absolutely fantastic to be involved in a business that is bucking all the trends," added Long.
To add to the good cheer, last week Franciscan Well won a gold medal at the International Beer Challenge in London for their Jameson Stout brew.
Another successful brewery surfing the resurgence in artisan beers is Hotel Doolin, Co Clare, which produces its own range: "Last year we launched our own craft beer Dooliner Beer which has proved extremely popular with both locals and tourists alike. Nowadays, it's not just about slapping a pint of lager up on the counter and walking off, customers want to know where the beer comes from, what's in it, how it is made and the history behind it," explained general manager Donal Minihane.
Minihane believes that the resurgence in interest has been tourist-led which in turn has tempted ever-greater numbers of curious locals: "We stock a large range of Irish craft beers in our Fitzpatrick's Bar and we have seen a great response from our customers particularly our foreign guests who want to sample local beers rather than beers they can get in their own country.
"Independent craft beers have seen an explosion in popularity in recent years, with increasing numbers of pubs around the country now serving Irish beers and ciders," he added.
Microbrewers who produce 20,000 kegs a year or less are entitled to a 50 per cent rebate on excise duty. This was an incentive introduced by Brian Cowen when he was Minister for Finance.