They say the best ideas are generated over a pint with friends. They also say some of the best products were born in a basement or garage. These are universal truths (insert artistic licence here). Imagine then an idea that was first mooted over a pint of mass market commercial beer in a local bar and later formed in the basement of that same local bar. The end product of such a partnership is bound to be a thing of pure joy.
And so here I am, on a wet and wild March morning overlooking beautiful Baltimore bay in the basement of Casey’s of Baltimore. I’ve been met by Dominic Casey, one third of the West Cork Brewing Company, and he’s in great form. “Follow me” he says. “Kevin’s about to start a brew.”
Walking down to the brewery is an event in itself. It’s a day that can only be described as soft, and we’ve been taken out the back past reception, past the loo’s, through the restaurant and now I’m back out in the rain. Down the garden path, hang a left and rising before you is a gabled entrance with a slip way into the self contained basement under the Hotel. Welcome to the home of Sherkin Lass Pale Ale and Roaring Ruby Red Ale, West Cork’s very own boutique craft brewery.
Kevin Waugh is the Master Brewer here – the Brewery’s Michaelangelo to their Davidesque cask perfected craft beers. He looks excited, or maybe it’s fear. There must be a definite amount of trepidation each time a brew is being prepared when you are a craft brewery, and at 200ltrs per brew, little to no margin for error. Seems to me Michealangelo has quite a burden to carry on his shoulders.
There is a third person in the team, Henry Thornhill. I am assured he exists by both Dominic and Kevin although unfortunately he wasn’t available for today’s visit – or the day before, a gloriously sunny day, when Kevin and Dominic took a bottle of Sherkin and Roaring out on the Baltimore headland for a bit of a photoshoot. They didn’t want Henry to feel left out so they photoshopped him into one of the pictures thus:
I wonder if I would recognise him if we passed each other on the street – he looks kinda…unique…
“Let’s have a beer” Dominic proclaims. It would be rude to refuse says I. In the meantime, Kevin takes us over to the brewing area and whips out his trusty digital thermometer. “The most important bit of kit – it is so important to get the temperature right before putting in the brew mix – I’m looking for 65.5 degrees celsius, it drops quite a bit when the mix goes in, you see.” Beside the tank are two buckets and a sack which make up the mix ingredients, each element weighed out exactly to their own recipe. On the brewing schedule for this week is the Roaring Ruby Red Ale.
Sourcing the ingredients they need in the quantities they require for a small scale brewery in Ireland is not an easy task. Some of the ingredients are sourced directly from the same home brew suppliers that the likes of you and I would go to for our homebrew attempts. For other ingredients, such as the grain, the lads can source their 25kg bags of grain (which just happens to be the exact amount needed per brew) from the Malting Company in Cork which has recognised that there is a market for smaller quantity sacks of grain for micro and nano craft breweries, milling and shipping in quick succession meaning that the brewers are getting super fresh milled grains for each brew. However, this does make sourcing of the raw ingredients very costly indeed. Add to this the cost of electricity, water (300 litres of water is required to make 200 litres of beer, plus extra for cleaning down after each brew) and the labour it takes to make a hand crafted beer and quickly you see that for a brewery this size, at this stage, it’s a pure labour of love. In terms of cost to the consumer, at €4.90 a pint or €2.70 a glass for a pump poured beer it is incredibly well priced. Dominic explains that aside from wanting to make a profit, their first goal is to make the beer accessible enough for people to want take a punt on parting with their money and give their craft beer a go. It’s a strategy that seems to be working as one by one they are converting the loyal commercial beer drinker to their craft offering, and what’s more they are not turning back.
But be under no illusions. This isn’t three lads tinkering around with a homebrew kit to try and make a few bob on some beer they made in their parents’ basement. No. It’s taken a whole year of planning, brewing, hard slog, shoe-string budgets and proper analysis of the make up of their brew to create a product they are very proud of. Even the water they use from a natural spring was pH tested, found to be a little too acidic requiring the addition of a special combination of salts to the brew mix to make the spring water a little more alkali, all contributing to the flavour of the end brew. As with wine, there is a terroir property to craft beer. Certainly that is the case with the West Cork Brewing Company. The fact that they use water from a spring that occurs naturally in very close proximity to the brew site means that the beer instantly has its own unique properties that has an effect on the final taste of the beer. The particular mix of grains, salts and other ingredients adds to that terroir property of the final finished brew to make it synonymous with its place of origin.
So what about the beers? The brewery has two offerings for now: an American Style Pale Ale (Sherkin Lass) and a rich Red Ale (Roaring Ruby Red). Both come in at 4.4% ABV. The brewery make one brew per week.
Sherkin Lass is a beautiful golden beer with strong citrussy notes on the nose, particularly grapefruit. It is only lightly hopped, which is great for me as I am not a big fan of the heavily scented and bitter American Pale Ale’s, and its delicate taste means it could easily be a session beer, with the ABV being perfectly manageable too. It has a clean, fruity taste with great carbonation that trips lightly off the tongue. For me, there is definitely a honey property to the long taste which is pleasant indeed and helps to ease the overtly citrus flavours so that they don’t become bitter over the course of drinking the pint. For all its lightness though, this is a great tasting beer with plenty of nuance to keep the aficionado happy.
Roaring Ruby Red is a dark red ale with a fabulously contrasting head. It is sweet and inviting on the nose with a deeply mellow flavour rounded with chocolate and caramel on the pallet and a gentle bitter tang reminiscent slightly of orange zest on the long taste to cut through the sweetness. It is light on the tongue, despite its ABV, and will be an absolute hit on warm sunny evenings and a definite session ale. An absolute delight, and my favourite of the two. It goes down exceedingly well.
So Dominic, Henry (who does exist, really, see photo below!) and Kevin are brewing something special in Baltimore. They are great friends that met whilst in college and have a long standing friendship and a great camaraderie between them which shines through in the fun they are having brewing. Yeah, it is hard work, and each one of them have other jobs that they do in addition to this, but they are being bouyed along by the positive reaction to their products. Recently, the lads were at the Franciscan Well Cask Beer Festival in Cork City and sold their entire supply of both beers before the close of the first day! Currently, the only place you can buy the beer is in the bar of Casey’s in Baltimore, but you can catch them again at the Franciscan Well Easter Beer Fest on 4th and 5th April and this they promise to bring enough beer for both days, but if I were you, I’d get down there early anyway, just to be sure!
And what of the future for the West Cork Brewing Company since their official launch on 13th December 2014? The dream is to be able to brew in greater quantities and supply near and far. Already they are looking at new larger locations to increase their brewing capacity whilst keeping the original brewery at Casey’s as an R&D facility as well as hosting tours and tastings for tourists and other craft beer enthusiasts. They also have an eco-eye on what they are doing. The mash waste product is reused as much as possible: in cookies, unique brown bread and other yummy things to eat in the restaurant of Casey’s and also as pig feed (pigs love beer mash, and it means that the pigs provide us with a special tasting bacon product too, so everyone is happy).
West Cork Brewing Company’s future is bright, if not a little beer-blurry! No doubt in my mind that these beers will be the ones to sup once the heady hazy days of summer are upon us; looking out over Baltimore Bay listening to music and enjoying the craic with friends. It’s not like you’d need an excuse to go to Baltimore anyway, it’s just that now there an extra reason – a frothy headed reason. It’s all good, though you just might want to book in and stay for the night…or the next. Shur, what else would you be doing anyway?
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