The Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival was a huge success. My fellow Beer Ladies and I had a fantastic weekend sampling hundreds of new beers, helping out at brewery stalls, and getting lots of new people to sign up to the Dublin Ladies Craft Beer Society, Beoir, and the National Homebrew Club. It was quite intense for those of us who were there for the full 4 days. By Sunday, there was a significant amount of non-functioning feet and vocal cords. But we all left happy, having spent 4 days around the nicest people you could ever meet.
The quality and variety of the beers was absolutely fantastic this year. It’s incredible how far Irish craft beer has come in such a short space of time. This time last year, I don’t think anyone would have expected to see Irish saisons and even sour ales anytime soon, let alone a selection of them. The established craft breweries are constantly improving their products and have made huge progress. They also brewed outstanding new festival beers, which received great reactions and which I hope will be more than once-off creations. The new breweries that were there for the first time had some fantastic debut beers on offer. I’ll go into more detail about some of them over the next few weeks as they become more widely available. There are more than a few that everyone needs to try. But there is one thing you need to know about NOW, without any further delay.
It became very clear very early into the festival that people couldn’t stop talking about one brand new brewery: The White Hag Irish Brewing Company. Everyone was telling each other to get to their stall ASAP and try all their beers. Something amazing was obviously going on there. I had heard a few weeks previously that they were launching with 7 beers. That’s very unusual for a new craft brewery in Ireland. Usually it’s one beer, two at the most. Word was also getting round that they were looking into exporting right away. That was enough to raise some suspicions. Usually, small craft breweries in their first year are pretty broke. It’s one or two people, brewing in their spare time and working full-time in their day jobs. They don’t have the money, capacity, time, or facilities to make 7 beers and start exporting. When you see a new brewery of this scale in Ireland, you can’t help thinking there must be big money behind it. We’ve seen huge companies like Molson Coors and C&C (who own Bulmers) buying or partly owning small breweries, so it wouldn’t have been a new thing. And if there’s one thing craft beer consumers hate the most, it’s not being told the full truth. So I started asking around and quickly found out that this seemed to be the real deal, incredible as it sounded. After that came excitement. It was obvious that this brewery was going to be everywhere very soon if their beers were any use. I made sure to get talking to them at the next opportunity to find out more. At the risk of sounding like one of those annoying picture pages in your Facebook feed: Nothing could have prepared me for what I found.
The White Hag is anything but a “normal” Irish craft brewery. Their beers all have a twist. There is a Heather Ale (7.5%), made with hand harvested Irish heather instead of hops, to a recipe that’s over 2000 years old. There is an Irish Bog Ale (8.2%), made with peat. There’s an Imperial Oatmeal Stout that packs 10.2%. At their launch in Mulligan’s on Wednesday, there was a special cask IPA (7.2%) that was dry hopped in the cask, and carbonated in the cask using a special German carbonation method called Kräusening. There is an Irish Wit beer (5.2%) and a White IPA (6.2%), both marrying Belgian styles with Irish ingredients or American hops. And then there’s the Red IPA (6.8%) that takes red ales to a whole new level and that all other Irish red ales - IPAs or not - will inevitably be measured against from now on. Every single one of them tasted absolutely unreal.
Despite being quite high in alcohol, these beers are brewed with such skill that you’d think you’re drinking session ales while getting a total explosion of flavours from each of them. Master Brewer Joe Kearns (pictured above) was nice enough to take time out to talk to the Dublin Beer Ladies about the brewery and his beers, even though their stall was probably the busiest stall of the entire festival. He explained that they picked Sligo as their location because the qualities of the water there are perfect for brewing their beers. Their ambition is to brew world-class beers to ancient, local recipes. Suffice to say, that ambition is being fulfilled. By doing what they are doing and producing beers of this quality, The White Hag have raised the bar for all craft breweries in Ireland. It won’t be good enough anymore to just come out with a simple IPA, Red Ale and/or Stout. You’ll have to be inventive, creative, ballsy and extremely talented to stand your ground against beers of this calibre. Any aspiring brewers and even existing ones have their work cut out for them.
It’s impossible to explain how fantastic these beers are. You have to experience them for yourself. I had heard amazing things, but when I finally got to sample them, I was completely blown away. Craft beer pubs all over Dublin are scrambling to get as much of this “nectar of the gods” on tap as possible. That’s a good thing for us, because it’s practically in every single craft beer pub in Dublin now. For more, check out their Twitter. Get on it, you do not want to miss out on these beers!