Irish Beer History

Written and Researched by Ron Pattinson

The Irish brewing industry

Unless you’ve spent the last 50 years in a sealed concrete bunker, you’ll be aware of Guinness’s dominance of the Irish brewing scene. Their last Dublin rival (Findlaters) closed in 1949 and by the mid-1960’s they had rounded up the last few stray ale breweries.

The only challenge to total control was in Cork, where the tied house system of Murphy’s and Beamish & Crawford kept Guinness at bay, at least for a while.

Under pressure from their own landlords (who wanted to sell Guinness), the Cork brewers gave up their tied houses in the 1970’s. They soon ran into trouble and were snapped up by foreign globalists, eager to own an “Irish stout” brand. Their stouts are now often easier to find abroad than in their native country.

The micro revolution

Ireland is one of the last of the traditional brewing nations of Europe to undergo a microbrewery boom. The stranglehold of Guinness on the licensed trade has surely played a role in suppressing new brewery startups. In 2005 progressive beer duty was due to be introduced. It should proivide a boost to the fledgling micro industry.

There was a brief flirtation with Dublin-brewed real ale in the early 1980’s (Dempsey’s and Harty’s), but neither lasted very long. It wasn’t until the 1990’s with the Biddy Early brewpub that anyone dared try again. A steady trickle of new brewpubs and micros has continued since, though they are still of minor significance in terms of volume (45,000 hl to Guinness’s 5.2 million hl). The lack of a sliding scale of duty is seen as a major obstacle to new breweries entering the market.

The story in Northern Ireland has been much the same, where Bass and Guinness have long enjoyed a duopoly. Hilden, Ireland’s oldest microbrewery (founded 1981) has survived rather than prospered. The long absence of cask-conditioned beer and the lack of proper cellars in many bars has not helped their cause. Whitewater joined them in 1996. A couple of other micros and a brewpub came and quickly disappeared again in the 1980’s. All the new brewereies have produced cask-conditioned beer on a regular basis.

Ireland now has more breweries than at any time since the early 1920’s. This is how the 20 active breweries (16 in the Irish Republic, 4 in Northern Ireland) can be classified:

Irish beer styles

Ireland is famous for one style of beer: stout. Originating in 18th century London, porter became immensely popular in Ireland around 1800. Eventually Dublin ousted London as porter capital and by 1900 Irish brewers were exporting huge quantities to England. The extent of this trade can be deduced from the statistics for UK beer imports: with the independence of the Irish Republic these increased from around 50,000 barrels (82,000 hl) a year to 1,500,000 barrels (2,455,000 hl).

Guinness pioneered mixed-gas dispense (carbon dioxide and nitrogen) in the early 1960’s. Today it’s widely used for serving both draught stout and ale. The older system of serving draught stout involved two barrels behind the bar. Each glass was first filled about two-thirds with old, relatively flat beer from the lower cask (“low stout”). It was topped up with lively, young beer from a smaller cask on a high shelf (“high stout”).

Modern stout is a mere shadow of its pre-WW I self. The classic porter strength – from the early 18th century up until 1900 – was around 1056º. Stout was a minimum of 1060º.

If you want to get an idea of old-fashioned Irish stout, try Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. It’s the closest approximation you’ll find today. You’ll notice that in 1840 Guinness Extra Stout was stronger than the current FES.

The picture to the left can be bought as a poster from

This text provided is only a small “fair use” excerpt from Ron’s site. His site has a lot of production figures, stats on the breweries and more history, more on current trends. Highly recommended. If you want to read more, please click…




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