The Identity of Irish Beer

[Full disclosure. Diageo/Guinness paid for my trip to Dublin, including the flight and hotel. They bought me beers and food when I was out with brewery folks. Diageo Guinness are also a sponsor of this blog.]

You learn a lot when you visit a country. One of the things you learn is what beer people actually drink. In Ireland, for example, we imagine that basically everyone drinks stout, the majority of it Guinness. Nope. Just like everywhere else, lager is king, with as much as (statistics vary) 74% of total volume to something just over 50%. Heineken, not Guinness, appears to be the best-selling beer in Ireland. Again, numbers vary, but it looks like Heineken has about 40% of the market and Guinness about a third. Carlsberg (owned by Diageo) and Budweiser (both brewed by Diageo for the Irish market) are also major players. Craft beer is a tiny, tiny slice in the Irish market, and in 2014 constituted just 1.5% of overall volume. Finally, just to wrap things up, the amount of draft beer sold in pubs continues to diminish and is now below 50%–but how far depends on the stats you consult.

Which raises the question: what’s “Irish beer?”

I spent a couple nights with the best Dublin beer guy there is, and we circled around this question the whole time. I will reveal my bias up front. People think about beer in a lot of different ways, and the lens I use is slightly idiosyncratic. I think of it in terms of national tradition. This is a lens that includes not just beer style, but history and culture–the reasons beer styles emerge. It is the only way I know to explain why, say, people in Cologne drink kolsch, but in Munich they drink helles. It’s why cask ale, lambic, and weisse beer still exist.

So of course, when I think of the “Irish tradition,” I think of stout. That became an even more pronounced compulsion as I walked around Dublin sampling different craft beers. Leaving aside the whole lager thing for the moment, I kept looking for a bit of Irishness in the craft beers I tried, which included:

  • Irish Pale Ale by Galway Hooker
  • Of Foam and Fury (double IPA), 8 Degrees Polar Vortex (Cascade pale), and a chocolate stout by Galway Bay
  • 40 Foot Potato Stout by Postcard Brewing
  • Rosehip Schwarzbier from Yellow Belly 

The Beer Nut was also drinking beer as we went along, which doubled my tally (but don’t ask me to recall what the beers were). I went out of my way to look for stouts–I also had a couple at Porterhouse, one of the first Irish craft breweries–but what I kept finding over and over again was … America. At my last stop, one of the Galway Bay pubs, I watched as the enthusiastic young server and the Beer Nut went on and on about the beers they liked–which were plucked directly and entirely out of the American oeuvre.  Each year, Beoir, an organization founded in part by the Beer Nut to promote craft beer, polls its members to identify the best beer in Ireland. Of Foam and Fury won this year, and it was such a perfect facsimile of an American beer there would be no way to pick it out of a lineup of actual American DIPAs.

There are definitely more craft stouts in Ireland than the US, but it’s not clear if this is because breweries are acknowledging a national tradition or to have something on hand for the old Guinness drinker should he happen to wander in. At least among the beer geeks, stout is fine, but nothing to prize or protect.

It’s worth noting that although US craft beer is the overwhelming force driving brewing revivals across the globe, not every country recreates our beer precisely. English craft is inflected by the cask tradition; Czech craft is heavily influenced by the pilsner tradition. In France and especially Italy, they take the US as a jumping-off point and have made beers that are unlike anything else. So how a country responds to the American example is not predictable.

The Beer Nut was not only untroubled by this, he seemed to chafe at my suggestion–my American suggestion–that Ireland stick to its tradition. Point taken. The US absorbed Irish culture a century and more ago, and we expect to see it when we return. We expect to see shamrocks and leprechauns and blarney stones … and pints of stout. We hold Ireland’s past against it’s present. I can imagine how tiresome that must get.

But I’m still not excited about a future where the entire world brews sticky American IPAs (even when they’re brewed as competently as the ones I sampled in Dublin). Pilsner is one of the finest examples of the brewing craft, but the world lost a lot when it swamped native traditions. Of course the Irish will decide what Irish beer looks like, and they’ll thank Americans to stay the hell out of the discussion. But here’s hoping that in the next two decades, what emerges looks at least a little different than what I saw last week.

(And there is some tradition there, too. Those stouts I now hail as a national Irish expression were originally just London porters. It took decades for them to fork off the original lineage, and centuries to become what they are now. So there’s hope.)


How to deal with lager? Since that’s the biggest segment of the market, we have to acknowledge it. But as in the US, overemphasizing it is a mistake. Lager swamped stout a long time ago, just like it swamped native beer styles across Europe. But the stats are pretty clear that lager is not Ireland’s future.

from Beervana


Happy 500th Birthday, Reinheitsgebot

This is the 500th anniversary of the world’s most famous brewing law. I did a big story for the anniversary in the print edition of All About Beer–and I see that it’s online now. There’s a lot about this law that is curious both historically and culturally. It is, of course, a Bavarian law, which is why folks to the north continued to blithely and complete ignore its dictates until well into the 19th century. Despite that, its legacy is evident in every brewery in Germany now, whether they’re making lager in Munich or gose in Leipzig. But what I find most interesting is the context of the law now, in 2016, and what its status is likely to be in the next few years. 

The 500th anniversary comes at an interesting moment for German brewers and may be an opportunity for a reconsideration of the venerable law. As people stop to look at the law this year they may discover a couple of things. First, there’s the public perception of what the law disallows, which isn’t exactly correct. Urban Chestnut’s Florian Kuplent expects this to cause one kind of reckoning. “I do see the danger of somebody coming up and saying, ‘Hey, this whole thing is actually not valid anymore because you are using PVCC, you are using malt extract, you are using salts to modify your water, so you’re really not brewing according to Rein­heitsgebot.’ I think people will have a hard time distinguishing the truth.”
I did my best to include absolutely everything in here and get it accurate. So there’s a consideration of the myths of Reinheitsgebot (like the old chestnut about 16th century brewers not knowing yeast exists), its history, the weird ways it’s applied now (that PVCC reference is a hint), and the ways it has shaped German brewing. It’s one of the things I’m most proud to have written (actual reporting!), so go have a look if you haven’t seen it.

Schlenkerla’s Matthias Trum, who
educated me about Reinheitsgebot.

from Beervana

The Dangers of Expansion

Just a quick follow-up to that Deschutes post. As so often happens, it precipitated a nice discussion on Facebook–which no blog readers would have seen. In the post, I alluded briefly to “tough sledding” for Deschutes as they move forward. I didn’t unpack that at all, and I think there’s some benefit in doing so.

No one outside the Pacific NW has any idea what this is or
how it relates to Deschutes Beer.

Every brewery faces business challenges. If you’re a brewpub, you must get people in the door. If you’re a small production brewery, you have to compete in the craft market with very efficient large breweries even while making comparatively more expensive beer. If you’re a mid-sized regional, you have to develop a mass market approach, but you don’t have the might to defend against better-funded national brands. Of course, each of these has certain advantages, too. They’re all local, and have a home-court advantage on sales. Brewpubs appeal not just through their beer, but the ambiance and food at the pub. Regional breweries are more responsive to local trends.

Every time a brewery expands, though, it takes on a new level of risk. Most outright brewery failures happen during expansion. You predict where the market will be and how you’ll fit into it, take on a bunch of debt, and then hope you weren’t wrong. Nowhere is the risk greater than when a brewery wants to go national. The barriers, costs, and complexity are immense:

  • You have to establish relationships with distributors in every market;
  • You have to understand the vagaries of each market with respect to retail access (some states only sell beer in liquor stores; others have restricted hours, etc, etc) and build a national sales force;
  • Laws governing beer sales differ in every state;
  • You have to create national brands that will sell in places as diverse as NYC, Houston, San Francisco, and Des Moines;
  • You take on a ton of debt and can’t afford to suffer through too many years of underperforming sales;
  • You’re competing against breweries backed by multinational corporations with almost unlimited resources to secure distribution, advertise, play hardball at the retail level, run promotions, and staff giant sales forces;
  • You have to maintain your identity as a local brewery that’s from a place while at the same time create a bridge to people with no natural affinity or interest in that place. Deschutes is a case in point: people in distant states don’t even know how to pronounce the brewery’s name, much less have any idea what Mirror Pond or Black Butte are;
  • You have to predict where the market will be nationally in five, ten, and twenty years and make sure your brand can continue to compete with national brands that might seem more current or sexy.

There’s nothing to say that Deschutes can’t pull this off. If you think of the 4,000 breweries in the US, there are only about twenty that have any kind of shot at this, and Deschutes is definitely one of them. They have one of the strongest and most diverse line-ups in beer, a great brand, and they’ve been incredibly astute about anticipating trends (think of the timely releases of Chainbreaker White IPA, Red Chair, and Fresh-Squeezed). But they will also be competing against companies that could afford to drop hundreds of millions of dollars just to acquire a brand–never mind the millions they’re prepared to spend establishing them. So it is a pretty ballsy move and carries with it huge risk. If the bet fails, the brewery may end up a slowly-receding brand in the AB InBev portfolio in twenty years–the fate of so many other brands over the past century.

from Beervana

Deschutes in Virginia

While I was in Dublin, Deschutes announced it would be opening a new production facility in Roanoke, Virginia. Three east coast states were wooing the brewery, but Virginia got the call.

[Virginia Governor Terry] McAuliffe met with Deschutes executives in Oregon last fall and company officials recently visited Richmond, where they enjoyed Deschutes beer in the Executive Mansion kegerator before telling the governor that Virginia won the bid, said Todd Haymore, Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry.

Deschutes is getting a $3 million state grant for the project and will be eligible for additional state aid, officials said.

It’s going to be a very slow process–Deschutes doesn’t even plan to break ground until 2019. There doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that this augurs a future change in ownership, so it looks like Deschutes is going to try to compete with AB InBev, MillerCoors, Constellation Brands, and Heineken on its own terms. That could be some tough sledding, but it certainly adds some intrigue to the market as it shapes up.

Interesting times. Anyone have any hot takes on this news?

from Beervana

A Magical Photo Workshop

Jean Jarvis - Marin Art & Garden Center Workshop

Marin Art & Garden Center - Photographing Plants Entry sign

Photography workshops can be magical for both student and instructor. I think I can honestly say every workshop has some magic, there are always those moments when a student suddenly connects with the subject.  It gladdens the heart of the instructor to see the students improve.

But rarely does every student improve dramatically in the course of one workshop like the one I just completed with my friend and colleague David Perry at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross, California.

student at Marin Art & Garden Center photo workshop

The difference between the first and second photo shoots in one morning had David and I wondering aloud if these were the same students. We were grinning ear to ear as we reviewed the students work and wondered if there were some sort of magical trick we had uncovered.

Gary Scales - Marin Art & Garden Center Workshop

We had a very receptive group that was keen to understand the plant portrait in the five styles that David presented with-in the Florilegium concept that I asked the students to consider. After the early morning session in the garden, which was almost like a quick sketch session, the students went back to really study a single plant from a variety of angles and portrait styles.

Jean Jarvis - Marin Art & Garden Center Workshop

Lorapetalum study – Student (JJ) at Plants Portrait / Florilegium Workshop

A workshop is a great opportunity to really study a plant, to walk around it in context of the garden, to learn its personality.  Somehow having the camera as your tool helps you “focus” on the work .

You can improve your own plant portrait photography by simply taking the time to study the plant. Think about the plant portrait as you would a people portrait, knowing the plant has its own personality, its own best side, and will look better dressed properly –  that is, shown in context of the garden.

Here are some of our students and the photos they found.

Doreen Wynja - student at Marin Art & Garden Center photo workshop

Doreen Wynja - Marin Art & Garden Center Workshop

The budding Dogwood became known as the men’s bathroom location.

student at Marin Art & Garden Center photo workshop


Mary Small - Marin Art & Garden Center Workshop

Not only did the students walk all around the plant to find the best angles, several got underneath them so that the sky became a white background.

student at Marin Art & Garden Center photo workshop



Those borage flowers really glowed with the sky behind them.

This fern became a dramatic pattern with the sky overhead.

Elizabeth Byers - Marin Art & Garden Center Workshop

When images like these come out of a workshop, it makes you want to do them again, right away.  I don’t know when David and I might do a workshop together, the sooner the better as far as I am concerned, but we both schedule workshops regularly.

You can find my workshops on the PhotoBotanic site and David Perry on his own site – where he has special morning workshops in his own Seattle garden – with breakfast.

from Gardening Gone Wild