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Black donkey underworld beer
Black Donkey Underworld Beer

Unexpected Brews: Three Of Ireland's Most Unusual Craft Beers

These three Irish craft beers are well worth checking out.


In his lastest Great Irish Drinks column, Oisin Davis highlights three of Ireland's craft beers that stand out from the crowd. 

When you're faced with increasing competition both from home and abroad, how can Ireland's breweries remain relevant and stand out, even with amazing tasting beers? Well, to begin with, there's always the potential of staging a publicity stunt. For the Sochi Winter Olympics, Molson Beer installed a cooler that scanned your passport and gave you out a free beer, provided you shared a lineage with the brand themselves and you were a fellow Canadian. Tonnes of positive vibes and likes came through for Molson afterwards. Then, of course, you can always rely on the old reliable and spend a fortune on advertising but that's usually reserved for the mega, multi-national brewers as they're the only folk out there with deep pockets.  And with stricter legislation on its way that will make TV and gargantuan billboard advertising for alcohol brands a whole lot harder, even the big boys will have a tougher time trying to flog their booze in what's known in the trade as a "dark market." 

Another fine way to get noticed is to release products that are made with quirkier, more off the beaten track ingredients. Over the years, these can vary from the slightly tempting," Pizza Beer" made by the Seefurth Family or the downright disgusting, such as Wynkoop Brewery's "Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout", which might sound wholesome until you realise that they brew it with bull's testicles. With all that's out there in Planet Beer, there is a definitely a fine balance to be made between what's going to get you a quick headline and something that's genuinely innovative and thirst-quenching. A quick look at what's happening with Irish brewers led me down some interesting paths and cool conversations with some of those behind three of the most unusual Irish craft beers. 

Black Donkey's "Underworld Pale Ale"

After having returned from 20 + years overseas in 2014, Richard Silberry was unimpressed with what he felt was the stagnant state of the Irish beer market.  Rather than call for change, he decided to act and established Black Donkey Brewery in Roscommon with his wife Michaela. In 2017, Black Donkey initiated a project, the “Wild Yeast Chase” in conjunction with IT Tallaght and Enterprise Ireland, to harvest wild yeast strains from the Roscommon countryside. This led to a rather spectacular discovery in a nearby limestone cave called Oweynagat, also known locally as "Hellsmouth of Ireland." 

"We are largely inspired by Belgian style brewing, and we wanted to see if we could find a native yeast strain which would produce beers similar to those for which the Belgians are justifiably world-famous. Our unique yeast strain, which we have dubbed “Morrigan 1”, produces a beer which is loaded with a unique yeast-derived flavour and character. We have had the yeast genetically tested, and it is truly unique to us, it doesn’t appear on any other known brewers yeast databases." 

You don't have to be long-bearded, lumberjack shirt wearing hipster beer nerd to appreciate the significance of this. In fact, it even made national RTÉ TV news, not something that happens every day with any sized Irish brewery. 

But when you're a solo operator like Richard, there are lots of other things to keep you busy besides chasing yeasts, "Educating publicans, retailers and consumers to the benefits of supporting local microbreweries (and other micro-producers) is a constant, and significant part of our job. From a production perspective, planning and forecasting are always challenging. Beer is a perishable product so over producing and stockpiling is bad, but so is not being able to fill orders. Striking the right balance is what sometimes keeps me awake at night." 

Like any other Irish brewer I talk to, he feels the government could be doing a whole lot more to help, "A realistic "taproom" license, which would allow us to sell our beer direct to brewery visitors could be a significant boost to the industry too. The “taproom” bill we were handed last year is barely worth the paper it is printed on." 

Black's Brewery's "Hindu OG Kush High IPA" 

The fine folk over in Black's Brewery and Distillery have a sound and well-experienced brand ambassador in Darren Murphy. With a career that goes back as far as 2002 and took in a four-year stint in Vienna, he has an unbridled enthusiasm for the drinks industry that constantly sees him popping up at seemingly every festival ever or hitting the road spreading his gospel. Black's are never short on great ideas and one recent new product certainly raised eyebrows and got chins wagging. Not content rolling out yet another IPA, they opted for a "High IPA" called Hindu Kush. Now, for those of you who might be familiar with the cafes of Amsterdam or the perfectly legal head shops of Colorado, you'll know that Hindu Kush is a rather potent strain of marijuana. But before you peg it out the door running to the nearest off licence, be aware that this isn't the kind of kush that will give you the munchies and laugh incessantly, as Darren explains, 

"The first thing we need to mention here, is that we use Cannabis terpenes ( like essential oils) in the brewing process that do not contain THC (the principal psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) or CBD so its really just the aroma and flavour of the different strain such as OG Kush or Pineapple express that we are infusing in to the beers. The terpenes add what I feel is like an extra layer of flavour which contributes to a more complex taste experience. In my tasting notes, I use words like resinous, dank, citrus, sweet, fruity, herbal but the profile will off course be influenced by the hops and the strain of Cannabis terpenes used. The Og Kush cans pair amazingly with Jerk Chicken with a nice bit of charring to match the bitterness of the beer or alternatively a pork Barbacoa Taco with lime and fresh coriander."

So just in case you didn't pick that one up, you can't get stoned from this beer. But they are not totally averse to such a product, 
"Many breweries in the USA are experimenting with cannabis in the production of beer so for sure we are keeping an eye on what our friends across the pond are up to, so let's see how this niche develops."

Ballykilcavan Brewery, farm to glass beers

With a county Laois farm that has been in his family since 1639, David Walsh Kemmis feels an obligation to ensure he leaves his children an asset, rather than a liability. That sentiment coupled with a drop in prices for tillage and a love of homebrewing, led him to establish Ballykilcavan Brewery at their home. They have quickly given themselves a most unique, yet very simple selling point. All the barley that goes into all of their beers, is grown on their own estate.

"Every beer in our bottled range is brewed with 100% malt made from barley grown on the farm. That means that not only do we use our own base malt, but we also get small batches of speciality malts made for us as well to be able to produce a wide range of beers, from a lager to a traditional Irish red ale to an IPA.  We source our water from a well next to the brewery and we're also growing our own hops, so that every autumn, we can make a fresh hopped beer where every ingredient comes from within 500 metres of the brewery." 

This is really giving his whole range an incredible story of provenance and he's extremely proud of Ireland's produce and how it should be best utilised.

"I believe that we grow some of the best malting barley in the world in Ireland, and our farm is right in the heart of the malting barley growing area. We're lucky in this part of Ireland to have a good combination of soil type and climate to allow us to produce excellent quality barley. A lot of craft beer is promoted purely on the hops that used to make it, and while they're clearly important, I wanted to showcase the wonderful malts that we can make from our Irish barley. If it's Irish beer, I believe that we should be using Irish malt to make it."

So far so very good for David and his family. It's not just the beers he sees in their future too. With such a location as theirs, he has his eyes set on another prize, "We're also very lucky with our setting in a beautiful late 18th stone farmyard, and we'll be adding tourism facilities over the next few years to attract visitors to come and see us and see how we make our beers." 

Photo: Eoin Higgins photography
Photo: Eoin Higgins photography

Author: Oisin Davis 

Oisin Davis works on a global level as an Irish drinks evangelist and producer. He is the founder of nationwide drinks festivals that celebrate Irish spirits in the best bars and restaurant in the 32 counties and to top it off he is co-owner of Poacher's Premium Beverages, Ireland's only all-natural mixer company. F&W is delighted that Oisin has joined our contributing team with his column "Great Irish Drinks." 

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