Black's of Kinsale
Richard Croasdale returns to Kinsale after two years, to find the inimitable Sam Black up to his neck in whiskey and weed.
Friday 20 March 2020
This article is from
The Island of Ireland
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I first visited Black's a couple of years ago, and it remains one of my favourite brewery locations in the world; the village of Kinsale on the south coast of Ireland is everything you hope it would be, and sipping a fresh Black’s stout in front of an open fire in the Grey Hound pub is one of those beery memories that stays with you. I’m happy to discover that founder Sam Black is just as friendly and laid back as I remember, and we quickly set about catching up on everything that’s happened over the past 24 months.
On the beer front, Black's continues to go from strength to strength, particularly in export, with growing sales in France and Italy. As well as its hugely popular core range, Sam is still fascinated with unusual extracts, and last year brewed three beers with marijuana terpenes (the chemicals that give cannabis its distinctive smell): OG Kush, Pineapple Express and Lemon-haze. He also brewed his 1000th batch, marking the milestone with a special 10% triple IPA, infused with a special hop oil.
Sam says: “I met this guy a few years ago – Tom, from Glacier Hop Ranch in America – at the Craft Brewers Conference there. He had this tiny little bottle of experimental hop oil they were developing at the time. He’d go round with a toothpick dropping tiny drops of this oil into people’s beers and you’d get this amazing explosion of fresh hop aroma. I carried on talking to him on and off, and met him again at an event in Dublin, where he showed me the fully finished product and we agreed to work together.
“I’ve been tasting a few cans off the line. Obviously at 10% it’s got quite a lot of body anyway, and then with the hop oil it really coats your mouth. It’s got an amazing fresh bag of hops flavour and aroma. It was a hoppy beer to start with, and adding this in the bright tank really added another level!”
There is now a strong core of dedicated beer lovers in Ireland who really appreciate this kind of innovation and won’t shy away from a massively hoppy 10% beer. But Sam points out that, particularly in a small domestic market, breweries must still strike a balance between progressing as a brewer and selling enough volume.
“It’s the more exotic beers that always get the attention – the ones with unusual ingredients or an extreme hops character – but the vast majority of people are still quietly drinking pale ale, IPA, lager and stout at around 5% ABV. But I wouldn’t do this if I had to stop doing things like playing with terpenes, because that’s where you learn, and that knowledge helps you make better beers across the board. If you’re just doing the same things over and over again, you fall into a rut and that’s bad for everyone.”
We have 500 casks available and around 250 have already been filled
One big chance since the last time I was here is that the shipping container tasting room in the corner of the brewery is gone, replaced by a gleaming copper pot still. The spirits side of Black's has seriously taken off, and Sam has added a pretty serious whiskey business onto his existing lines of gin and rum.
“This has been a really interesting journey, and is where we’ve seen the most growth this past year,” says Sam. “The international market for Irish whiskey is huge, particularly in places like the US and Singapore.”
Despite having to wait five years for the first whiskey to mature, interest has been so strong that Sam has launched a Founders’ Club, offering the chance to buy a cask from the first year’s production. Club members can choose the size and type of barrel being filled – bourbon, port, sherry or wine – and, at the end of the five years, choose to either bottle their spirit, leave it to mature for longer, or sell it back to Black's.
“We have 500 casks available and around 250 have already been filled,” says Sam. “Members are also invited to a party in Kinsale every year, with special events like sailing and golfing. The whisky will appreciate in value as it matures, so a lot of people are looking at it as an investment, with the added bonus of five years partying in Kinsale! So far it’s appealed a lot to people who are interested in beer and whisky; it’s great to see so many people getting behind it.”
The growing spirits business also creates opportunities on the beer side, as Sam suddenly now has a lot of barrels to experiment with.
“We’re definitely looking at barrel ageing crossovers down the line,” he continues. “Some of the beers we’re putting into barrel have quite an extreme flavour profile, so we can then use those barrels again for whiskey, that will have some carry-over from the beer. So, if an IPA has an extremely lemony flavour and that’s something we want to see in the whiskey, we can bring those characteristics over. We did something similar with another distillery once, and the whisky was good, but we’re now trying to ramp up the influence of the beer in the finished spirit. It always tastes like whisky, but if you can get a little twist of taste or aroma then that’s great.”
All this activity has overtaken Sam’s plans for a bar of his own, but I’m pleased to hear the brewery tour now takes a very similar shape to my last visit in 2018. Guests get shown around the brewery and distillery, with a detailed talk through Sam’s philosophy and methods, before heading down into Kinsale to enjoy some of his fresh pints in the pub. I’ve always been a firm believer that your environment and company plays a huge role in your appreciation of a beer, and on this basis I guarantee this will become one of your most memorable pints too.
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