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Column: Ancient brewing in Ireland and the legacy it left behind

Ireland is going through a sort of renaissance when it comes to beer – so what was brewing like on this island in ancient times? Reuben Gray explains.

Reuben Gray

THE BREWING OF beer is ancient and pre-dates civilisation itself. In fact, some now believe that it was the brewing of beer that prompted early humans to leave behind the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle and take up a more settled existence. The very roots of civilisation and agriculture are to be found in the brewing of beer. The driving force that pushed us ever further is also to be found in there; the earliest known forms of the written word are actually about beer or contain references to it. That’s a subject for another article, though, because today I would like to talk about ancient brewing in Ireland.

St Patrick’s Day 2014 is almost upon us and Ireland is going through a sort of renaissance when it comes to beer. What was brewing like on this island in ancient times? Evidence of brewing in Ireland dates back to the Bronze Age. In 2007, Moore Group, an Irish archaeology and heritage consultancy, put forward the hypothesis that a type of site commonly found all over Europe was used to brew beer. These are called fulacht fiadh or ‘burnt mound’ and there are over 4,500 in Ireland.

A fulacht fiadh is essentially a pit in the ground which seems to have been used for many different purposes, and brewing beer is believed to have been one of them. Evidence indicates that the primary purpose of a fulacht fiadh was to heat water by immersing pre-heated rocks in the trough. Hot water is necessary to convert the starches in malted grain in to fermentable sugars.

Early writings

One of the most famous pieces of early writings called the Hymn to Ninkasi from 1800 BC is actually the earliest known recipe for beer. I won’t copy the whole thing here but an important verse states the following:

You are the one who handles the dough,
[and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics

So the brewing of beer in ground pits had been around for a long time indeed, and it seems logical that this method would have made its way to Ireland a couple of centuries later.

The time of St Patrick was about 400-500 AD. In those days, technology didn’t advance very fast so beer would have been brewed in a similar way. Instead of pits in the ground, we would have had custom built vats or bath-like structures. Beer would have been a very different drink than what we know today. The primary difference was the lack of hops, a rather recent addition to beer. Various herbs like heather and bog myrtle would have been used to balance some of the sweetness but beer during the time of St Patrick would have been a very sweet beverage. This sort of beer would have been the norm until the introduction of hops in the 13th century – however the addition of hops didn’t reach the UK until the 1500s to the UK and so presumably Ireland, too, which was more or less under English rule at the time.


Between 1829 and 1841 there was an estimated 171 breweries on the Island of Ireland. By the 1980s we were down to just three brewing companies producing a number of different brands of beer. The mid to late 1990s saw a brief resurgence of Irish brewing with a number of small breweries or “microbreweries” opening up. The Porterhouse, Carlow Brewing Company and the Franciscan Well. It wouldn’t be until 2006 that we would see a real renaissance in Irish brewing but it has come in leaps and bounds.

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Today we have over 30 active breweries with over a dozen more in the planning stage. It is estimated that by the end of the year, we will be at about 50. What’s the reason for this? Firstly there was the government tax break for microbreweries. Second there were people passionately writing about beer. Beoir was formed to educate the consumer and become Ireland’s first beer consumer group representing Ireland on a European level as a member of the European Beer Consumers’ Union (EBCU). The recession also helped as consumers started demanding value/quality for money.

This St Patrick’s weekend there will be a craft beer and food festival inside the CHQ building at the IFSC in Dublin. There’s no better way to sample some of Ireland’s best beers from independent breweries than by popping along. More info can be found on their website: www.irishfest.ie

And if you would rather just find a good pub, there’s an app for that. The BeoirFinder app is available on both Android and iOS.

Reuben Gray is a freelance and beer writer. He is the author of TaleofAle.com and is also the chairman of Beoir, Ireland’s beer consumer group.

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Reuben Gray

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