11 February 2016

Not here just to take part

It's interesting to watch the milestones going past on the journey towards Irish craft beer becoming mainstream. A fairly major one went largely unnoticed last year and it was a happy surprise when I discovered that the country's largest independent microbrewery, Carlow Brewing, had joined the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland. ABFI is, after all, the Big Boys' club, representing the handful of major players that produces most of Ireland's beer: Diageo, Heineken and Molson Coors among them. It means something when Carlow, which brewed 25,000 hL of beer last year, is part of that. So it was an even bigger shock to learn last week that ABFI's new chairman is Carlow's founder and MD Seamus O'Hara. It's like David, rather than slaying Goliath, became his boss instead.

I suspect this is just the beginning of the further diversification of what I'm going to continue to call Irish craft beer. Carlow Brewing started small, paying its dues playing the small clubs, as Seamus likes to say. But now we have the likes of Rye River and Boyne Brewhouse, setting out to be big-for-craft on day one, and there are other growers like The Porterhouse and Eight Degrees clearly heading in that direction. It's not a zero-sum game, of course. I firmly believe there's room for breweries of every size in the market, so long as they play nice and don't start pulling the same dick moves that earned the establishment their reputations as domineering bullies and the enemies of consumer choice. From the outside at least, I don't see any signs of that happening.

The Carlow Brewing Company turns 20 years old in 2016 and a series of special beers are planned to commemorate this. The first arrived last week at a launch event in The Bleeding Horse on Dublin's Camden Street. Notorious is a dark red IPA, brewed with a classic US mix of Columbus, Chinook and Centennial. I was a little disturbed by it at first: an intensely sharp and waxy bitterness is how it introduces itself -- harsh and blustery. After this it opens out to a fabric-softener floral character which reminded me a lot of the regular O'Hara's Irish Pale Ale, though it's definitely denser and more intense. The redness manifests as a roastedness that puts even more of an edge on the whole thing. This is a big, loud, mean beer that doesn't pull its punches. Or its roundhouse kicks.

I was half way through my second free pint before I decided I liked it. It takes a while to adjust and, for all its powerful flavour, it's not a beer for sipping. The ABV is a mere 5% and taking it in generous mouthfuls puts more of the fresh floral and citrus notes on the palate, and less of the acidic bitterness. It's definitely not one of your kiddywink tropical juicebox IPAs. This is serious stuff for grown-ups only.

Expect to see more Carlow specials over the coming months. There's an imperial stout on the way in a few weeks, with weissbier and unfiltered lager to follow. It's nice to have a few drinks when it's your birthday, after all.

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