07 November 2013

Life after death

With Diageo winding up operations at the Smithwick's St. Francis's Abbey Brewery and moving all brewing to Dublin, Kilkenny's native beer looks to be getting a new lease of life. I suspect that the company is extremely wary of experimenting with the Guinness brand -- one of the world's strongest, but one which works best as an immutable monolith in its home country. Smithwick's, on the other hand, is nowhere near as precious. It has long been a minority interest, playing third or fourth fiddle in the portfolio, and when the other brands were given expensive makeovers over the last decade, Smithwick's was last in the queue and I was half expecting it to be quietly retired. I mean, who drinks ale these days? But the run-up to the brewery's tricentenary in 2010 saw it finally get a revamp, all hinged on one concept: craft.

Smithwick's ale was now a craft beer, crafted by craftsmen for centuries. In 2011 the first new brand extension came out: Smithwick's Pale Ale. Not at all a bad effort, and a beer I've occasionally been very glad of in pubs with nothing better. And very much pitched at the new demographic of "craft beer drinkers", about the only growing segment of the industry in western Europe. There's even a new Smithwick's poster campaign arguing that centuries of experience is required to make properly crafted craft beer. For the independent breweries of Ireland it must seem like we're at stage three on the Ghandi scale of conflict.

That Smithwick's is now being pitched as a niche product is certainly borne out in the press release for the latest new addition: Smithwick's Winter Spirit. It's only 260 words, but Diageo makes sure to tell us the new beer "is set to impress craft beer drinkers" and "will be enjoyed by craft beer lovers", while that TV ad with the squirrel "grabs the attention of craft beer drinkers". It would seem that if you're not a "craft beer drinker" you can go to hell as far as the Smithwick's people are concerned.

So I took my craft beer palate out of the deep freeze and carefully fixed it in place, knowing full well the dangers of experiencing craft beer without being fully prepared in advance. Some of those flavours would take the head clean off a novice, so they would. Winter Spirit is a very dark garnet, very nearly brown. It smells like regular Smithwick's: that mix of sugary malt and gently metallic hops which for me always invokes the adjective "beery" -- it's how I remember beer smelling when I was very young. The malt is the main driver of the flavour -- "brown sugar" says the label, and I get that, but only a little; "biscuit" and "roasted nut" are also promised, but it's nowhere near as complex as that. The finish is provided by those understated hops: vegetal and lightly peppery. This is very plain fare indeed, reminiscent of a million bottled brown English bitters. At 4.5% ABV it's slightly stronger than regular Smithwick's but delivers pretty much nothing extra for that, and I don't see why anyone would trade up to this.

The blurb says this is the first in a series of new Smithwick's seasonals: a worthy project and one I hope they keep running with. Anything that serves to make Ireland's beer scene a more interesting place to drink is all right in my book. But, all sarcasm aside, they are not going to win over the craft beer market with beer like Winter Spirit. It just doesn't deliver the taste. The market research bods would do better to spend less time looking at who the craft beer drinkers are and more on what they like to drink, why they like to drink it, and how the brewer achieved that. Until they get the hang of that, Smithwick's will just be another macro brand in the Diageo portfolio, next to Bud and Macardle's. The makers of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout can and should be giving us better.


  1. Did you ever notice that the Squirrel only uses one hop cone in what looks like a 1,000l batch?

    1. You need to go to the cinema to see the longer version which shows it dumping in a few gallons of isomerised hop extract too. Olde-timey isomerised hop extract, from an earthenware jug.

  2. You can that's not a real craft beer, the squirrel is the give away. Everyone knows that craft squirrels are grey and from America.