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Pub Visit - Europe (except Germany)

Bagenalstown (Muine Bheag), County Carlow:
Carlow Brewing Co. (O’Hara’s)

Carlow1Friday 13th May 2016

Bob Thompson

Bagenalstown is a small town on the River Barrow found around the south of Carlow county in the Irish Midlands. Originally known as Muine Bheag (small thicket in old Irish), it began as a tiny hamlet in the 1800s.

Carlow2Later Walter Bagenal, an Englishman, decided to build a grandiose town there based on Versailles. However his plans were thwarted when the stage coach from Dublin to Kilkenny was introduced via a different route. As was the case all over Ireland, the arrival of the railway was a catalyst for growth with associated development, and Bagenalstown was no exception.

The modern town was born when its station on the Dublin to Waterford via Kilkenny line was opened on 24th July 1848. The present-day population is around 3,000. It officially became Muine Bheag on the assumption of the Irish Free State in the 1920s.

Carlow3During 1988 the station adopted the Irish version of the name. However these days I see it seems to have reverted to English again but as all station name signs in Ireland are in both languages there really isn’t much of a change. I noticed in the streets of the town the English-language version seems to be the most used.

The lands along the River Barrow are fertile and produce a variety of grain crops along with good grazing land for cattle. There were once maltings in every town and Kilkenny, only a few miles away, is noted as being the centre of the hop growing industry in Ireland. The towns along the River Barrow possessed many breweries in the days of old and Carlow Brewing is their modern equivalent.

Carlow4It may be thought that the brewery’s name comes from the county it is located in, but that is not the case. The next railway station towards Dublin is Carlow, the county town. Goods traffic ceased at this station on 9th June 1976. Why is this significant? Well, Seamus O’Hara established his brewery in the old goods shed right outside Carlow’s station in that same year. So it is named after the town rather than the county.

Back in those days this was a very bold move indeed. The big brewers; then there were three, had a stranglehold on supply to pubs. Several brave attempts were made to provide quality beer but most failed. I remember Harty’s and the Dublin Brewing Company particularly. The three true survivors from that era are Carlow, Porterhouse and Franciscan Well of Cork. The latter was acquired by Molson-Coors in 2013. They’ve now opened a (relatively) mega-brewery of 75,000 hl for Franciscan Well during 2016.

Carlow5Carlow had to export over 50% of their production to stay above water and Porterhouse slowly built up a pub estate of their own to sell their beer. That was the only way they survived. Around five years ago there were still less than 20 breweries in the country. Almost unbelievably there are in 2016 around eighty! Whether they will all survive is debatable but the market has changed considerably very quickly indeed.

So, back on the morning of 16th September 2003 myself and wife Linda alighted from a train at Carlow station and went across to the brewery. Being a party of two, the only reason we were accommodated was that they were also hosting a group from Austria. This was obviously a section of a package tour by coach. They weren’t very interested. However, we were and remained after their departure.

The brewer was obviously very proud of O’Hara’s Stout and led us to a fermentation vessel and he tapped it in its natural state into each of our pint glasses.

Carlow6He explained that the contents were to be bottled and exported to the USA the following day. This beer was absolutely sublime, a true Irish dry stout. Everything that Guinness ought to be, but isn’t. After another two we finally left. What a great lunchtime that was!

So fast forward to 2016. I was in Dublin and had a completely free day. I contacted the brewery to see if a visit was possible. I was very lucky and they were able to host me at 16.30 on a Friday afternoon. I headed out of Dublin on the 13.15 train for the one hour and twenty minute journey to Bagenalstown. I had a bit of time to kill, so visited a couple of old and interesting pubs in the town. But sadly, I had to drink Guinness.

After a taxi ride out to the brewery; it is located on an out of town trading estate, I was greeted by Dan Grummell, the company’s Marketing Manager. I was given safety spectacles and a hi-vi vest and taken to meet Conor Donahue, the Head Brewer. We started the tour at the main brew house which also contains the bottling and kegging plant along with some of the fermentation vessels.

Carlow7The brewery equipment was manufactured by BrewTech in Canada. That is what the name on it indicates, see photo above right. Conor said it was of 50 hectolitre (hl) capacity, which equates to about 30 UK barrels (bbls). They have 22 fermentation vessels, 4 are 75hl, 16 hold 150hl and two more of 210hl. They are dual purpose and can be used for both primary and secondary fermentations.

He went on to explain that the company made the move from Carlow to the present site in 2009 and had experienced continual growth since then.

Carlow8They produced around 25,000hl during 2015 and were on target to increase that to about 30,000hl during 2016. There is a 50% split between domestic consumption and exports. The split is also about 50/50 between kegs and bottles.

They brew using a stepped infusion system lasting for about one and a half hours overall. Apart from the Lagers and Wheat beers, the same strain of yeast is used.

There is a primary fermentation followed by a second maturation. The time is variable according to the type of beer.

Carlow9They use a mixture of Irish and English malts. Most of the Irish malts come from the Minch maltings of Athy in nearby Co Kildare, which I visited in 2015. However the darker malts are all from Fawcett’s of Castleford, West Yorkshire.

Since the Bagenalstown brewery opened in 2009 they have increased their exports and now serve approximately thirty countries and currently have around forty employees.

Conor explained that the revived Irish beer market was demanding new interpretations of classic styles and also new beers with strong and distinctive tastes.

In 2015 they brewed twelve special beers, predominately for the bottle and when I visited (May 2016) they were already up to eight!

As we walked around the brewery he stopped by one of the fermentation vessels and tapped a little beer from it into a plastic glass. I had wondered why he was carrying them around!

Carlow10It was White IPA created using Belgian yeast and was the next in their “New Releases” series. I thought it was good, the bitter IPA taste was finished off with a typically strong Belgian after-taste.

I then tried another new beer: Free Bird. This I was told was for keg and bottle.

We then tasted a third from the vessel and this was Foreign Extra Stout (7.0%). It was the third in a series entitled “Lublin to Dublin” brewed in collaboration with the Pinta brewery of Lublin in eastern Poland.

This series of beers feature Polish malt along with Irish and English hops. Previous releases have been Milk Stout (6.0%) in 2015 and Oatmeal Stout (6.0%) in 2014, all brewed in Ireland. I loved it.

Carlow11The brewery’s regular range of beers is as follows: Irish Stout (4.3%); Irish Red (4.3%), Irish Pale Ale (5.2%); Leann Folláin Extra Irish Stout (6.0%); Curim (4.3%), a wheat beer; Double IPA (7.5%) with 80 IBU! and Irish Lager in the Münchner style.

All are available in bottle and keg, and if you’re lucky, occasionally in cask.

Then there are the Specials and many of them. Note that those mentioned below are only the examples that were current when I visited.

They were Imperial Stout (10%) which celebrated the company’s twentieth anniversary in 2016; Barrel-Aged Stout (8.1%), matured in old whiskey barrels; Notorious Red IPA (5.0%) which I believe is a Red Ale/IPA crossover, and OpSession (4.0%) which is a hoppy session beer.

Carlow12Another series of special beers is the Hop Adventure range. These each use a separate single hop variety.

Those being promoted during spring 2016 were Hop Adventure Aramis, using the hop of the same name from the Alsace region of France.

There was also Hop Adventure Galaxy, which is an Australian hop and finally Hop Adventure Sorachi, a single hop beer. Sorachi Ace is an American-grown hop that originated in Japan.

Whilst most of these special beers are destined for the bottle they will also be found on keg, especially in their own pub, Brewery Corner in Kilkenny (See separate article in BeerVisits).

One more special beer was also a collaboration with another brewer. In this case the Starr Hill brewery of Crozet, Virginia, USA. Conor went to America to brew Foreign Affair (4.8%). This was a Red IPA which used Irish malt and US Falconer’s Flight hops. I have never heard of this variety previously.

Carlow13They have a range of regular draught beers, some of which are not available in bottle. These are Blonde (4.3%); Red Ale (4.3%); Spring Saison (4.4%); Dunkelweizen (5.0%) and Hop Heavy IPA (5.5%).

When I told Conor about my visit to the old Carlow brewery and the imbibing of Stout from a fermentation tank he went around the brewery to see if it could be done again but alas, no.

We then repaired to the first floor bar with its views out over the brewery. Here I met up with Seamus O’Hara, the owner, who had just finished a meeting.

Yet again, I had to mention the excellent previous visit and thanked him for this one. He said that the old Goods Shed premises was still vacant and thought it would make a good start-up location for a new small brewing venture. I was then offered a bottle of Stout, so I got to sup some after all! Dan had returned so I was able to congratulate Conor and him for hosting such a wonderful tour around the brewery.

Unexpectedly, they provided some excellent gifts; a T-Shirt, and two branded glasses along with a sizeable quantity of bottled beer. This was eagerly consumed by Patrick, Russell and Steve, the usual suspects, on the steam-hauled special train from Dublin to Westport the following day. They pronounced Notorious Red and Double IPA the joint winners of the non-existent “Best Beer of the Journey” award.

Carlow14The details and text within this article and the images have been approved by the company. This visit to Carlow Brewing Co. was arranged privately. However it is possible to visit the premises on organised tours. These are on certain Thursdays. Please contact the brewery for further details.