Over the past decade, locally produced craft beer from small independent brewers has become a hot commodity. Ireland has had a long and complex relationship with alcohol and beer in particular.
The Growth of Irish Craft Brewing
Arguably, the Irish experience of craft beer extends back at least as far as the Bronze Age. Recent scholarship suggests that Fulacht Fiadh in the west of Ireland served as early beer brewing cauldrons reinforcing the importance of craft beer in early Irish life (Quinn and Moore, 2007). Fulacht Fiadh suggests that beer was locally produced, utilising local knowledge and ingredients – mirroring a more modern phenomenon. Typically and currently craft beer is likewise produced in small batches, and prepared in a traditional manner by independent producers. Tradition informs a modern practice – an age-old way in which people engage with this locally fermented foodstuff.
The Irish Craft Brewers Association (https://icba.ie) was formed in 2013 to give voice to a new generation of independent microbrewers. This organisation collects data on an annual basis and makes it available publicly in its annual report. Data details annual production quantities, number of brewers as well as the variety of beer types produced. An independent contractor compiled the most recent dataset through a survey conducted in 2017 and made available at: (https://icba.ie/datasets/Irish_Beer_Industry_2017). The dataset is provided as a CSV file allowing for additional manipulation and open analysis. The Brewers of Europe (https://brewersofeurope.org) provides additional data to place Irish beer production and consumption into a broader context.
Over the past decade, the per capita consumption of beer has declined, falling from 113 l/capita in 2003 by 31% to 79 l/capita in 2017.
However, Ireland remains a beer drinking country and currently ranks 8th amongst the higher per capita consumers of beer in Europe according to this infographic from the Brewers of Europe.
In the wider context of beer production, this decline in per capita consumption appears to be reflected in overall beer produced in Ireland. Over the past 15 years, this has declined from a high of 9,367,000 hL in 2006 to 7,680,000 hl in 2016.
However, despite the overall decline in beer production, the amount of craft beer produced by Irish microbreweries has risen dramatically from 26,000 Hl in 2011 to over 176,000 Hl in 2016. This dramatic explosion in output reflects an equally impressive rise in the number of craft brewers.
From a low of 7 breweries in Ireland in 1995, there are now over 89 breweries in Ireland today.
Moreover, the commensurate rise in the production of craft beer stands in contrast to the trend in overall beer production. From 2011 to 2016, the production of beer by small independent craft brewers rose from 26,000Hl in 2011 by over 675% to over 176,000Hl in 2016.
However, this rapid and explosive growth in craft breweries should properly be seen within its historical context. In fact, if we take a longer view of the data, the more recent phenomenon possibly suggests a return to a more traditional form of production. In 1795 for example, a survey completed by a committee of the Irish House of Commons, indicated over 600 breweries scattered across Ireland.
Further substantiating this possible return to more traditional forms, the spatial distribution of these ‘new’ independent craft breweries follows a very similar pattern to earlier days. Extracting the data from the sources such as BEOIR (https://beoir.org) and mapping it, we can see the pattern reflected quantitatively in the bar chart above and spatial on the maps below.
Consolidation witnessed smaller local breweries consolidated into larger regional breweries, serving larger and larger markets. In fact, as data from the ICBA demonstrates, the amount of beer exported from Ireland rose over the 19th and 20th centuries.
This industrialisation resulted in a homogenisation of beer through mass production and contributes to the subsequent rise of craft breweries producing more diverse types of beer as a consumer-driven reaction.
The subsequent demand for diversity is further demonstrated by the wide varieties of beers produced by craft brewers in Ireland. As this interactive sunburst chart shows, the number of unique beer recipes produced by these Irish craft breweries is both vast and diverse. The numbers on this chart show the distinct recipes and the proportions allow you to explore subvarieties categorised using the taxonomy developed by the Brewers of America (BAA https://baa.org)
One of the commonly held assumptions about craft beer is that it has a higher ABV (alcohol by volume) than its mass-produced industrial counterpart. Although we don’t have the data to allow a direct comparison of this, what we can see is that over the past 8 years, the average ABV of beer produced in Ireland has slowly crept upwards, rising from just under 5% in 2010 to a slightly more robust 5.69% by 2018.
This short data-driven exposition attempts to demonstrate that the recent explosion in the number of Irish craft breweries is substantial, especially given the clearly shrinking beer market in Ireland. However, by looking at it in a wider context it is also evident that it may demonstrate a return to more traditional forms of beer production. These more traditional forms were less industrialised and did not demonstrate consistent taste or quality across small batches of production. Although the Irish craft beer drinker of today can be assured of quality in production, that same diversity of product has been recognised and seized upon to produce a stunning panoply of beer taste offerings.
Brewers of Europe, 2018. Beer Statistics 2018. [online] Brussels: The Brewers of Europe, p.30. Available at: https://brewersofeurope.org/uploads/mycms-files/documents/publications/2018/Statistics-201812-001.pdf [Accessed 10 Feb. 2019].
Irish Craft Beer Association, 2018. Beer Statistics 2018. [online] Cork: Irish Craft Beer Association. Available at: https://icba.ie/uploads/2018/[Accessed 11 February. 2019].
Quinn, B. and Moore, D., 2018. Ale, brewing and fulacht fiadh: Archaeology Ireland – Moore Group. Available at: http://www.mooregroup.ie/2007/10/the-archaeology-ireland-article/ [Accessed 10 February 2019].