Why drinking from local Irish breweries & distilleries matters

Over the last dozen years or so, we have seen a dramatic increase in new breweries and distilleries in Ireland. Most of these are what’s called microbreweries or microdistilleries. This essentially means they produce small batches and are independent businesses. This is more-or-less in line with similar trends around the world. The craft beer and real ale movements may have started in the USA and UK in the 1970s, but a lot of countries now have their own craft beer scene.

Drink Irish #DrinkIrish. 12 Acres Beer In Kavanaghs Pub Portlaoise
A pint of beer from 12 Acres, an Irish microbrewery

We often hear people talking about supporting local, Irish, independent or micro breweries, distilleries or cideries. But what does this really mean, and why would you care? The “why” is not something you’ll hear about very often. If you’re happy with your usual tipple, then why bother trying anything else? Does it really matter if something is local or independent? Does it matter if it’s a microbrewery? And these drinks are usually more expensive — why spend more?

This post attempts to answer those questions. It starts with a brief introduction to what each of the terms mentioned above means. There’s a section on why each of these matters. It ends by answering why it’s worth spending that little bit extra.

What does “microbrewery”, “craft”, “independent” etc mean?

Some brief descriptions of each of the terms mentioned in the introduction:

Independent
A brewery is considered independent if it is economically independent of other businesses, less than 25% of it is owned by other businesses and it doesn’t own greater than 25% of any other business.
Microbrewery
In Ireland, a microbrewery is defined as one that produces no more than 50,000 hectolitres (approx. 31,000 barrels) of beer and is an independent business. Microbreweries are often referred to as “craft breweries”.
Craft brewery
More or less a synonym of microbrewery. The word “craft” implies better quality ingredients, process and end product.
Microdistillery
There is no official definition of a microdistillery, but you can think of it in the same vein as a microbrewery.
Local
Obviously this one can be interpreted in different ways, but let’s say “local” is any brewery in the same county as you, or within around 20 miles of where you are.
Irish
A brewery located in Ireland (the 32 counties of course!).

Why do small producers matter?

Imagine you’re in the pub and have the usual beer choices from big breweries, but also some from small local breweries or distilleries. What difference does it make which you choose? Let’s say both are brewed in Ireland, with an Irish workforce and with Irish ingredients. On the face of it, there might not seem to be much difference, but there are some points to consider.

Employment

Firstly, smaller producers tend to employ more people than larger ones. For instance, microbreweries employed an estimated 522 people in Ireland in 2018. This figure represents approximately ½ of the total number of people employed by the brewing industry in Ireland. That number is quite impressive when you consider that microbreweries only account for 2.6% of the beer consumed in Ireland. One good reason to choose a drink from small brewery or distillery.

Another aspect of this is that the jobs are more spread around the country. Breweries, distilleries and cider mills have spread to all corners of Ireland — from small rural farms to busy city centres. While a large brewery or distillery can be a great source of employment in a town, small producers offer jobs in areas that may not otherwise have similar positions. This is especially important when you consider that Cork IT and IT Carlow now have brewing and distilling courses. Supporting these businesses means more regional jobs for these graduates. It also means more competition for jobs in general, which can only be a good thing. This is one of the reasons why it’s good to choose local drinks.

Competition and variety

Speaking of competition, small producers provide more competition in the general marketplace. And that’s not just competition between similar producers with similar drinks. Independent breweries and distilleries usually offer something different from your usual tipple. That variety is important because it drives creativity and offers the consumer more choice.

Independent breweries and distilleries have the freedom to develop the beers and spirits they are passionate about. Cutting costs and increasing margins are not always at the forefront of their minds. Their independence breeds creativity, which in turn leads to innovation. We would not have the range of beer and spirit styles we have today were it not for innovation.

All good reasons to choose from independent breweries and distilleries.

Taste

As touched on above, one of the reasons people choose these drinks is because they generally taste better. Their production involves using better quality ingredients and a more meticulous brewing process. There are many different styles of beers today. Both newly created ones and old forgotten styles brought back to life with a modern take. Not all styles are to everyone’s taste. However, more variety and quality make finding something you like easier. Another reason to choose drinks from small local producers.

Why spend more?

One thing that might hold you back from buying these drinks is the higher price. Given that they are made in small batches using better ingredients, it’s understandable that they come at a price. In some cases, the price of craft beer is actually around the same or only marginally more than commercial beer. For example, in pubs, the price difference is usually less pronounced. There are also some brands of beer brewed exclusively for supermarkets that are competitive on price. Affordable choices for beer and spirits is something worth expanding on in its own post. Watch this space!

With that being said, it’s still true that drinks from microbreweries and distilleries are generally more expensive. If you can’t afford the extra cost, that’s totally understandable. However, if you can afford to spend even a fraction of your booze money on drinks from a small producer, I would encourage you to do so.

Every drink you buy from small local breweries, cider mills and distilleries matters. Every single one.

Small producers can’t afford to advertise. They rely on word of mouth and social media to increase visibility on their brand. As you can imagine, this is difficult to do. Therefore, every drink you buy means a lot more to them than it does to the big multi-national companies. As mentioned above, even if you just buy one or two pints of local beer or on a night out, and then move onto your usual beer, it still makes a difference. Even if people only have the odd pint from local breweries, it can mean the difference between that pub keeping the beer on tap and getting rid of it. The same goes for the local whiskey, gin, cider etc.

This applies to drinking at home too. Any bottles or cans you can afford to add to your trolley all count.

Beer, cider, whiskey, gin or even mead from small Irish producers also make great gifts. It’s a good idea to give someone something different from what they usually drink. Choose something close to what they’re used to drinking to make the transition easier. It’s a great way to support small producers while giving that person something a bit different for their birthday.

In summary…

Every brewery and distillery has its place. The intent of this post isn’t to demean large commercial breweries. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a good pint of Guinness, Heineken or whatever well-known beer you enjoy. But there’s also a lot of merit in supporting the little guy.

I’m lucky to have two fantastic breweries in the same county I live in (Laois). These are 12 Acres (Killeshin) and Ballykilcavan (near Stradbally). Walsh’s distillery is not far either, who create some fantastic whiskey. Wherever you live, go find out what your local breweries or distilleries are. Look for them in your local pub or shop. If you don’t see them, ask for them. Always ask. Nothing will ever change unless publicans and shop owners know there’s a demand for them.

Increasing support for local breweries and distilleries is slow progress. But, one drink at a time — one person at a time — we can all make a difference.