Katie Mather chats with Harry Kennedy, the export manager of O'Hara's


Drinking beer in Ireland means spending time under the great spectre of the famous Black Stuff, and that’s something we can’t skirt around. However, if you’re in Ireland and you fancy a stout, any good local should — and will — kindly but firmly push a pint of O’Hara’s on you before too long. A friend once spent a good half an hour telling me of the virtues of its Irish stout, brewed in a truly classic style, and up there with the best beers in the world. And who was I to argue? It’s roasty, full-bodied and dry (everything I love in a stout) while retaining that coffee-liquorice whip at the end. It’s bang on style, while somehow retaining a sense of individuality, which makes sense, given the brewery’s focus on brewing traditional beers alongside new, more experimental styles.

O’Hara’s is brewed in the traditional malt and hop-rich lands of the Barrow Valley in County Carlow, a south-eastern area of Ireland around 65 miles south of Dublin. There’s been brewing here since the 1700s, and it’s where most of the raw ingredients for Ireland’s historic breweries came from, shipped by canal and river across the island.

Taking the historic backdrop of Carlow to heart, the Carlow Brewing Co. — O’Hara’s other name — opened in the mid-1990s. The aim was to bring back some of the local brewing glories the area was still so proud of, and to work with the many microbreweries that were sprouting up all over the country to drag the brewing scene of Ireland into modernity.

Now, O’Hara’s is busy creating beers that celebrate the past and excitedly look forward to the future. Harry Kennedy, export manager for the brewery says that there are many inspirations for each beer they create.

“There are lots of influences at play that feed into how we make our beers,” he explains. “Across the team, ideas come in from travel experiences, tasting beers of all kinds from all over the world, and keeping an eye on the trends too. But I’ve always believed you have to be a fan of the styles you decide to brew, so personal taste plays a big part.”  

On top of this, Irish drinking culture plays a role in finding the right styles and flavours too.

“As a guiding principle we like our beers to be flavoursome but still well balanced and sessionable, to suit the Irish beer and pub culture.

“I think Ireland’s brewing heritage is a really important foundation for what we do, and it continues to be a personal inspiration for me too. We love to take inspiration from international styles and trends also, but as an Irish brewery I think our heritage beers are what can set us apart and there is so much more to be explored in that direction.

“Our Irish Stout, Irish Red and our Irish Pale Ale really are a cornerstone of our business and make up a much higher proportion of all the beers we make. Our craft beer range is mainly for drinkers here in Ireland. Because they know us, they trust us to make beers they’ll enjoy.”

According to Harry, there’s no arguments between new and old, despite the pull towards tradition.

“I think we really have the best of both worlds. Rather than being boxed in to one or the other, and I think part of being a craft brewery is having the scope to take traditional influences into a modern interpretation. In reality it’s all connected. We love doing both.”

A great example of a modern O’Hara beer is its newly-released White Haze IPA. Part of their “craft beer evolution” range, it brings juicy hop character and haze to the fore, using Citra, Amarillo and Mosaic for those all-important tropical, fruity vibes.

“Inspiration for White Haze was definitely from tasting lots of great beers recently that had loads of juicy hop flavours but low bitterness. We’ve brewed our own interpretation but made sure it’s well balanced and sessionable too. That’s always a priority here. It’s been really well received so far.”

Another example of the brewery finding inspiration all around them is their Irish Wit beer, which was created with the sole purpose of pairing perfectly with a chaser of Irish whiskey.

“We’ve worked with Tullamore Dew and other whiskey companies quite a lot in the past and so the idea came to us one day. This particular beer was part of a one-off collaboration with Tully to design a beer that paired well with their whiskey. We brewed the beer to purposefully pick up some of the flavours and aromas from the whiskey (hence the wit direction) and the toast from the barrels. I think it worked great as a pairing.”

From their perspective, the Irish brewing scene is enjoying a fair bit of experimentation. Being part of an established trad brewery with the freedom to experiment seems like it’s quite a fun position to be in.

“We try to keep balance with core beer focus and complement this with limited releases. A lot of our innovations come out of our brewpub “Urban Brewing” which is a 5HL brewkit placed right in the centre of Kilkenny city!”

So, if you’re looking for a taste of modern Irish beer, it’s probably a sound suggestion to head to Kilkenny and try O’Hara’s beers on a timeline from traditional to modern-day. Using heritage recipes and local ingredients, whether in a classic recipe or something completely new, is what they’re best at, and honestly, that’s exactly why they’re so well loved.

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