O Brother

Three brothers breaking the mould in the Irish craft beer scene


One of several absolutely first class Irish breweries to make a splash in the UK over the past few years, O Brother makes few concessions to the brewing traditions of its native land, and is instead a proudly modern acolyte of its hop-forward, big flavoured heroes overseas. 

The brewery’s Barry O’Neill says: “The whole reason we set the brewery up was to brew beer that wasn’t available in Ireland, that we were having to import to drink ourselves. Breweries like Sierra Nevada, Founders, and the original punk IPA at the time – this was around 2011. At that time there were I think 15 breweries in Ireland, all just brewing the holy trinity of stout, red ale and the golden ale. So we were like ‘Jesus, you know, why are we having to buy imported beer? Surely somebody in Ireland should be doing this’.”

The Chancer, in this month’s box, was O Brother’s inaugural brew, though the recipe has evolved over time to become less stridently bitter and add some softer, dry hopped fruity and floral notes. 

“It was obviously inspired by the original Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and Dale’s Pale Ale, that we could get our hands on from time to time,” says Barry. “And then, over the course of the past six years or so, it’s changed in line with the market and also with our own drinking preferences. As a small brewery, we haven’t always had the widest choice of hops, so back in the day it would have been predominantly a Cascade base. That’s improved a lot since, so we’ve been able to evolve The Chancer from what was essentially an IPA to a proper, crushable day-to-day pale, with hops like El Dorado, Ekuanot and Idaho-7.”

As well as its brewing styles, Barry is also a great admirer of the broader US beer culture, in particular the importance it places on brewery taprooms. Ireland’s licensing laws, like its tied pub system, are pretty regressive and make it exceptionally difficult for breweries who aren’t Guinness or Heineken to get so much as a toe-hold in the on-trade space, even if they want to create a bar of their own.

“The US has a fantastic model, a bit like yourselves in the UK, where they have the taprooms they can invite people into, they can brew small batches of different things and try them out in real time. They can brew a saison… they can brew four saisons with different fruit and still sell out the whole bloody lot through the taproom! Rich, our head brewer, used to work in California, so he has all these fantastic recipes in his head: Earl Grey ESB, 90 shilling ales and stuff like that. But you’ve got a commercial reality where everything we brew has to be pretty sure-fire, particularly as we do so much export,” says Barry.

“The other dimension to that is breweries in Ireland still don’t get the kind of local support and loyalty that other businesses get. A lot of people here are very loyal to Guinness, even though it’s not actually an Irish company, and are generally really proud of anything they see as local. Because we can’t have taprooms, it’s very difficult for us to build up that kind of connection, which I think would give us a huge boost; you certainly see that in the UK and US markets.”

While O Brother has clearly drawn its inspiration from the US – as so many have – I’m curious about whether Barry still sees the craft movement as a whole being American-led.

“Oh I think a lot of the time when we talk about ‘American-style’ brewing now it’s really shorthand for ‘modern beer’,” he replies. “But equally, anybody who is producing that modern beer really has to credit the US with inspiration in some shape or form. But you can go all over the world and find people doing brilliant things now. Some of the breweries coming out of Spain – Basqueland and stuff like that – and some in the UK too, they’re brewing these styles in a way that’s every bit as good as you’ll find in the US.

“Now, you look at the really top breweries in the US today, and they’re kind of saying ‘okay, we want to start producing mix ferm and Lambic styles’. So they’re actually going back to stuff that’s been around for hundreds of years, using techniques that are more like winemaking. So it’s almost come full circle, but who knows where that’ll go next?”

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