The two Irish beer fans lowered their voices and spoke almost in awe. They had been looking through the windows of the new JD Wetherspoon pub in the upmarket Dublin suburb of Blackrock, due to open its doors for the first time this Tuesday. “It’s got TWELVE handpumps!”, they said. That is twice as many as any pub in the Irish Republic has ever had before – and even that pub only had four handpumps actually working at any one time. Indeed, according to one (unverified) estimate, the 12 handpumps at the new ‘Spoons, the company’s first in the Republic, will boost the total number of working handpumps in the entire country by 33 per cent.
Is Ireland ready for a 12-handpump ‘Spoons? I was last in Dublin all of eight years ago, when the beer scene was still pretty dire. Since then, the country has seen a London-like explosion in the number of craft beer breweries, from a small handful to around 40 (indeed, one of the newest – N17 – actually sounds as if it ought to be in London, though it’s named after the road that runs from Galway to Sligo, and the brewery is in Tuam, rather than Tottenham).
Accompanying that has been a boom in the availability of craft beer: yes, Guinness, Budweiser and Smithwick’s are still ubiquitous, but if you’ve got the excellent Beoirfinder app, you’ve got a good chance of tracking a pub or bar with at least something more interesting on tap. And there are now bars, such as Brew Dock in Amiens Street, Dublin, near Connolly station, where the bar top has more than 20 craft keg taps, selling beers from the United States and Britain as well as Ireland.
If you can discover a working handpump anywhere, though, it’s likely to be just the one, and you could find, as I did in the Alfie Byrne bar in Dublin last Sunday, that the beer on the one handpump is almost irritatingly familiar – in this case Fuller’s London Pride. I can drink that 10 minutes’ walk from my house. Ironically, many great old Irish pubs still have a row of “policeman’s truncheon”-style handpump handles on the bartop, but they’ve not been used for 50 years. As soon as Guinness perfected the nitro-serve for draught stout, in the early 1960s, keg beer immediately replaced cask from Bantry Bay to the Derry quay, and from Galway to Dublin Town. (It was that dire situation, of course, that helped inspire them four fellas on holiday in the Republic in 1971 to form the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale.)
What there seems to be in Ireland, thus, is a drinking population, certainly among the young (meaning under 35, I think) that is increasingly aware of the existence of this thing called “craft beer” and increasingly able to find it in a wider and wider variety of forms, but pretty much unused to seeing handpumps in operation and equally unused to drinking beer as delivered from a handpump: softly carbonated rather than sodawater-fizzy, and cellar-cool rather than chilled. Now, we may see the “Hong Kong effect” here, where young Hongkongers went abroad to study, became exposed to great craft beer in places like the United States, and came home to HK to demand the same exciting range of brews they had found in New York, Washington and San Francisco. Perhaps enough young Irish people have now crossed the Irish Sea and tried cask ale in Britain that their throats are desperate for it and the crowds will be pushing down the doors of the Three Tun pub in Blackrock when it opens on Tuesday, eager for a drop from the handpump. But I’ve now been in Dublin twice in the past two months, and despite seeing at least one “craft” beer on sale in many bars, there seems zero evidence of huge untapped (pun semi-intended) interest for cask ale..
Certainly, though, Wetherspoon’s is confident that the demand is there. John Hutson, the company’s chief executive, told Propel Info, the company I work for, earlier this week: “There will be 12 hand-pulls with real ale from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as local and regional beers. Cask ale is nowhere near as commonplace in southern Ireland as here. But it’s something that we’ve always championed. We’ve taken the view that Dublin is an international city and there is an expectation that we will serve cask ale. I was in Dublin last week and my taxi driver told me that he always drinks cask ale when he’s in Scotland and visits our pubs. I also remember opening our second or third Scottish pub in Paisley and a customer collared me and suggested we serve London Pride [rather than just local cask ale]. So the idea is to serve great UK cask ales.”
The pub won’t be selling draught Guinness, doubtless because Guinness charges too much, but it will have the two Cork stouts, Beamish and Murphy’s, and also a line-up of Irish craft brewers. Among the local beers on sale will be Tom Crean’s Irish Lager from the Dingle Brewing Company, Rebel Red from the Molson Coors-owned microbrewer Franciscan Well in Cork, and beers from Eight Degrees Brewing in Mitchelstown, County Cork, including Howling Gale, Knockmealdown Porter and Barefoot Bohemian Pilsner.
I was in Dublin last week for the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference, an excellent event of which more later, and the general feeling among Irish brewers and commentators at the conference seemed to be that the Irish beer scene is still a long way from the sort of mature market that the UK represents in terms of consumer awareness and choice. Dean McGuinness of Premier Beers, who tweets as Beer Messiah, said craft beer in Ireland was still “in its adolescence”, and in the same position as craft beer was in the United States was in the early 1990s. Recalling my own visit to California in the early 1990s, I’d say it was still not as good as that: even in small towns in Northern California 20 years ago you could find great craft beer bars. I don’t believe Ireland has reached that stage yet. But it’s certainly far better than it was: as Shane Long, founder of Franciscan Well, remarked, when he started out brewing in 1998, the Irish craft beer scene was “a barren wasteland”.
While Ireland has been seeing the same trend towards drinking at home rather than in a bar that the UK has, Irish people are still rather more likely to down their pints down the pub instead of behind their own front door than the British are. So it makes sense for Wetherspoon to move into the Irish market, in terms of potential customers: each new Irish ‘Spoons will have more pub-goers in a given radius than any new UK ‘Spoons. The Three Tun, which is costing £1.9m to develop, on top of the £1.27m it cost to buy the site in the first place, is only the first of what are likely to be many JDW pubs in the Republic: it is currently spending another £1.2m doing up the former Newport Cafe site in Cork, it has its eye on the 40 Foot, a pub in Dun Laoghaire, just south of Blackrock, and the company has claimed that it could open between 30 and 50 pubs in the Republic over the coming decade.
Ireland is not England, and it would be a big mistake to think that English pub culture will automatically work in an Irish environment, but Wetherspoon are far from stupid, and they have put in a manager at the Three Tun, John Hartigan, who previously ran a Wetherspoon pub in Islington, North London, but who is Irish by birth and upbringing – and thus, presumably, knows the important cultural differences between the two sorts of establishments, English pubs and Irish pubs. (You think there’s no difference? OK, here’s a genuine Irish joke for you. An American is staying in a hotel in Dublin, and he comes down in the morning and says to the young fella on the front desk: “Say, can I smell gas?”, to which the young Irishman replies: “That’ll be the gas – it smells like that.” Irish people find that hilarious. Other nations don’t get it.)
Northern Ireland has nine Wetherspoon pubs, of which a remarkable eight are in the 2014 Good Beer Guide. However, the biggest number of handpumps in any one seems to be the 10 in the Diamond in Derry, while the Bridge House in Belfast, the largest cask ale pub in the province, only has eight handpumps. So it looks as if when it opens this Tuesday, the Three Tun will have more handpumps that anywhere else in the whole island. Will they all be still dispensing beer in a year’s time?