The tiny, hyper-local brewery that's this year's Hagstravaganza headliner
Saturday 30 July 2022
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There’s been a lot of talk over the past couple of years about the importance of breweries’ local markets. Everyone wants to support the guy down the road, because things have been tough, and for a lot of the time we’ve basically been confined to walking distance anyway. For Dick Mack’s Brewhouse though, this was less of a lockdown revelation and more of a long-standing business model.
So successful has this approach been, that brewery founder Aussie Barrett needed his arm twisted to even go to Hagstravaganza (“why go all the way up to Sligo?”) let alone brew enough for hordes of Beer52 members in a whole other country. Lucky for us, The White Hag’s Bob Coggins is very persuasive, and has essentially made Dick Mack’s his headline act for this year’s festival. And rightly so.
When we say Dick Mack’s has a strong local market, we mean it is basically ubiquitous on the Dingle Penninsula; no mean feat when most breweries are doing well to chip away at the Guinness/Heineken hegemony bar-by-bar.
“Have you ever been to Dingle?” asks Aussie. No, sadly, I haven’t. “Ah you really should, next time you’re over. Anyway, the town is basically on a hill, and the brewery is at the top. I joke that when we deliver kegs to the local pubs and hotels, all I really need to do is push them down the hill. Except it’s not really a joke – I really have done deliveries with a handcart. That’s what I mean by a local market.”
Although they’re separate businesses, the brewery takes its name from Dick Mack’s pub, in whose back store room it all started. It was the perfect spot for Aussie when he decided to strike out on his own after a couple of years brewing with the team at the nearby West Kerry Brewery (with whom he is still great friends).
“Every town in Ireland has a Brewery Road or Brewery Street, but no brewery; they used to be there before the big guys took over everything. So the idea of starting a brewery was to kind of bring back that tradition, to serve the local community. We started out very small, with a 500-litre brew kit and three small 1000-litre fermenters. All our beers are named for Dingle, and Dick Mack’s was our flagship location. And we all just chipped away over the years.
“There’s a really nice network of breweries here in Ireland. There’s a lot fewer craft breweries here, obviously, then over with you guys, but we all help each other out. We get a lot of English and American people here, talking about the beer, so I have to set the context. If you’re from Washington State, the craft beer market share over there is like 50%. In Ireland, it's 3%, so yeah, we have to stick together!”
The brewery is very focused on its core range of broadly traditional styles, and consequently brews these perfectly. There’s a pale ale, an IPA, an amber ale (which nudges close to a red ale) and an excellent brown ale.
One of the advantages of knowing exactly who you’re selling your beer to is that you don’t have to make allowances for careless distributors or sub-par pub storage. As a result, Dick Mack’s has never aggressively filtered or fined its IPA, safe in the knowledge that it will always be enjoyed in a pristine, fresh state.
“That’s the other side of having a lot of Americans visit – those guys know fresh beer, and they expect it. I think for a long time people in Ireland didn’t really know how good beer could taste, even when we were getting it imported from the US. It’s like Plato’s cave though – once you’ve tasted really fresh beer, everything else tastes awful. When you filter and clarify a beer, sure it lasts longer, but you lose a lot of character. That was a trade-off we just didn’t want to make, and I think we’ve been proved right in that.”
As an interesting side-hustle, the brewery has also got heavily into barrel-aging. Charmingly, this started quite by accident, when Aussie brewed a big imperial stout as a Christmas special, only to find that nobody in Dingle’s pubs really wanted a 10% ABV bombshell as part of their day-long drinking plans. Rather than pour the excess, he blagged a couple of free, spent barrels from Dingle distillery.
“I’d obviously had barrel-aged stouts before, but usually found the wood and whiskey influence was just too much. These barrels didn’t do that though. One of them was actually a former sherry barrel – we didn’t realise – and they just brought out all these amazing new things in the beer: spice, molasses, ginger.”
The project began to spiral when a guest from Teelings distillery tried the beer, and asked if they could have the barrel once Aussie was finished with it. Soon, Powerscourt and other progressive Irish distillers were in on the act, and were lining up to finish whiskies of ever-higher quality in Dick Mack’s used barrels. When there are €300 bottles of whisky coming out with your logo on the side, you’ve got to be doing something right.
Aussie is cautious but excited about bringing the brewery to a much larger audience. He’s rightly confident in the quality of the beer, but doesn’t want the possibility of wider distribution to change what the brewery is at its heart.
“Even the idea of going into cans is something quite different for us,” he says. “We’d looked at the possibility of contracting a mobile canning line in the past, but at our volumes it just didn’t make commercial sense. So working with Beer52 and The White Hag is a good way to dip our toe in the water without taking too much risk. I’m certainly excited to find out how the beer comes out when its packaged. Who knows, it might even show us that there’s life beyond Dingle!”
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