The Story of Ireland and The Three Tier System
Sorry I left you on a bit of a cliff hanger back there in the last post. I told you that Ireland's beer scene was good, but not for the reason you thought. Then I proceeded to tell you all about Guinness - the exact reason you already liked Ireland's beer scene, and it was likely the only thing you ever even knew about it. For that, I am sorry. I'm going to make it up to you by giving you a great breakdown of everything I know about beer. In Ireland. I'll exclude all things about Guinness.
In Ireland, craft breweries don't open tap rooms (that’s not to say they definitely don't exist, but they sure aren't around where I was). Instead, breweries own pubs. Galway Bay Brewing, the best brewery I visited while I was there, had twelve pubs in multiple cities. At these bars, they serve mostly the craft beer from the brewery that owns them, but not exclusively. Many are craft beer bars with a focus on the owning brewery, so in addition to a huge selection of a single brewery's beer, they have an extensive selection of other breweries as well include, both local and foreign. From the outside you can't tell the difference; until you walk in, you can't tell them apart from the standard pub which usually has a full bar and serves beer like Guinness and Heineken. Once you are inside though, it is easy to tell that it is craft brewery owned once you see the huge selection of delicious beers.
Where big breweries can't adapt, they lobby. Up until about a decade ago in Texas, a brewery wasn't allowed to sell beer at a facility they owned unless there was a "marine mammal exhibit" somewhere on the premises. Oddly, that strange loophole wasn't taken advantage of by many, except by Budweiser who happened to own a little place called Sea World. Up until the laws were changed, breweries in Texas offered only "tours" that usually cost $5-10 and came with about a beer or two worth of free samples.
You don't see this kind of thing, that is, a brewery owning multiple brewpubs, in The States very often at all. I can think of only a single example in Seattle: Elysian Brewery. I needn't mention the fake breweries Gordan Biersch and BJs Brewhouse. Who knows what is going on in those corporate monstrosities. The reason Elysian is the only example is somewhat disturbing: The 3 tier system. The 3 tier system is a law in the US that basically means a brewery is not allowed to distribute its own beer or own where it is sold. It is legally required for a brewer to sell to a distributor who can then resell it to a bar or store. Originally this was to protect small brewers/ vintners/ distillers from getting steamrolled by larger booze makers. Historically this happened in England where large breweries had the money to effectively give loans to businesses in exchange for exclusively selling their beers. This might sound familiar if you have ever noticed how certain places in the states only sell Coke products while others serve only Pepsi, which they do by loaning the soda fountains in exchange for stocking only their soda. Imagine that, but with a product that people actually care about! People start legislating.
The Three Tier system was designed to prevent what happened in England: a few large breweries owning all the mom and pop pubs and stifling competition. After prohibition, the decision on how exactly to implement this was left up to the states. That’s why you see some states that have state owned liquor stores that can be the only place to buy liquor, sometimes wine, and sometimes craft strength beer. Some especially afraid-of-booze states (I'm looking at you, Utah. You too, Iceland) allow grocery stores to stock only low alcohol percentage beers which results in breweries making special version of their beer that are low enough ABV to be stocked. These days there is an exception made in many states to the 3 tier system that allows most brewers to open a single brewpub. In the states, this leads to a controversial policy that is intended to protect small brewers but also severely limits their growth.
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So how does Elysian get around the three tier system? I'm currently digging to the bottom of why they are allowed to own so many locations, but the current guesses are that they own them only partially or not at all or have some agreement to use the name and stock a wide selection of their beer, something about being a full sized brewpub with a full bar and food menu grants another exception, or that they are so large they can afford the expensive contract with a distributor that is required by the three tier system. None of those guesses completely answer the question, so if you are Dick Cantwell, I'd love to know the answer.
I've extended the same question to some of the breweries I visited in Ireland to try to get some more detailed answers on the laws over there. I'll be back with an update after I've finished my research!
So where was I. Back to Ireland. In Ireland, they have the same idea as the 3 tier system, but it's slightly different. They weren't allowed to sell beer out of their own facility until recently, but they are allowed to own pubs, so that became the de-facto way to distribute beer. Oslo in Galway, the first brewpub by Galway bay was opened only in 2009 and since then they have opened 11 other sites in Galway and Dublin. Each place feels like it might as well be its own restaurant. They all serve different food, are different levels of fanciness, and have different beers, other than the eight or so Galway Bay Beers they all have on tap. If you are ever there, you have to try to the Full Sail IPA. I know we have a Full Sail brewed in Oregon, but it sounds like they don't really care.
That was a pretty lengthy aside and I have only barely scratched the surface of Irish beer. Let me leave you with my final few notes. Porterhouse was another brewery pub chain like Galway Bay. They have pubs in Temple Bar (sorta the touristy district) and the surrounding neighborhoods. They also brew fantastic beer like their Oyster Stout that I can't recommend enough. The particular one that I visited was attached to the Porterhouse owned Dingle Whiskey Bar which was a fantastic place full of delicious whiskey flights (don't get me started on the Irish Whiskey I had on this trip) and tended by an enthusiastic bartender I could only possibly describe as Irish Ariana Grande (you read that right). J.W. Sweetman, another craft brewery pub was possibly the coolest pub I visited the whole time. A mazelike mess of levels, rooms, and stages for live music, this place was brimming with Irishness (please forgive the touristy fawning). Their beer, however, was a boring array of uninspired hair colored beers. A red, a blonde, a brown, a um… porter. In Athlone, I visited the world's oldest bar, Sean's, which claimed to be open since 900 AD. I'd normally not bother with a bar, but this place did offer a couple of beers that, while not technically brewed by Sean's, are brewed exclusively for Sean's. So it may not be the world's oldest brewery, but it is the world's oldest bar that has its own beer. And that is neat I guess.
That does it. I hope you got what you came for: Irish beer and a history lesson. Like, Share, Comment (especially if you are Dick Cantwell). Free homebrew for life if you share this on your Facebook page. Thanks for reading!