Beer and adventure from Ireland's garden
Saturday 05 June 2021
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The county of Wicklow is often described as ‘the garden of Ireland’ and it’s not hard to see why. Nestled on the island’s east coast, just south of Dublin, it’s a veritable outdoor playground, with majestic mountains, fast-flowing rivers, adventurous running and biking trails, and miles of beautiful coast. It’s also home to the superb Wicklow Wolf Brewing, which has supplied us with some of our best beers of the past year.
The brewery was set up by two friends: Quincey Fennelly and Simon Lynch. Quincey’s background was firmly in the Irish drinks industry in Ireland, but he moved to San Francisco for his wife’s job; it was there that he fell in love with craft beer and started homebrewing. By coincidence, Simon, who started out in horticulture, also found his beery calling in California. When they returned to Ireland in the late 2010s, both were disappointed at the relatively parlous state of the local beer scene.
“Their kids were at school together, so they were swapping homebrew at the school gate… figuratively,” says the brewery’s Darryl Murphy. “I suppose they then got the idea of setting up a small brewery just to brew beer for them and their friends. And so in 2014 they got a site in an old bakery in Bray, which is like 40 minutes south of Dublin City Centre. That was the start of Wicklow Wolf, and it just kind of spiralled into something a lot bigger than they ever imagined.”
Wicklow’s first employee was a brewer called Pete, hailing from Colorado, who really cemented the US influence, with maiden beers including an American Amber Ale, an IPA and a Kentucky Common. At the time, these were not particularly well-known styles in Wicklow’s local market, so it followed up with a pale ale: Elevation.
“Even the name is a fusion of the US and Ireland,” continues Darryl. “The Latin name for hops is humulus lupus – lupus meaning wolf – and that reflects our hop-forward, US-style of brewing. But there’s also a bit of Irish history and mythology in there, because the country’s last wolf was supposedly killed on the Wicklow border.”
Five years later, in 2019, the rapidly growing brewery moved into a new purpose-built site, about 20 minutes south of Bray. The state-of-the-art, 35 hectolitre brewhouse sits in a 17,000 square foot brewery, making it one of Ireland’s largest craft breweries.
“I think it’s been a great story for the guys, seeing how the brewery has evolved and grown, but we’re still driven a lot by their own passions. With Simon’s background in horticulture, for example, he’s put together a hop farm up in the Wicklow mountains, about three acres, which actually predates the brewery. It’s great for people to see and smell the hops, because most won’t even know what they look like in their natural form. They’re harvested by hand every year and used to make a green beer, Locavore, which has become a real highlight.”
Of course, the Irish craft beer scene has been on a fast track since 2014, and certainly on the quality front is now on a par with the UK. Like several of its peers, this has meant Wicklow Wolf increasingly turning its attention to export; an ambition that’s now being enabled by its fancy new brewery.
“In Bray, Quincey liked to use the phrase, ‘you couldn’t turn to sweetie in your mouth’. We were so close to Dublin and Wicklow that we maxed our capacity very quickly, just through domestic sales. And that’s been great, because I think the sustainable way to grow a business is to do well in your domestic market. But the next step is definitely export, which is why working with Beer52 is so important to us, getting our brand in front of UK drinkers.”
Another major development for the team is the proper opening of its taproom. The legislation allowing breweries to operate taprooms was only passed in Ireland relatively recently and, as the pubs have been shut there for 400 days at the time of writing, nobody’s been able to take advantage of the change anyway. That’s all about to change though.
“Pubs are a big part of our culture, so we’re obviously very excited to have finally got a license. I think hopefully, when things open back up in a safe way, taproom culture can really take root and help build a more convivial kind of community as well. People are really craving that experience; you can have a beer at home, but having that beer with a friend and meeting new people… I think we all understand now that’s the best thing about craft beer.”
IN THE BOX: Elevation pale ale
John Allen, production manager
“Elevation started off six or seven years ago, when the craft beer world was very, very different. It was our first Pale Ale and had a lot of bitterness, which was strange for Irish breweries at that time. That original recipe has continually changed over the years, long before I came along, as the guys updated the recipe with different varieties of hops according to what was good and available. And then when I arrived, we refreshed a lot of the recipes and branding, including Elevation.
“By that time, Mosaic was the main hop, and I really didn’t want to change that. It’s great, unique in its flavour but still with a lot of the good citrus fruit quality. I like that it’s kind of a little bit off centre from the likes of citra; it’s got another aspect to it rather than just being a citrus type profile. So that makes up about 50% of the hop bill; then we’ve variously used Calypso, another great hop, Huel Melon and more recently Strata. That’s given it a really nice citrus, orange kick with just a little bit of dankness. It’s so drinkable these days, and a great example of how a beer can really evolve up.
“As for the name itself, a lot of people ask if it’s named after the YouTube song… It is. Quincey loves music, carries around a notebook full of music-based beer names. This is one that’s kind of stuck!”
River deep, mountain high
Born and bred in these parts, Simon is a fierce advocate for Wicklow’s beautiful landscape, and for the natural environment in general.
“The beauty of this place is outstanding,” he says. “It has so much to offer: we have a mountain range, about 60 kilometres of coastline, some great rivers… living here, these things are just part of your life.
“When I get down time, I spend it as much as outdoors as I can. I’ve actually just come down from the hop farm, which is next to one of the national mountain biking trails, run by a really cool company out there called Biking.ie, who actually supply our non-alcoholic beer, Moonlight. I was up there on Saturday and I said to the owner ‘God this is like Big Sur’. ”
Simon’s done his share of mountain biking (“but not like some of those guys up there”) as well as road biking. These days though, apart from the hops, his main outdoor passion is kayaking.
“I’ve done white water kayaking and canoeing – there’s some fantastic rivers in Wicklow, great for paddling. And the Dargle is a river that flows through my hometown in Bray, which has the highest waterfall in Ireland, at about 400 feet. Then there’s a little river called the Avonmore, which has a series of drops called Jackson’s Fall. And they’re grade four or five - you need to go with a throw rope either side of the gorge.
“If you can take your eye off what you’re concentrating on for a second, the beauty is just amazing.”
Protecting this environment and educating drinkers is also a huge part of Wicklow Wolf’s mission. Simon talks passionately about the unique terroir of his mountain hops, and the earthy, herbal quality it gives them. When these are brewed into Locovore, Wicklow’s green-hopped beer, the brewery has also pledged to plant a tree for every three cans sold.
“We feel it’s our responsibility to be sustainable and as environmentally conscious as we can, you know? We’ve all got to do our bit to get through this and hopefully preserve this planet for generations. So we’re very passionate about doing the right thing. The trees we’ve planted have all been native Irish trees. Ireland actually used to be one of the most densely forested lands in Europe; they say it used to be a squirrel could travel the length and breadth of Ireland without ever touching the ground.”
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