It's very much a topic-of-the-moment for The Session this month. Derek is hosting at It's Not Just the Alcohol Talking, and he asks "Is Craft Beer A Bubble?" I can't really speak for anywhere beyond my own doorstep, and I'm guessing wildly even there, but for me the answer is no. The recent growth in Irish microbrewing -- and the bubbling potential which occasionally spills over into an actual real new brewery -- is a re-normalisation of sorts, a return to the days of local breweries and local beer which aren't really that far outside living memory.
And, as before, it's likely that the new smaller brands will exist alongside the big national and multinational ones: at the upper ends of the craft sector we're already seeing a certain porousness in the boundaries between craft and macro. Conversely, not everything is rosy for the start-ups: there are brands and breweries that I'm sure won't be around when times get harder and the modest fashion for craft beer begins to wane, which it will. But just as with wine thirty years ago and coffee ten years ago, it's hard to imagine Irish beer going back to where it was in the late 20th century. I believe there has been a small but significant change in the taste of enough drinkers to keep the craft niche alive, supplied and with still plenty of growth space.
Don't ask me to predict what the Irish beer scene will look like a few years down the line, however. At the moment all roads lead to Dublin and most breweries send their beers this way sooner or later. White Gypsy were the first to pull all their draught taps back to the local area -- a hugely encouraging move, if a little inconvenient for me. And as demand for craft beer spreads slowly from the urban centres, I doubt they'll be the last to do it. What the styles will look like is another mystery: against all the odds, red ale shows no signs of dying out, though American-style pale ale is now a standard feature of Irish brewing, and since Diageo jumped on that bandwagon I'd be very surprised if a taste for hops proved to be a mere trend. The rate at which the small breweries are turning out short-run special editions is ever increasing and it remains to be seen whether this will ever settle into a regular calendar of seasonals. I don't seen any reason why it should.
New in that vein from Waterford's Metalman is Smokescreen, presented with no further information than it's a "smoked beer" and 4.5% ABV, so I rocked up to the Bull & Castle bar armed only with the prejudice that smoked beers from Irish breweries are often not very good. The first thing that surprised me about Smokescreen is that it's black, or at least dark brown, and murky reddish around the edges. That was a relief: dark smoked beers suffer much less from kipperiness than amber ones. The second big surprise was the hopping: fresh tangerines lead the flavour, finishing slightly metallic. I'm suddenly reminded of Moonbeam, Metalman's not-a-black-IPA-honest. The smoke element is there, but is little more than a seasoning, contributing a roasty dryness which enhances the beer's stout-like quality, as well as adding a certain pipey sweetness to the finish. Overall I found it quite understated and sessionable, and a beer I'd like to see more of.
More, and more different: that's my hope for Irish brewing, and I'm going to keep buying the limited editions from out-of-town breweries for as long as the market allows.