Crafty drinkers - craft beers are flourishing and they're not just for boys
Imagine a world in which every restaurant served the same three unimaginative meals. From Limerick to Leitrim to Letterkenny, no matter where you travelled, you found the same offerings - albeit some with slightly different names - that you consumed, almost without thinking, because nothing else was on offer.
Until a few years ago, this was the situation for Irish beer drinkers. Every bar, with a few rare and prized exceptions, served three styles; a fizzy yellow lager, the dark one with the white head and, for those of you who were really left of centre, something slightly red. Different names, different brands, but precious little difference between them as they were all owned by the same few multinational brands.
For many years I didn't see anything unusual with this. I was a devotee of the big brand that sponsored many of my college activities. Then I moved to Christchurch in New Zealand, and suddenly a whole new world opened up. Brew pubs like Dux de Lux and the Twisted Hop, offering an ever-changing range of full-flavoured beers, became firm favourites. Going to the supermarket was like checking out a beer lucky dip, one of the bigger breweries, Montheith's, ran an annual beer and wild food challenge which involved professional chefs and I even got to go to my first beer and food matching event.
Beer in New Zealand was enjoyed, appreciated as an option to go with food and taken seriously. When I returned to Ireland in 2005, I could no longer stomach my former favourite - but there was precious little else on offer. That was the year that the then finance minister Brian Cowen halved the excise paid by independently owned microbreweries, allowing them to retain more of their capital and reinvest. It was a lifeline for first generation microbreweries like Carlow Brewing Company and Porterhouse, and it kicked off the next wave of Irish craft brewers, which started with Galway Hooker in 2006.
Suddenly this beer-lover's life started to become a whole lot more interesting, with the arrival of West Kerry's Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne, Dungarvan Brewing Company, Kildare's Trouble Brewing and White Gypsy in Co. Tipperary. From five Irish microbreweries in 2005, there are more than 50 microbreweries here.
Bars - like Dublin's L Mulligan, The Salt House in Galway and Cork's Bierhaus - were established with a focus on craft beer and, best of all, your local started to stock something interesting. Irish craft beer is now being exported to 25 countries, and there is strong potential. Bord Bia's Denise Murphy points out that it is commissioning a study of the craft beer category in North America, hoping in 2016 to run a collaborative effort, promoting Irish craft beer - rather than individual brands. As Murphy sees it, Ireland is a small island which will - no pun intended, I'm sure - "soon become saturated. Export is the way to survive."
That said, she believes "this is the moment for the Irish craft beer movement, there's no sign of reversal; if there were, the big brewers wouldn't be so interested in that craft space."
Export played a large part in ensuring the survival of Carlow Brewing Company in its early days, according to founder Seamus O'Hara. They launched their first beers on to the market in 1998 but, as O'Hara notes, that was a time when "the Irish market didn't really exist". They weren't deterred, focusing instead on export: "It was 75pc of the business up to a few years ago but has gradually balanced itself out 50:50," says O'Hara. Carlow Brewing worked hard, won awards for its beers at an international level, and when Irish drinkers developed a thirst for craft beer, were ready, willing and able to supply them.
This isn't just beer for boys; women are also enjoying the new frontier. Emma Devlin, owner-brewer at Rascal's Brewing in Rathcoole, gets a kick out of drinkers' preconceptions: "People are often surprised to find out that I own and brew and am 100pc involved. They say: 'But you, you're a girl!'"
From her behind-the-keg perspective, she adds: "Although there still is an idea that beer is for men, there are plenty of girls in craft beer bars and interest is growing."
So what are you waiting for? Step away from the monochrome mainstream and check out the variety, choice and sheer flavour that's available in the Irish craft beer world. It's an exciting time to be a beer lover in Ireland. Sláinte!
Caroline Hennessy is the co-author, with Kristin Jensen, of the recently published 'Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer and Cider' published by New Island
American Christina Wade set up the Dublin Ladies Craft Beer Society in 2013 with Doerthe Woltermann. With more than 300 members, the group encourages craft beer appreciation amongst women, hosts beer and food pairing events, brewery tours and get togethers.
Ten of the best Irish craft brews
No matter where you are in the country, it's easy to get your hands on a selection of Irish craft beers from independent off licences that will deliver direct. Check out drinkstore.ie, bradleysofflicence.ie and mchughs.ie.
Jack Cody's Brewery - Puck Pilsner (4.5% ABV)
Light and refreshing but with enough complexity to show why lager doesn't need to be a dirty word.
Metalman Brewing - Pale Ale (4.3% ABV)
In January, Metalman became the first Irish craft brewery to install a canning line. Their delicious pale ale has long been a favourite on draught; in cans it's going to reach an even wider (lucky) audience.
Farmageddon Brewing Co-Op - Gold Pale Ale (4.2% ABV)
Born from a love of self-sufficiency, this beer comes from a co-operative group of brewers, based in Comber, Co. Down. Light bodied, with a lovely citrus bitterness.
Kinnegar Brewing - Devil's Backbone (4.9% ABV)
A rich amber ale from Donegal with deep burnt toffee and dried fruit flavours. Great with pork.
N17 Brewing - Rye Ale (5% ABV)
Owner-brewer Sarah Roarty has an inspiring use-it-all ethos; she's also a dab hand at brewing. Her smooth, not too hoppy, rye ale (left) has a lovely dry spicy bite.
Black Donkey Brewing - Sheep Stealer (5.5% ABV)
This funky and slightly floral Belgian-style saison (right) comes from Roscommon and is the ideal food-friendly beer.
Eight Degrees Brewing - The Full Irish (6% ABV)
Voted Beer of the Year 2015 by members of Irish beer consumer organisation Beoir, their India Pale Ale (IPA) is a juicy, hoppy pleasure.
Galway Bay Brewing - Of Foam and Fury (8.5% ABV)
Hops, hops and more New World hops in this double IPA, giving it a real fruity depth and a lingering lusciousness.
The white hag - Black Boar (10.2% ABV)
An imperial stout with delicious rich comples malts and a velvety smoothness.
Carlow Brewing company - O'Hara's Leann Folláin (6% ABV)
A complex dry stout with bitter chocolate notes and a supremely satisfying finish.