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Clanconnel Brewing's Weaver's Gold. [Photograph: Investni]

When you think of Irish beer, you probably picture a perfect pint of Guinness or a refreshing glass of Harp. But what else is brewing in Ireland? We looked into the craft brewing scene on the Emerald Isle, and were pleased to discover that a few entrepreneurial folks are trying to provide the public with alternatives to mass-produced beers.

Standing Up to the Giants

It's not easy to be a craft brewer in Ireland. "Pubs are tied to the big two," says Mark Pearson of Clanconnel Brewing Company, and the marketing budgets of Anheuser-Busch Inbev (which owns Budweiser, Beck's, Stella, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Boddingtons, Bass, and Murphy's, to name a few) and Diageo (which owns Guinness, Harp, Smithwick's, Kilkenny, and Red Stripe, among others) are hefty. To make matters worse, the giants are quick to buy up small breweries in order to keep competition down. And beer drinkers have gotten used to limited variety: Plenty of Irish folks are so accustomed to their Guinness that it can be tricky to convince them to try a new beer.

"Because craft beers are quite new in Ireland," says Aidan Murphy of Galway Hooker, "people sometimes need a little bit of coaxing and cajoling to persuade them to think outside of their normal consumption patterns." But artisan brewers are popping up all over the island, and there's reason to believe that an Irish craft brewing renaissance is upon us.

Stephanie Moe, the manager for the Grocery and Beverage sector of the small business department of Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board), says that despite the recession, the microbrewing industry does seem to be growing. Though there aren't that many craft brewers (Moe estimates there are about ten currently established on the island), Moe believes consumers are excited about trying "local artisan brews with real flavor."

In the past few years, there have been a number of craft beer festivals with great turnouts, and in Dublin, some pubs have been hosting meetup events for homebrewers. Following in the footsteps of the UK's Campaign for Real Ale, consumers have formed Beoir, an organization for beer drinkers who seek to improve the quality of beer available in Ireland.

Luring the Locals and Customers Abroad

Several breweries we spoke to cited travel as a primary inspiration for consumers to seek out local brews: people are exposed to other styles of beer (and to the idea of drinking locally-produced craft beers) while abroad. Because of their travel experiences, young people in particular seem to be excited about trying out the wares of new breweries. In addition, the local food movement and tourists seeking out local products seem to be bolstering Irish craft brewers.

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Barley fields in the Mourne Mountains. [Photograph: Ian Macnnus for Strangford Lough Brewing]

Claire Dalton of Dungarvan Brewing Company also notes that "people are very receptive and open to us based on the feeling of local pride—there is a strong history of brewing in the area and many people's parents or grandparents may have worked for one of the breweries in Dungarvan. People are excited that we are reviving this tradition." Mark Pearson of Clanconnel echoed this sentiment:

Over a hundred years ago there were hundreds of small microbreweries all over Ireland which all disappeared due to being bought out, etc...this is a tradition, a craft that's been lost, been extinguished, but which is now being reinvented.

Dalton assumed that Dungarvan would start out by supplying bars and liquor stores in the big cities, but local demand in their small town has been huge. "We are amazed at the momentum we have gathered already...We are also thrilled at the support we have received so far from pub owners and restaurateurs," she writes.

Ireland's not a huge country—the island's population is around 6 million, but in the US there are at least six times that many people who identify as Irish-Americans. Looking to diversify their audience without losing freshness, Strangford Lough Brewing Company aims to get Irish beer to Americans by an alternative method. In Ireland, they brew a wort based on traditional recipes and using local ingredients, then ship the concentrate to breweries in the US to be diluted, hopped, and fermented into beer for US distribution.

Taste Test

You're not going to see a ton of Irish microbrews in the States, but we got our hands on a few of them for tasting purposes. Probably the most readily available independently-brewed Irish beers are those from Carlow Brewing Company, sold under the O'Hara label. Their Irish Red is malty with a hint of butterscotch and cherry candy. This style isn't our favorite—it's a little medicinal, but we certainly prefer O'Hara's version over Murphy's. We loved O'Hara's Irish stout, though—it's smooth and chocolaty, more robust than Guinness, with a rich coffee flavor. If you're a fan of full-flavored American stouts, definitely give this one a try.

Strangford Lough's Legbiter Ale has a rich malty flavor, with notes of molasses and caramel, along with a hint of smokiness (do we taste bacon?) The finish is clean and crisp—despite its sweetness, this is a sessionable beer. We liked the drier St. Patrick's Best as well, though some found the finish a little bitter. These aren't hefty beers, at 4.8% ABV and 4.2% ABV—but all the better for a long St. Patrick's Day.

Our favorite of the bunch, though, was Clanconnel's Weaver's Gold, with its hint of orange, peach and lemon peel. This is a rich, refreshing ale with a lovely crispness which could appeal to Harp drinkers. It's so refreshing, we're naming it the perfect St. Patrick's Day pint (or three.)

Want to read more about the Irish beer scene? Check out Clare Goggin's recent piece here.

Disclosure: All beers except the O'Hara's were review samples.

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