Like most dark comedies, today we attend a funeral.
Last week’s post intimated that Smithwick’s (pronounced Smith-Icks), Ireland’s oldest brewery, will die. Its owner Diageo decided to move from its birthplace in Kilkenny to Dublin. Demolitions are pending.
We’ll get to why later. Our tour starts in a few hours. So we hike up to Kilkenny Castle to peruse the rise and fall of another local royalty.
The horse stables now house an artist commune: strange yet charming.
Back at Smithwick’s brewery, our group files into the 18th century vault.
Because they still make beer here, with trucks and fork-lifts grumbling about, we don high-visibility jackets.
Now completely safe, we enter the 1710 courtyard for a seminar. Their brewer of 30 years, now retired, explains the entire history of Ireland in terms of beer: how monks brewed here, how Smithwick went from an orphan to a brewer and shaped and saved Kilkenny during fires, civil wars, and famines.
Our guide’s cool demeanor occasionally twists a smirking knife into the British, or lager, or mass-consumerism.
But his stage keeps distracting me. 312 year-old facilities work alongside these massive modern storage tanks. They still hold beer but will soon be gone. Melancholy mixes with his pride.
Next to the tanks, we walk a few feet to St. Francis Abbey, where god and beer got a start in the 1300s.
Tombstones and column stumps crowd the interior. A side chapel still serves Smithwick’s staff in search of higher light.
Goggles on, we clamber into the brewery. Our guide walks us past mash tuns gurgling with yeast and grain. It smells of apple sauce. He pauses to point at every pipe and tank, explaining each stage of beer-making like a favorite child.
College-level chemistry lesson over, we descend back into the bar.
Our guide lines the counter with pint glasses and dives into another lesson.
We have seen this trick before: topping off the pint endlessly until the foam floats like a cloud, centimeters above the rim. It amazes tourists no end. But this method also carries all the tannic and bitter acids into the head, like oil above water.
Now we had Smithwick’s last night. From can. It looked a lovely garnet but tasted tinny, tart, and wretchedly bland.
Here, now, infused with two hours of beer talk from its proudest missionary, our palates beg for a pint.
It tastes nothing like the can. Bright apple acidity quenches our thirst. Soft toffeed malt and edgy wheat-like rye vie for attention. The beer balances freshness and easiness all too well. It seems very good. But we wear red-ale-colored glasses.
I ask our guide about Diageo moving Smithwick’s to Dublin and the shut down. Bitter but resigned, he shrugs it off. “If it makes their books work, can’t blame them. It’s shite for the town, but we wouldn’t have become all this without them.”
Luckily, he pours a few too many pints before we leave.
Fizzy and fuzzy, we cross the street to tour the Rothe House: a 16th century poor house. This distracted wine geek finds ancient Muscat-related vines for experimental wines. The Irish could make wine! Maybe!
Upstairs, unexpectedly, Smithwick’s pops through old windows.
I smile with regret. The historic building and delivery gate will stay. But the iconic tanks and beer-making will disappear.
Keeping 300 years of tradition means paying for distance distribution, old facilities, an extra workforce, and other added costs. Why not make all your beers at one plant with one team?
Diageo assumes that the brand will work without its origins. They pretend we won’t notice the move.
And they are right.
Most “international” beer we drink is made close to home, brewed under license to the same recipe. Check the fine print the next time you buy a Tuborg, Carlsberg, Fosters, Guinness, Harp, Sapporo, or Kirin in America. You might see Canada hiding there.
Science can replicate nearly anything anywhere. It costs us less. And it ensures freshness and a million other logistical issues. But kill your beer’s birthplace and, someday, you kill its identity.
People buy Smithwick’s because they are buying Ireland. They want to drink the heritage of Ireland’s oldest brewery. Their latest add pushes that point:
But that wasn’t filmed at Smithwick’s. The beer will be as real as that squirrel.
We visited this brewery to connect with its origin myths. Like pilgrims touching saint relics, we may lack religion but still crave things greater than us.
These myths made the beer better. Drinking it made our dull day more interesting. For we could drink a beer made by an orphan of the Irish Rebellion. A beer that survived three centuries of turmoil and progress.
Demolish the brewery and watch Kilkenny contract.
Strip Smithwick’s from its home and it is just any other beer.
We will miss this town. The people are all kindness. Every inch has a history. Hell, even the tourist office resides in a medieval home.
But things change. Next week, our last stop in Ireland before France: Cork. For now, Kilkenny, thanks for the pints.
- When The Brewers Are Away, The Squirrel Will Play (viddyad.com)
- Ad of the Day: World’s Smallest Brewmaster Pours the Perfect Tiny Pint of Smithwick’s (adweek.com)
- We are ourselves the most persistent purveyors of the image of the drinking Irish (irishtimes.com)
- A Weekend in Kilkenny. (toomanymuffins.wordpress.com)