It's safe to say that Irish craft beer is having a moment. From last year's 35 per cent surge in craft ale sales to - in Dublin, Headline Bar on Clanbrassil Street enjoying a renaissance, L Mulligan Grocer maintaining cult status for its range and beer matching menu, and the new Alfie Byrne's on Earlsfort Terrace - the ninth enterprise of Galway Bay Brewery - snapping at JW Sweetman's heels, the tide is turning in favour of small-fry, and native, nectar. True, craft beer occupies less than one per cent of beer sales in Ireland, but where the US leads (The Brewers Association reported mid-year 2013 growth of 15 per cent in dollar sales and 13 per cent in volume for craft beer), the world follows?
So it was with great, zeitgeisty glee I skipped down to Cork's Franciscan Well brewery for a tour and tasting led by general manager/chairman of the Irish Craft Brewers Association Shane Long and FW's chief taster Des McCann. Signalled by a discrete sign above an otherwise blink-and-you'd-miss-it ye olde archway, what lies beyond is a church to divine craft beer produced on the site of a former Franciscan well and monastery. Hence the name.
The brewing area is cramped with huge tanks, while outside, pumps and kegs jostle for space with bikes and crates. Not only is beer individually hand-pumped into bottles here, each bottle is then individually capped using a contraption dating back to the 1800s. Well, if it (literally) ain't broke - Such is their labour intensive methods - and a diminishing lack of space in the North Mall premises - Franciscan Well has purchased a second site, thanks to a welcome cash injection by US beer bigwigs Molson Coors. It really does feel like a cottage business. But - more surprisingly - all this talk about yeast and wort has us all frothing at the mouth, and what we're really looking forward to on this guided tour is the tasting bit?
We arrive at the sampling room where welcome glasses of robust, award winning Rebel Red ale whets our appetite. A chalkboard illustration of the beer-making process recalls what we saw downstairs, while large colour wheels on the walls describe the olfactory experience at each stage. Des distributes handfuls of toasted barley and hops that we scratch, sniff, nod and coo at. Then - hooray! - out comes more Rebel Red, Friar Weisse, Chieftan, Shandon Stout (another award winner) and their limited edition showstopper, Jameson Aged Stout, which got gold at last year's International Beer Challenge Awards, and is next released in June. Des talks us through each beer, from genesis to their party-on-the-palate nuances, while a drip-feed of charcuterie, cheeseboards and Pompeii Pizza add an extra frisson for the tastebuds.
The Frair Weisse was my personal favourite, followed by the Jameson Aged Stout - a huge surprise having once had a terrible falling out with Jack Daniels in 1990-something, which, I thought, had severed my relationship with all whiskey forever. (I have since also quaffed more Rebel Red on draught and in bottled form, thus proving itself a hit). After being sufficiently soaked - sorry, educated - we head down to the brew pub's quirky outdoor area where Pompeii Pizza has a kitchen, and electric heaters go into battle with our visible breath on a very cold February night. The pub is cosy though, the bar bolstered with copper tanks from which freshly brewed Franciscan Well pints are poured for thirsty punters.
And through my rose-tinted beer goggles the next morning, here's what else I think I learned:
- Wheat beer, or white beer, is cloudy because it hasn't been filtered. Wheat and yeast proteins remain, giving it a cloudy appearance
- Bavarian weissbier has a signature hit of banana and cloves, while Belgian wittbier leans more towards coriander and bitter orange
- Lambic beer is produced by spontaneous fermentation, in other words it's exposed to wild yeasts, bacteria and anything else that might be hovering above an open-air vessel. Tastes better than it sounds?
- As required by law, all German wheat beer is top-fermented, i.e. the yeast foams at the top of the wort during fermentation. The Belgians are more freestyle in their approach
- Porter is essentially the ye olde London version of what we know to be stout - but more bitter
- Stout goes stonkingly well with blue cheese
- IPA (India Pale Ale) was created by the British in response to their native beer spoiling on the six-month trip to India. Brewers created a brew with more alcohol and more hops, which helped to preserve the beer en route
Franciscan Well's Brewery Tours & Tastings run every Monday to Friday from 6.30pm, admission €10. franciscanwellbrewery.com
White by name White by nature, @lucywhitedublin likes the Friar Weisse best.