President & CEO Kevin Finn’s Travel Guide to Drinking Craft Beer in Ireland

by Kevin Finn

I recently visited Ireland and am proud to report that the beer scene there is thriving and is better than it has ever been before. I had the opportunity to try a variety of craft beers and was quite impressed with a few, especially a beer from Galway Bay Brewery (more on that later). The craft beer market in Ireland grew by 35% last year and seems to be growing just as fast this year.

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The primary reason I went to Ireland was to play soccer. Most years I travel with a bunch of guys, the “Old Boys” soccer team, which is made up of 40+ and 50+ age men from soccer leagues in Chester County. The leader of the Old Boys is Glenn Clarke, and as he said, the best way to describe the trip is “10 days of drinking beer interrupted by 3 games of soccer.” I think the scores reflected that adage (I’m not willing to share them), but we did play well enough to make the quarter finals at the Salthill Devon National 5 sides tournament.

Prior to this trip, I had visited Ireland twice, once in the early 1980s with my business partner Mark Edelson and more recently with my family in the summer of 2012. Even just two years ago, the craft beer scene in Ireland was pretty sparse, so I was quite surprised by my first beer on this visit, a very hoppy Galway Bay Brewery Full Sail Dry Hopped IPA, as enjoyed on the Paddywagon (picked up en route to Galway). It was a delicious, hoppy start to my trip, and I would soon cross paths with the brewer from Galway Bay.

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My next beer stop was at Oslo restaurant, which also happens to be the home of Galway Bay Brewery, for a sampler of beers that included their Saison, Pirate Ben Peanut Butter Porter and Pale Ale. While there, I was greeted by both the assistant brewer and the head brewer, Chris, who were heading out the door as I was coming in. They took a few minutes to talk to me, and I told them I would stop back soon.

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Our first game was in Taum, which is a short ride out of Galway. We wore our Victory Brewing Company jerseys for the match (thanks to Ron and Bill for sponsoring our trip!), but unfortunately it did not bring us much luck. After the game we stopped by the Rossi’s Cellar Bar, which is the local pub for the team we played in Taum. It was a wonderful traditional Irish pub, and I got to meet Rossi and his wife, Mary, who were exactly what you would expect from a proper publican in Ireland. Like many small pubs, Rossi’s did not carry any craft beers, but I did sample my share of pints of Guinness and swapped stories of working in the restaurant business.

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The next day we took the scenic route up to Donegal and stopped for lunch at The Strand Bar in Strandhill, County Sligo. On tap was a style of beer made by many of the new Irish craft brewers, a Red Ale. This particular version is made by Rye River Brewing Company in Kilcock, County Kildare and was called McGargles Granny Mary’s Red Ale. It was a very smooth and drinkable red ale, but I really I loved the graphics on the beer. All of their beers have whimsical illustrations of characters; this one of Granny Mary, the patriarch of the McGargle family, was great.

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On the return trip we stopped again for lunch at a pub (you are probably starting to get the idea here) and I got to sample yet another beer, Donegal Brewing Company’s Blonde Ale, from Ballyshannon, County Donegal. In a land dominated by InBev and Guinness, Heineken and Carlsburg, the ale was a perfect example of the type of beers you now see popping up in the craft beer scene in Ireland. It was a very refreshing ale that I enjoyed instead of the InBev products.

Back in Galway, I reached out to Chris from Galway Brewing Company, who I’d run into a few days prior, to set up a brewery tour. Graciously he toured us around the petite, 10-hectoliter brewery that turns out beer for eight restaurants in Ireland. He explained that he was hired right out of college with only homebrewing experience. It seems that the previous brewer had enough of the long hours and Chris happened to be in the right place at the right time. He has a background in engineering, which has helped him keep the brewery going.

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Chris, who’s been brewing for two years, shared a very special beer with us, 200 Fathoms—an imperial stout aged in an Irish whiskey barrel. It was a wonderfully delicious beer with just a hint of the barrel aging. It seems he can only brew the beer once a year, but he happened to have one more keg left and we were lucky enough to taste it.

I would have to say my highlight of the trip was my visit to Galway Bay Brewing Company. What really surprised me was that they are brewing some outstanding beers in a small brewery—styles that you are more likely to find in the United States, not in Ireland. I really enjoyed my visit with Chris and I hope to do a collaborative beer with him next year. That gives me another excuse to visit Ireland!

One last beer memory from the trip is McGarth’s #2 Irish Pale Ale, brewed by Clanconnel Brewing Company. It is made in Northern Ireland and is what I would call a sessional pale ale with lots of hop flavor and aroma. It was a wonderful beer to sip at a pub overlooking the Shannon River in Limerick opposite King John’s Castle!

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P.S. The 2014 Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival is September 4-7 in Dublin. Great way to visit Ireland and drink craft beer!

Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant was founded by home brewers Kevin Finn and Mark Edelson and restaurateur Kevin Davies in Newark, DE in 1996. Since, we have blossomed from one restaurant and brewery to 10 locations across the mid-Atlantic, with an 11th location, in Ardmore, PA scheduled to open in this year. We specialize in handcrafted beers and fresh, from-scratch New American cuisine. Monthly releases vary by location, so scout out our beers on tap and visit us soon.

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