For a country’s whose beer history stretches back to the late 17th century, Ireland’s relatively small craft beer scene—around 14 breweries as of this writing—may seem a bit paltry when compared to the exponential expansion of the microbrew scene in places like Oregon, California, Colorado, North Carolina, and…pretty much every other state in the nation. Indeed, this slow crawl into the brave new world of craft beer could be rooted in the country’s hesitancy in trying to shrug off the famous Irish staples as Guinness, Murphy’s, and Harp. After all, when your national beer is revered internationally, finding a reason to mess with what works takes a fair amount of time.
Thankfully, that patience has paid off. Rather than standing on the shoulders of those giant brands, a handful of crafty bastards have found ways to create beer that compliments the country’s brew legacy, and the results are promising.
During a two-week sprint through the central and southwestern regions of the country, I had more than my fair share of Guinness (because…you have to). But I found the burgeoning microbrew scene throughout the country in full effect. Haute restaurants in cities like Galway boast menus that only offer Irish craft beer (no Guinness on draft here), and you can find a good selection of Irish craft beer in 750ml bottles in most grocery stores.
The country’s brewpubs carry a distinctive U.S. vibe (chalkboard menus and an expansive contemporary pub atmosphere complete with classic Western rock and roll). And most of ‘em carry more than a handful of U.S. craft beer, including Rogue, Founders, Flying Dog, and Sierra Nevada, among many others. It can be downright disorienting to see those bottles lining the shelves of the brewpubs and populating the menus of the recent crop of new beer bars, especially after a few Irish pale ales.
But I didn’t go to Ireland to drink beer from the States (even if I can’t find Odells in my home city of Washington, DC).
I wanted to see what those friendly, crafty Irish brewers were really up to—and report back…
To whit: two brew pub, a few must-have beers, and the best damn beer bar in the country.
Galway Bay Brewing Company
Based in the quaint port city of Galway, this brewery is something of an Irish institution, with a handful of sister brewpubs in both Galway and Dublin, including Against the Grain, The Black Sheep, the Brew Dock, the Dark Horse, and Alfie Byrne’s. All of the certified established brewpubs looked promising, but my heart goes out to the brewery’s charming Galway HQ, a bayside brewpub that feels transported from the West Coast of the United States. And its beer styles carry the same influence, including Mare Incognita, a single-hopped saison, and the Full Sail, a dry-hopped IPA. But if you can get it, go for the Holocene, a single-hopped red rye saison that was both spicy and sweet—and potent at 7% ABV.
The Franciscan Well
Located on the river in the charming city of Cork, walking into the Franciscan Well feels like stepping into a Belgian abbey, a sensation that’s reinforced by the monk on the beer label. Both the Irish Red and the Weize are gratifying, and can be found across the country. But if you can carve out time to visit the brewpub, you’ll be rewarded with one of the better micro-brew scenes in Ireland.
One of the more ubiquitous beers found in most menus, this IPA exemplifies the style—and that’s Irish Pale Ale. It doesn’t deliver a burst of hops. Instead it’s mellow and refreshing, a nice change if you’ve been consuming lots of Guinness during the first few days of your trip. Oh, the hooker part of the name pays homage to Galway’s fishing legacy. But you’re permitted at least one off-color joke while consuming this beverage.
Bottles of this brewery’s various beers can be found in most grocery stores (even in smaller towns), though the brewery itself is located in Meath. The prices are quite reasonable for larger-format bottles, and the beers are good—especially the Czech-style lager and the hearty Irish Red Ale.
Dungarvar Comeragh Challenger Irish Bitter
Named after a section of the annual160-KM Sean Kelly Cycling Tour, this Irish spin on a traditional British bitter is both refreshing and satisfying. And any beer named after a bike race can at least make you feel like you’re doing more than raising a glass.
L. Mulligan Grocer
Already called out by our illustrious beverage editor during his whiskey-centric exploration of the Emerald Isle, this Dublin hotspot specializes in all things culinary. Yeah, they have a lot of whiskey and their food is locally sourced and universally delicious. But their true identity exists as a beer bar, with an extensive menu of bottles and beers complimented by a friendly, knowledgeable staff. And they have a beer recommendation for each dish on the food menu.
I came in one Friday night, and faced a two-hour wait for dinner. So I made a reservation for the following week, and was greeted—by name—like a long-lost customer when I returned. Their Gose, made in consort with Fano Bryghus Brewery’s “Brown Paper Bag Project” needed a bit more work, but it was a valiant effort towards a trending style. But their recommendation to try the Big Hop Red from Dublin-based Rascals Brewing had me struggling with the journalistic responsibility to try more beers, verses just reordering the simple bitter, spicy, citrusy perfection of that hop-infused red ale.