The O'Hara Identity

Ireland's Carlow Brewing has used an award-winning stout, a classic red ale and (of all things) a wheat beer to carve out its niche in a changing market

by Jack Curtin
Oct/Nov 2005

Seamus O'Hara, for whom the growing popularity of wheat beers around the world has become a matter of some importance, first discovered the style in San Francisco in the early Nineties, but damned if he can remember where. "It was a small brewpub in San Francisco, but I didn't take note at the time," he recalls. "I can tell you that the many distinctive beers at various brewpubs in US cities I visited on that trip are what turned me on to microbrewing originally, along with Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada, Harpoon and Anchor Steam."

Not long after, in 1997, O'Hara, a biotechnologist by trade, leased a site and, with his brothers, founded Carlow Brewing in the village of the same name in their native Ireland. In a way, they were linking themselves to Irish history. Carlow is located about 50 miles south of Dublin, on the Barrow River, in agricultural country with reputedly the best soil in all of Ireland. This was once the traditional heartland of the Irish brewing industry and malted barley and hops were farmed extensively in the area, supported by the many old malting and grain mills that are still prevalent in the landscape. At one time there were five breweries in town.

Brother Eammon helped him get things started, but has since relocated to Brussels; Carlow Brewing, however, definitely remains an O'Hara family enterprise. Kay O'Hara, who married Seamus after the brewery was founded, is in charge of international sales (and domestic sales too at present, until a new employee can be found); sister Siobban Murphy handles bookkeeping and administration, and another brother, Michael, is the head brewer. The brothers' father, Michael, assists with deliveries occasionally and an uncle, Terrance, did most of the structural work necessary to create the brewery in what was originally the warehouse for the Carlow train station.

Seated at the bar in the Carlow Brewing Tasting Room:
Head Brewer Michael O'Hara, Administrator Siobban
Murphy, Director of International Sales Kay O'Hara,
Managing Director Seamus O'Hara.

The first beers were released in 1998 and were formulated by Seamus, then brewer Brendan Flannigan (now in Australia) and Liam McKenna (now with Brass Neck Brewing in Toronto). Of all the many things which make Carlow Brewing distinctive among Irish breweries, the most striking may be this: they did not have a stout among those initial releases, but they did include a wheat. "We knew that, as an Irish brewery, we had to do a stout," laughs Seamus, "but it took just a bit longer to develop it into the beer we wanted it to be. The other two beers were ready first." The "other two" were-and still are-Moling's Traditional Celtic Beer and Curim Celtic Gold. Moling's is a red ale named for St. Moling, who founded the historic St. Mullin's Monastery in the area in the 7th century; Curim is the wheat, its name derived from the old Gaelic curim ceo, meaning "party" or "celebration."

Both new brews were successful from the start and developed a cult following among the new breed of Irish drinkers. Neatly enough, when O'Hara's Celtic Stout finally appeared six months later, it significantly enhanced Carlow's already solid reputation. In April 2000, a 33-man panel of "international brewing experts" selected it as the world's best stout over 74 competing products at the Millennium Brewing Industry International Awards. It was, in fact, a double win. O'Hara's was named Champion Stout in the International Dark Milds, Stouts and Porters competition and given the Gold Medal in its category for beers between 4.2 and 6.9% abv.

In less official tastings since, O'Hara's Stout was also chosen "top brew" in a magazine sampling of a variety of beers from the UK, Belgium and Germany in 2001 and it and Curim Gold were the top vote-getters in a tasting of Irish microbrews in a another magazine sampling in 2002. Curim is no slouch in the praise and awards department either: Michael Jackson reportedly called it one of the world's "ten best wheat beers" when it took a silver medal in the Independent Irish Brewers Competition in 2004.

The former rail station which houses Carlow Brewing was built in 1850 from locally quarried stone and still has its original slate roof and ceiling rafters. It is still known locally as "The Goods Store" because so many items used to be stored there.

The brewhouse is a 15-hectoliter system built by Criveller BrewTech of Canada, including a steam boiler, kettle and mash tun with steam jackets to facilitate temperature control, a grist mill, three 15-hectoliter fermentation tanks and a conditioning and bright beer tank in the cold room. Everything is done manually and production is one to two batches, 30 kegs or 40 casks, "per fortnight." This includes most of the draft beer for the Irish market and specialty cask ales which are pre-sold to local accounts or exported to accounts in the UK where they are resold to British pubs as "guest beers." Carlow also does annual winter beers for customers in the UK and Finland.

The brewery features a marvelous bar/tasting room, the ideal place to fully appreciate the range of Carlow beers. I was there as part of a traveling group of Americans in May and although I had to endure the humiliation of an inglorious tumble and long muddy slide down a hillside in a graveyard at, where else, the St. Mullin's Heritage Center (much to the amusement of my comrades, although I suspect that somewhere my Irish forbearers shifted rather uncomfortably on their celestial pub stools), I'd willingly endure that again to re-sample Emerald Isle, a cask ale nicely fortified with Challenger and Willamette hops, and, most especially, Keltz. Keltz is an unfiltered version of Curim, made with significant quantities of whole and torrified wheat. It is out-and-out delicious, although currently available only at the brewery and a small number of local accounts. Seamus says production may be ramped up if reaction continues to be as favorable as it has.

Carlow's bottle and keg product for export (and some additional draft) are brewed at the Beamish and Crawford Brewery in Cork. Beer from there is also used in the periodic filling of a 280-hectoliter tanker which carries it to England for bottling there. "We provide Beamish with our flaked barley and flaked barley malt so that the beer is brewed to our specifications," Seamus stressed. All Carlow beers from both locations are around 4.3%, in keeping with Irish drinkers' preference for session style beers, and are made with a British ale yeast, flaked barley and wheat (only a small amount to aid head retention in everything but Curim).

Somewhere between 65 to 70% of sales are export, with Denmark currently being the largest customer, mostly because Carlow's London importer went out of business and they are still ramping back up in that market. The brewery switched its U.S. import business to Colorado's Distinguished Brands International last year and the stout and red ale (labeled O'Hara's Red rather than Moling's) are currently available. "The U.S. is very important for our future," says Seamus. "We would expect it to be in the region of 50% of our export sales as things develop. We hope to add the wheat beer to the mix eventually."

At home, in a complicated market (wine is growing, stout is declining, lager now accounts for nearly half all beer sales), Carlow is trying like position O'Hara as Ireland's "premium" stout, between Guinness (mainstream) and Beamish (cheap) and build on the proven appeal of Curim and Moling's. Seamus suggests that changing lifestyles in the country are among the key's to the brewery's future. "More people are staying at home because of rising prices, higher mortgages and the fact that nearly everybody is working these days, so they have to get up in the morning," he points out, "so we're concentrating considerable effort on the off-trade (take home) market and are experimenting with mixed six-packs.

"When people do go out these days, they go out to eat and drink, not just to drink and they're paying more attention to the quality of what they drink. Given the traditional appeal of stouts, we hope that O'Hara's, which has more body and flavor than Guinness or others which have been dumbed down to compete with lager, catches their attention. We work hard to have it served at as many weddings and other celebratory events as we can in order to show people that it is an ideal beer for special occasions."

Copyright (c) 2005 Jack Curtin

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