The History of Beer in Ireland


When you think about Ireland, the things that usually come to mind are Saint Patrick, U2, stunning castles, wind-swept coastal mountains, rolling hills, leprechauns, and of course, Guinness. You cannot end your visit to Ireland without having a pint of Guinness at a local pub.

Early history

If you think that only Guinness is what is there to Irish beer, you might be surprised to learn that brewing in Ireland traces back to about 5,000 years ago. The ancient Irish discovered that the combination of fertile soil, abundant rains, and the cool, gentle breeze was conducive for growing superior barley. And barley, as you know it, was one of the main ingredients of ale.

Ale has been a common intoxicant in Ireland ever since way back then. Legend has it that the nation’s patron saint, St. Patrick, employed his own brewer, a priest named Mescan.

Ale is historically referred to as beer without hops, and for a good reason. Hops are not native to Ireland, that is why planting and growing them was quite difficult way back then. In their place, other herbs had been used to flavor ales and to extend their shelf life, such as gentian flowers. But of course, with the advancements of farming technology and agriculture, growing and cultivating hops is now possible in Ireland.

Anyway, back to the old history of beer making in Ireland… Interestingly, the monks usually drank the beverage as part of their Lenten fasting and named it as “liquid bread.”

Aside from monks, women were also instrumental in the Irish beer production at the time. By the 1600s, the beverage had been produced in small cottages by “alewives.” Irish beer produced by these alewives always appeared to be red, and commonly drunk and enjoyed at alehouses.

Guinness and the commercialization of beer in Ireland

During the 18th century, beer-making in Ireland was starting to become commercialized. A man called Arthur Guinness, a son of Richard Guinness who had brewed beer for the rector of the town of Celbridge, set up a small brewery at Leixlip in County Kildare.

Three years after establishing the brewery, Arthur Guinness moved to Dublin and took a 9,000-year lease on an abandoned brewery at St. James Gate. Initially, Guinness brewed ale, but later he turned to making porter – a dark, almost black-colored beer that was developed in London. Its flavor is characterized as having a highly pronounced roasted flavor, due to roasting raw barley and malt that brings them to an appearance resembling burnt toast.

When Arthur Guinness died in 1803, he had turned his investment of £100 (which he inherited) to £10,000 (which would be worth over £1 billion today). Already, his company dominated Irish brewing which left only a few rivals who dared to challenge its lofty position. A century after his death, Guinness became the largest brewer in Europe. Less than two decades later, it became the biggest brewer in the world, exporting the Irish style to several countries.

It was that time when Irish-style dry stout put the country on the world beer map. The dry and bitter taste, due to the roasted barley, remains the hallmark of Guinness up to this day. It is this very dryness which is said to whet one’s appetite (or more like encourage one to have more swigs!).

Guinness may no longer be the world’s number one brewer, mainly due to the growing popularity of the effervescent and light-colored lager. However, Guinness is still the top stout brewer; as of 2014, it accounts for 19% of the total beer sales in Ireland.

For more details of Guinness, check out “The History of Guinness Beer.”

Lager brewing

Lager brewing in Ireland started as early as 1891, when a lager brewery in Dartry, Dublin, was established. However, it did not last long. In 1968, Harp Lager started its business in Dundalk, County Louth, and has been brewing the beverage since.

Murphy Brewery is licensed to brew the international brand Heineken. Currently, Heineken Ireland has the biggest chunk of the national lager market.

Craft beers in Ireland

The origins of modern craft brewing in Ireland began with the establishment of the Hilden Brewery in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, during the early 1980s. It is now the oldest existing independent brewer in the country. 

However, significant progress took off during the 1990s with the increasing number of brewpubs and microbreweries. This development injected a healthy dose of diversity to local beers because before that happened, Guinness, as well as global brewers, dominated the Irish beer landscape.

Microbreweries, such as the Carlow Brewing Company (known for its O’Hara Stout), survived the “first wave” of local craft brewing. The Franciscan Well Brewery was established in 1998 at an old Franciscan monastery and is renowned for its products, notably the Shandon Stout and the Rebel Red ale.

The “second wave” started at the beginning of the new millennium with the continuously growing number of pubs and microbreweries such as Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne brewery, Galway Hooker brewery, Clanconnel brewery, Dungarvan Brewing Company, Trouble Brewing, Bo Bristle, and many others.

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