02 May 2014

One tough old bird

My good friend Mr Gray is at the tiller for this round of The Session. He wants us to tell the story of a local brewery. During the nineteenth century there was no shortage of those in the south-western quarter of Dublin city. It seems that the city's brewing industry was exempted from the economic damage done by the 1800 Act of Union, which changed Dublin from national capital to provincial UK city. The toffs may have taken their furnishings, fittings and fine wines to London but the ordinary citizens still needed their pints of plain, I guess.

The Phoenix Brewery was one of seven along James's Street, on what became Dublin's industrial outskirts as the new Georgian city broke beyond its medieval boundaries. It was first established in 1778 and grew to prominence under the ownership of Daniel O'Connell Jr., with O'Connell's Dublin Ale even warranting a mention in Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Phoenix's growth paralleled that of Guinness's across the street, and by the end of the century, when Guinness's was poised to become the largest brewery in the world, Phoenix was Ireland's second. Like its larger neighbour, Phoenix sprawled as it grew and when Alfred Barnard visited around 1890 it had just acquired the adjoining Manders Brewery site, thereby tripling its size. Barnard describes1 a sequence of rooms with vast fermentation and maturation tanks, as well as an extensive basement complex holding upwards of 3,000 barrels of stout and porter, ready for market. Its position on the north side of James's Street gave the advantage of easy access to the Liffey quays, and consequently to Dublin port, Great Britain and the Empire.

The Phoenix Vat House, from Barnard's Noted Breweries
1897 saw Phoenix floated on the stock market2. Perhaps the first indication that all was not rosy came two years later when the new owners sued the former proprietor, Charles Brenan, for overvaluing the company -- what had been sold for £265,000 turned out to be worth less than half that, they argued3. But Brenan stayed on as company chairman even as Phoenix continued to decline. Opening the 1901 AGM he told shareholders "I am much disappointed at the result, but our porter sales have fallen away, with the consequence that our gross profit has decreased, while our fixed charges remain the same." He pointed the finger of blame not at the competing brewery across James's Street, but at his own customers, adding "If all the ale sold in Dublin as O'Connell's ale was O'Connell's ale our trade would be much larger, and we can only hope that the good sense of the traders will prevail"4. An attempt by the shareholders attending the meeting to sell the company back to Brenan was rejected, a sign that this decline was most likely terminal. A similar tale of woe was trotted out at the 1904 AGM, this time explained by a general depression in the licensed trade across the UK, not any failing on the brewery's part5.

Matters reached a head in the summer of 1905 when the venerable D'Arcy's Anchor Brewery, another neighbour, acquired Phoenix outright, initially with the intention of keeping both plants and all beer brands6. That lasted until 1909 when D'Arcy's consolidated its production facilities at the Anchor and sold the former Phoenix and Manders site to Guinness's. Ironically, this act of consolidation was the saving of the Phoenix as a location for brewing. O'Connell's Ale limped along at the Anchor until 1926, at which point the company folded and the brewery later became council flats. For a brief period it was brewed at the Watkins Brewery on Ardee Street where the fires finally went out in 1937. But, as part of an expanded St. James's Gate, the Phoenix's legacy lives on and just this year has risen from the ashes once more.

During the recent property boom, Diageo planned to move all of its production to a new state-of-the-art facility outside Dublin. The James's Gate landbank could then be cashed in for a fortune at peak Celtic Tiger prices. The plan never materialised, but the consolidation and modernisation project continued. Brewing has now ceased at Diageo's plants in Waterford, Kilkenny and Dundalk and the new geometric Victoria Quay brewhouse has been constructed, as it happens, on some of the land once occupied by the former Phoenix Brewery.

So I'm guessing that it was here that the latest Smithwick's seasonal was produced. Fair play to the team writing the label copy for Long Summer: they're doing their job properly. "Brewed with noble hops" it says on the neck: that immediately tells me something about what to expect. The added notes on the back, concerning "caramel, green tea and tropical fruits" introduce a slightly confusing element, but plenty of intrigue too.

I was surprised to find on pouring that this refreshing hot-weather beer is actually quite dark: a similar burnished copper tone to regular Smithwick's. The aroma too is the same sort of stewed tea with a faint metallic tang, though maybe there is an extra trace of mango in the background as well. Though all of 4.5% ABV, it's every bit as watery as Smithwick's, though that at least makes it easy drinking, which I guess is the point. There's just enough sparkle to keep it lively without making it difficult. I don't get the green bit, but there is a tannic tea aspect to the taste. However, anyone expecting a rush of hops, noble or otherwise, will be disappointed. Other than the aforementioned aroma there's almost no hop flavour at all.

I guess it succeeds as being a thirst-quenching lawnmower beer, but then you could say the same about regular Smithwick's: a sniff of a mango is insufficient reason to trade up.

I wonder what the late Mr Brenan would have made of it. Is plain-but-accessible Long Summer the kind of beer that would secure the future of his troubled brewery? Perhaps. It's sad that no trace of the Phoenix, Manders or Anchor breweries remain for the visitor today. Phoenix's front office at 89 James's Street still stands, though like many of the surrounding buildings it looks rather neglected. A bronze plaque with a line from Ulysses hangs on the building next door where more of the brewery's offices were, but even it only mentions Guinness's across the way. Someone behind the walls knows the story, though. At the rear of the Diageo complex, just next to their new brewhouse, a sign over the gateway greets visitors:

Out of the embers, she flies!

Notes7:
1. Barnard, The Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland (1889-1891), Vol. 3, pp.78-80
2. Coyne, Ireland: Industrial and Agricultural (1902), pp.473-474
3. The Irish Times, 27 June 1899, p.3
4. The Irish Times, 1 January 1902, p.3
5. The Irish Times, 2 January 1905, p.10
6. Weekly Irish Times, 17 June 1905, p.13
7. Added following the realisation that I'd be really cross if I read the above and there weren't any

10 comments:

  1. Great article John. Has anyone found any Phoenix, D'arcys or Manders recipes?

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    1. Not that I'm aware of, and I don't know where they'd be now. All three breweries ended up as D'Arcy's property, but I've no idea what would have happened to the D'Arcy's archive when it was wound up. D'Arcy's dated back to 1740 so it was quite possibly one hell of a collection.

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    2. Oh! Now here's a thing: it turns out that in 1929, D'Arcy's was acquired by Watkins, Jameson & Pim (IT, 4th May 1937, p.15). So that's Mander's, Phoenix, D'Arcy's, plus the combined WJ&P all in one company. And even though the WJ&P brewery went into liquidation in 1937 the company still exists and continues to trade -- it owns Dalkey Mustard and is presumably the landlord of the brewery site on Ardee Street which now has industrial units in it. I wonder if there's a company archive.

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  2. Brian Callaghan5:32 pm

    On visits to Ireland in the 1970's, I seem to recall seeing (and perhaps drinking) a Phoenix Ale (or Beer). I have a dim memory of hearing that it was brewed in Waterford or around there. Is a leftover from the Dublin company?

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    1. Completely unrelated, as far as I know, Brian. Phoenix Ale was made by Cherry's Brewery in Waterford, later acquired by Guinness, and was one of the portfolio of regional ales they produced, alongside Macardle's from Dundalk and Smithwick's from Kilkenny. The former Cherry's brewery is the Diageo Waterford site mentioned in my post above.

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  3. Beer always survives economic recessions. In fact, since beer is cheaper than other alcohols, it makes sense that "pints of plain" thrive in times when people are saving their money.

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  4. Hi Derek We do have some recipe for phoenix ale, perrys IPA, X ale and one or two stouts. From around 1950's over on Beoir.ie

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  5. Yes fantastic post John :)

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