Up until very recently, going to the pub was straightforward: there were three choices – big brand lager (which all tastes the same), Smithwick’s or stout. This is still the case in some pubs but they are few and far between.
Enter a pub in Templemore or Cahir you will find the local White Gypsy beers, in Mitchelstown it will likely be 8 Degrees, in Longford it will be St. Mels and in many small pubs such as the Cottonball in Cork, The Oarsman in Carrick-On-Shannon or the Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna you will find beers made exclusively for that pub.
There are now well over 100 different craft beer brands in Ireland (by “craft” I simply mean small-scale), just over sixty of whom have their own brewery with the remainder brewing under contract. However things might be about to change again.
There is unfortunately a worldwide shortage of hops, the flavouring ingredient in virtually all beers. In particular there is a shortage of aroma hops (Citra, Simcoe, Amarillo) which are the main flavour ingredient in IPAs, the most popular style of craft beer. These hops are mainly found in the USA and in Austalia and New Zealand, and growers have suffered badly this past year.
Washington State's Yakima Valley was hit by severe droughts (they produce over 75% of America's hops) and El Niño and general global warming have severely affected weather patterns in Australia and New Zealand. Added to this is the fact that there is a worldwide explosion of interest in craft brewing, particularly the American model which means lots and lots (and lots and lots) of aroma hops.
Most established brewers have hop contracts a few years in advance, sometimes as far ahead as four years, so they are in a better position than new entrants to the market. However if there is a shortage of hops then these contracts cannot be fulfilled, so brewers will have to look to other styles of beer.
Metalman in Waterford for example told me at the recent RDS Beer and Whiskey Festival that they are looking to purchase more Noble varieties in the UK and in continental Europe. These traditional bittering hops such as Saaz, Kent Goldings etc may not have the same tropical fruit aroma that we have come to expect in our IPAs, but can still make wonderful beers.
So should we be worried? Caroline Hennessy, a co-author of the Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer and Cider (essential reading), is not worried at all. “Irish brewers aren't going to be sitting around twiddling their thumbs and crying over unfulfilled hop contracts. It just means that they're going to move towards different styles. Less hop bomb IPAs, more sours, saisons and dark malty beers, for instance. More great Irish beers to try,” she says.
I agree, and so does Caroline's husband Scott Baigent of 8 Degrees Brewing:
[pull_quote_center]We are always changing what we brew, we like to innovate and refuse to get stuck in a rut. We like to form dialogues with hop brewers to find out what is new and happening; for example we found Enigma hops last year and made a single hop beer from it. We will always find new beers to make, whatever the availability of hops.[/pull_quote_center]
Hops do grow in Ireland but the native Irish hop industry was wound up a few decades ago after the big brewers began using imported hops. There are currently a number of growers trying again, most notably Cuilan Loughnane of White Gypsy in Templemore who is growing dwarf varieties (most hops grow very very high) and produced the only truly Irish beer made entirely from Irish ingredients last year – Emerald Fresh. Also the guys in Wicklow Wolf have some Wicklow grown bittering hops in a few of their beers.
So yes, things will change and newer brewers will be on a steep learning curve to find new beer styles but I suspect this might be good for Irish brewing as seasoned drinkers like myself have been buying far more rye ales, ed ales and stouts rather than the hop bombs of a few years ago.