There is one beer that everyone thinks of when they think of Ireland, and that beer is Smithwick’s. Wait, no that’s not right. Guinness! That’s the one. There is a good reason for that, Guinness is one of the best beers in the world. However, there more to Ireland than this (insert Alan Partridge quote here). In this article, I will answer the question “what beer do they drink in Ireland?”
Guinness is the most popular Irish beer in the world, but it is not the most popular beer in Ireland. While there has been an explosion in craft beer breweries such as The White Hag. Heineken also has a large brewery in Ireland and is the most popular lager.
As with my articles on Japan, Mexico, Turkey, and many more. This article will focus on the history of beer in Ireland, an in-depth look into Guinness and its history, before exploring the craft brewing scene (which I touched on in my article on Celtic Craft Beer).
Guinness is by far the most popular Irish beer in the world, but it is not the most popular beer in Ireland. That would be Heinekin. Guinness isn’t even in the top 5 alcoholic brands (at least it wasn’t in 2015). Which were:
It’s the same story in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England. While the local beers are popular with certain groups (beer nerds and the older generation), mass-produced lagers, spirits, and ciders are more popular with the majority of pub-goers.
Guinness being so far down the list is not actually that surprising, a 2010 study found that lager made up 60% of beer consumption in Ireland while stout was only 34%.
I think that part of the problem is that many people outside of Ireland have a very romantic/old-fashioned idea of what Ireland is. Old men in flat caps drinking Guinness while somebody plays a fiddle.
I’m sure that such pubs exist, in the same way that Morris dancing exists in England, and men in kilts drinking whisky happens in some pubs in Scotland. But this does not represent modern Ireland nor the Irish people any more than Braveheart represents Scotland or the works of Charles Dickins represents modern England.
But you didn’t click on this article to hear me talk about the amazing qualities of Heineken or how Bulmers tastes like real Irish apples. You wanted to hear about Irish beers, brewed in Ireland. I am happy to oblige.
Not only does Ireland have one of the best-known breweries in the world, but it also has a thriving craft beer scene. So that is what I will talk about for the remainder of this article.
Brewing in Ireland closely matches brewing in England. Both countries started brewing beer at similar times, both countries have pubs that are hundreds of years old (check out my article on the oldest pub in the World to learn more), and both countries saw first an explosion of breweries and then a rapid and near-fatal decline.
Due to the history between the two nations, many Irish people may not thank me for saying that English and Irish beer are so closely matched. But facts are facts.
That does not beer that Ireland does not have a unique beer culture though, in fact, beer has been brewed on the island for over 5,000 years. Beer was brewed by the celts, then when Christianity came to Ireland it was brewed by monks (as was the case throughout Europe). Later on, beer was often brewed at home. Usually by the women in the family. Again, something that happened throughout Europe.
Before the 18th century, Irish beer was brewed without hops. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds, because brewing with hops was fairly new in Europe (well it was only a couple hundred years old). Before Germany started using hops, most beer was brewed without. Check out my article on un-hopped beer to learn more.
Then, in the 18th century, Ireland began to import hops from England. It was also importing beer, particularly porter which has its origins in London. Breweries began popping up all over Ireland including Guinness which was founded in 1759. I’ll talk more about Guinness in the section below.
The number of breweries in Ireland exploded in the 19th century, at its peak there were 200+, with 50 or so in Dublin alone! At this point, Ireland was exporting more beer to England than it was importing.
This all began to change shortly after Ireland broke free from Britain. Independence brought many benefits, but it also brought economic instability to the counties of Ireland. The main issue was transportation, with Ireland’s railway system collapsing.
Dublin was of course affected, but not to the same extent as counties such as Donegal. This led to a huge number of small breweries across Ireland shutting down. Guinness capitalised on this, buying up (or saving, depending on how you look at it) the competition.
This led to there being just 12 breweries operating in Ireland in 2007!
Irish beer tastes revolved strongly around stout, with Irish dry stout being invented and becoming world-famous. Guinness grew to become the world’s largest brewery, and expanded to several other countries.
With such a well-known brand and virtually no competition, the beer scene in Ireland became rather stagnant. Ireland was one of the last European countries to really embrace craft beer. But today the scene is thriving.
Heineken built a brewery in Cork, and has managed to build its way up to the number one beer sold in Ireland. Over time, beer tastes have changed in Ireland, with lager overtaking stout.
Mention Ireland and Guinness would be one of the first things that come to mind. The beer is synonymous with the culture, and both sides have benefited from this relationship. Guinness is one of the most popular beers in the world, and is certainly the most popular stout!
I’ve covered the topic briefly before, in my article “How much alcohol is in Guinness?” but the history of Guinness is not as black and white as the drink itself (I am SO pleased with that sentence).
Guinness was founded in Dublin by Arthur Guinness. Before opening the famous Guinness brewery, Arthur had invested £100 into a brewery in Leixlip (1754). This is a small town just to the west of Dublin. He ran this brewery with his brother for five years before deciding to open a brewery in Dublin.
He signed a 9,000-year lease on a brewery in St James’ Gate at the end of 1759. At first, the Guinness brewery sold ale but over the next ten years, they began to brew porter which was very popular in London at the time (where it was invented).
One thing we should make clear, for a very long time, stout was just a name for strong porter. While this is not really the case any more, you could easily use the term porter or stout interchangeably.
For most of its early years, Guinness stuck to porter, it wasn’t until the 1840s that Guinness started to sell the dry stout that made it famous. In the latter part of the 19th century, Guinness became one of the largest breweries in the world.
They managed this while maintaining a higher price than most beers, refusing to advertise, and also without owning any pubs of their own. In fact, many pubs that were owned by other breweries began to demand that they could sell Guinness.
There is probably a lesson in marketing for you right there, which would go great with a montage of photos and some stock music.
Guinness continued to expand at a great rate until the 1970s where sales began to decline. The whole company went through a rebrand, making improvements to the taste of the beer, and starting to look at marketing and branding etc …
Guinness has been incredibly good to Ireland, though some would point out that its total domination for years has stifled the brewing industry. It is no secret that the Irish craft beer scene really struggled at first. Even today, its craft beer scene is quite far behind many other countries (though this is definitely changing).
Overall, Guinness has been an amazing ambassador to Ireland and vice versa.
You would think that the founder of Guinness was one of the most patriotic Irishmen in history. But rarely is history as straightforward as that! Arthur Guinness was actually a staunch protestant and was strongly in favour of the Union.
He was opposed to Irish independence and was often accused of being a British spy in the later years of his life. That does not mean that he was anti-Irish though. His views were based around the idea that Ireland should remain part of the Union but have greater self-governance.
The anti-Catholic stance is a bit harder to defend or explain. It was not until 1960 that the company hired a Catholic, and if any worker wanted to marry a Catholic they were expected to hand in their resignation!
Arthur died in 1803, leaving the company in the hands of his son. The son was also named Arthur, and is often referred to as the “Second Arthur”.
He was present for many of the changes that formed modern-day Guinness, he saw an increase in sales from 2 million gallons per year at the beginning of the 19th century to 4 million by the time his son Benjamin took over.
Benjamin then past the brewery to his son Edward who became one of the richest people in Europe when he floated Guinness on the stock exchange in 1886.
The family is still very much connected to the brewery today, though it is now mostly owned by Diageo.
In this section, I am going to look at five of the best beer in Ireland, which should help answer the question “what beer do they drink in Ireland?”. I won’t include any craft beers in this section as they have their own section.
I am also going to look at my favourites, rather than just talk about the most popular beers. Nobody wants to read about Budweiser or Heineken, no matter how popular they are!
It would be crazy to write a top five list of beer in Ireland without including Guinness draught. While many beer enthusiasts would talk about Foreign Extra Stout or some of the lesser-known variations, I really have to stick with the most common of their range.
Guinness draught is superb, whether poured into a pint glass in a pub or out of a can at home. If you are going to drink it in a pub, then ensure that you pick the right kind of pub! Bad maintenance can really affect this superb beer, I touched on this subject in this article.
Here’s a controversial opinion for you, Murphy’s Irish stout is a better beer than Guinness! Well, it is certainly sweeter and is very underrated. Murphy’s is smoother and creamier than Guinness but doesn’t tend to maintain as good a head. To be honest, both are excellent Irish stouts and you should definitely try Murphy’s at some point in the future.
Irish Red Ale is a style of ale that is very similar to English bitter, to be honest, many people would describe it as just that. Smithwicks Red Ale is a great beer, refreshing, low volume, and with a great head. You can often find this beer at O’Neil’s pubs in the UK and some Irish pubs. Well worth a try.
I don’t want to get into the “Stout is just a strong porter” discussion again, but it is really confusing. This is a porter brewed by Guinness, which happens to be quite a bit stronger than their stout. It’s actually a great beer, with a lot of character. Nice chocolate taste, and something a little more interesting than many porters out there.
This choice is probably going to severely deplete any cool-guy points I may have built up over the years. Most people do not rate Caffreys at all. I haven’t even been able to find it in years! But I really enjoy it. Very similar to bitters such as John Smiths, but creamier and served as cold as lager. It was also quite a bit stronger (5.2% but in the last ten years the alcohol percentage has dropped).
There are probably much better Irish beers out there, I haven’t mentioned Beamish, nor Harp lager. I have studiously ignored Hop House 13. Most people would prefer all of those to Caffreys, but I used to really enjoy it, and it is going on my list!
Earlier I claimed that Ireland was very late in adopting a craft beer culture. This was sort of true, sort of untrue. While the craft beer explosion has only occurred recently in Ireland there was an initial wave in the early 90s. This is very similar to what happened in Japan. A few craft beer breweries opened, many struggled to pierce a market that was dominated by the domestic beer of choice, and only the really good survived.
Ireland now has several fantastic craft breweries, and I’ve experienced many of them through my Beer52 subscription.
Porterhouse Brew Co is a Dublin-based craft brewery that can trace its roots back to 1996. I first tried their Oyster Stout in an Irish pub in Central London in 2005.
It was during my mate’s 18th birthday pub crawl so I can’t say that I savoured the taste for too long, but the fact that I still remember this beer 15 years on goes to show how special it was. I actually mentioned one of their bars in my article on what to drink in London (in the section on best Irish bars).
Beer to Try: Oyster Stout
Founded in 2009 in (unsurprisingly) Galway, the Galway Bay Brewery has brewpubs dotted around Ireland. It also has a bar in Northern Ireland, having opened one in Belfast. Full disclosure, this is the only brewery on this list whose beers I haven’t tried yet. But they have a stellar reputation, and a very cool selection of beers. Milk stouts, pale ales, IPAs, and a Helles lager.
Beer to Try: I am most excited to try their Session IPA
Based in Cork, Eight Degrees Brewing brews lovely craft beers with a very cool design. I’ve had a couple of their beers before, most notably the Knockmealdown Irish Stout. I was really excited to try this beer, as it was one of the first stouts I tried with my Spiegelau Stout Glass (check out my article on beer glasses to learn more). the beer was named best stout in Ireland in 2015, and I was damn impressed with it.
Beer to Try: Knockmealdown Irish Stout
I have had a LOT of beers from the White Hag. I even wrote about the brewery in my article on Celtic Craft Beers. The White Hag is a Sligo-based craft brewery that was founded in 2013. I’ve been really impressed with all the beers that I’ve had from them (New England IPA pictured).
Their Session IPA is particularly impressive, as is their Red Ale. This brewery is one to look out for in the future, they’re going to be big!
Beer to Try: Session IPA
The craft brewing scene has really set a fire in the Irish beer market. The decline of Guinness’ popularity should not be overstated. Sure, it may not be as popular as it was in the 60s. But that was a situation where Guinness had complete control over the beer market.
It is a good thing that this is no longer the case.
Ireland feels a little bit like Britain did a few years back. The big British breweries had begun to drop in popularity, but there wasn’t much domestic competition. Beers such as Stella Artois and Amstel began to replace British beer. Then craft breweries popped up; Meantime, Brewdog, Tiny Rebel etc … and it coincided with an increase in British beer popularity thanks to CAMRA organised beer festivals.
Ireland is going through that same metamorphosis. Guinness is becoming less popular and beers such as Heinekin and Budweiser have usurped it. But thanks to craft beer, Irish people are beginning to look to their own breweries again.
I’m not predicting the fall of European lager, nor do I particularly want that to happen. But Guinness is not going anywhere, and thanks to breweries such as The White Hag, Eight Degrees, Galway Bay, and Porterhouse, domestic beer is going to become more popular in the next few years.
The Irish craft beer festival is helping with this, and it can only be a good thing to see smaller independent breweries taking a larger bite out of the large brewing corporations such as Diageo and Heinekin.
If I were heading to Ireland tomorrow, I’d personally drink as much Guinness as I could. That flies in the face of a lot of the things I’ve said in this article. But thanks to globalisation, I can drink Irish craft beer from the comfort of my own home! Whereas a pint of Guinness IN Ireland, is something that I cannot wait to experience.
Technically I have drunk Guinness in Ireland before, but I was 3 years old and it was barely a mouthful.
I would love to check out the brewpubs and craft breweries I’ve mentioned though. I’d also recommend trying Murphy’s and Beamish for a more well-rounded stout experience. Smithwick’s beer is something else you should check out. Particularly the creamier variety, which is an interesting experience.
Also, if you do manage to find a pub that serves Caffreys please give it a go. It’s a decent beer that does not get enough love in my opinion.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.