If the apocryphal Irish pub has fiddle players, old cart wheels and flat-capped drinkers, the real thing will almost certainly have Guinness, Heineken and Carlsberg on tap. Though pubs in Ireland have been reshaped by the smoking ban and the tightening up of drink-drive laws (more coffee in the day, more food at night), the offering at the bar hasn’t budged far. But in the past few years Ireland has been catching up with the UK and America through a craft-beer renaissance that embraces traditional methods.
“Irish beer drinkers were ready,” says Cormac O’Dwyer, brewer at Dungarvan Brewing Company in County Waterford. “Some people were happy with Guinness and a few ales but there were enough rumblings to say ‘We want a bit more choice now.’” A home-brewer since boyhood, O’Dwyer makes bottle-conditioned beers with complex character: “I had been looking at the way that nice big roasted flavours were being dumbed down [in commercial stouts], and I wanted that coffee, chocolatey taste.” O’Dwyer roasts his barley to achieve this, adds plenty of it, and goes “back to basics” in the brewing process: “We’re not filtering, we’re not taking flavour out.”
He launched the business in 2010 with his wife Jen, his sister Claire and her husband Tom Dalton. It has “really taken off”, he says. “It was high enough risk starting a brewery but we were pleasantly surprised.” Following capital investment late last year, Dungarvan is now brewing six times a week, up from twice a week. Claire Dalton says: “We have just recently begun kegging our beers for increased distribution to the pub trade … We have had a lot of interest from overseas markets but before our new [fermenters] we were running at capacity to fulfil existing orders.” They are now talking to potential customers in the UK, Germany, Denmark and Sweden; Dungarvan is already sold in France and Italy.
To have small-batch Irish beers drunk abroad and celebrated at home represents a shift, particularly when so much attention in the drinks trade was previously focused on the “Irish wine geese” – Irish winemakers scattered around the world’s vineyards.
Dungarvan was one of a number of Irish craft brewers at last month’s Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, a three-day forum (and general carousal) at the beautiful Ballymaloe House in County Cork, which has been run by the Allen family for generations. Darina Allen, the cook and food writer who leads the festival and runs Ballymaloe cookery school, says she wants to keep the event small – “the Sundance of food festivals”.
Nevertheless, the breadth of local enterprise at the Ballymaloe festival – one stall, a Cork-based outfit called Cloud Confectionary (sic), was mobbed for its creamy marshmallow – reflects the positive effect the recession has had on food and drink in Ireland. For the Dungarvan Brewing Company, it was the recession that prompted the partners to make the business happen. Tom Dalton, formerly a quantity surveyor, was made redundant in 2008 as the construction trade faltered. It was, says his wife Claire, “a big push for us to drive forward with our plans”.
Yvonne Scully, a Dublin-based consultant to food start-ups in Ireland, notes that “during the recession, a lot of people became unemployed or had shorter working days and had to supplement their income. We saw a huge growth in start-up food companies … Anything that could be made at home all of a sudden became a potential business.” But as some of these do-it-at-home sectors became crowded (for example, ice cream), ingenuity was required to find a niche. “One company, called Wild About, specialises in nettles [which] grow like forests [in Ireland] because of the climate. They make nettle pesto, syrup …” Other start-ups, Scully says, use brambles or elderflower – and seaweed products “have gone through the roof”.
The value of Irish food and drink exports, according to the Irish food board Bord Bia, approached €10bn for the first time in 2013. This represents an increase of 9 per cent on the previous year and 40 per cent in the past four years. Credit remains a problem, however, for expanding businesses such as Dungarvan: “It has meant we haven’t been able to grow as quickly as we’d like,” says Dalton. Scully says that “lack of credit has been a huge issue but the government has plans to help”.
Tradition and nostalgia, as in other food markets, play their part in finding business ideas. When it comes to stout, this seems to be particularly true. At the launch of Dungarvan’s Black Rock Irish Stout, a brewer who had worked at the town’s old Powers Brewery in the 1970s said that it reminded him of “what I had growing up”, recalls O’Dwyer. “It was one of the biggest compliments I had.”