Whisky and scotch have long been liquid mainstays of Celtic culture. However, beer is just as important a beverage to ancient and modern Celts as its distilled counterparts.
When the ancient Greek writer Herodotus made mention of the ancient Celts “fondness” for the drink he was noting what most of us now know as truth; Celts, past and present, are renown for enjoying a wee adult beverage now and again. This is, perhaps, more evident today than ever, with many distilleries across the Celtic nations, and around the world, supplying patrons with a selection of savoury spirits – the numbers of which we have never seen before.
However, there is another spirit of sorts that has enjoyed equal historical significance across Europe – specifically, throughout Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Bretagne, and Galicia.
With a backstory of over 10,000 years, beer is one of the most popular alcoholic drinks in the world today. According to Classical Civilization scholar Dr. Max Nelson – author of The Barbarians Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe – it is the third most consumed drink on planet Earth, surpassed only by water and tea.
Beer’s history in Europe is fascinating, and its relationship to the Celts is especially compelling. Unlike many of their neighbors who considered beer a “low brow” beverage, the Celts treated it with great sophistication. According to the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, beer was often served in beautiful pottery (usually imported from Greece, but often made locally) and enjoyed by men and women alike.
The Celtic connection to beer runs so deep that the Celtic deity Braciaca – considered to be the god or goddess of intoxication – is often referred to as the “Goddess of Beer.”
Scotland’s Secret History
In Scotland, beer has maintained its popularity into the modern era. Sara Robertson, founder of the award-winning company ScotBeer Tours, says that the country has a rich and important history with the beverage.
“At one point in Edinburgh alone there were 288 brewers.” she tells Celtic Life International, adding that each and every one of them were women.
“I don’t think people are so much surprised by the length of Scotland’s history with beer, but the scale of it and the impact it has had – especially on Edinburgh.”
Robertson founded ScotBeer in 2017, after returning to Scotland from Boston where she had enrolled in an entrepreneur course at Babson College.
“I started running tastings. Initially, I just stood outside the door and asked people if they wanted to come taste beer with me. We got a little bit of momentum! People started pre-booking, but they were getting lost trying to find us, so I started meeting them on the Royal Mile. It is about a 15-minute walk, so I was like, ‘I am going to need some stories to tell.’”
She explains that there are several factors that led to the strong presence of beer in Scotland, including environmental science, geography, business, and politics.
“The Cannongate of Edinburgh is known as the charmed circle – there is an aquifer, and the water there is perfect for brewing,” she notes, comparing it to the water found in Burton on Trent, which is considered to be some of the best H2O in the world for brewing. “Not only is there is a huge amount of water, but it has the right chemistry for brewing ales.
“There was also shipping to consider,” she continues. “There is a port, Leith, which used to be a separate city but is now a part of Edinburgh, that can ship to all of Europe. And there is also the trainline, which transports beer to the rest of the U.K. I remember reading that half of the beer consumed in London was brewed in Edinburgh. Without the trainline, you couldn’t have had that.”
These factors, combined with the Acts of Union in 1707, “kick-started” the industry.
Today, Scotland has an amazing array of independent craft brewers, offering up a highly specialized selection of products that match consumers’ ever-evolving palette.
“There are different ways of being popular,” notes Robinson. “In the mass market, it is still lager and IPA, and that may never shift. But the craft beer world has a unique set of drinkers, and the reactions from people on our tours are quite different. Some react well – if you introduce them properly – to something like sour beer, especially if they aren’t traditionally beer drinkers. It is important to start gently, and not go too quickly. Anything with fruit in it, as long as it isn’t artificially sweetened, is also quite popular, as are beers that are barrel aged. We also try, whenever possible, to serve Scotch Ale, which is actually more popular in Canada and the US than in Scotland. When those on our tour try it, however, they really like it.
“In the craft beer community, there is always an appetite for all varieties of hops and IPAs, though I also think that barrel aging and sours – and then barrel-aged sours – is where I have seen things stick. Whereas before, people were coming out with only one or two, they are now selling in pretty decent volume.”
Not Just Guinness
One Celtic nation whose beer industry needs no introduction is Ireland. Though the likes of Guinness, Murphy’s and Smithwick’s remain as popular as ever, the craft beer sector has been slowly growing over the last decade.
“I am pretty sure it is about 2.5 per cent to 3 per cent market share these days,” says Joe Donnelly, Marketing Manager at Rascal’s Brewing Company in Dublin. “In Ireland’s craft beer industry, we are still very much in the stage where craft beer is considered pretentious, inaccessible, and too strong. Ireland is quite monocultural when it comes to beer. But that is literally what people have grown up with and it is very hard get them to change or even to alter their perceptions. The old guy sitting at the bar ordering Guinness – he won’t change that.”
Still, Ireland’s craft beer industry has developed a loyal and dedicated set of customers.
Rascal’s Brewing Company, which was established by husband-and-wife team Emma Delvin and Cathal O’Donoghue in 2014, is just one facility offering up a variety of classic and innovative brews. It is also the only brewery in Dublin selling gourmet pizzas.
“In Ireland, in the past two years, there has been a huge increase in dedication to producing quality beers.”
“Breweries are not just chasing the newest trend,” continues Donnelly. “We have a hardcore local fan base – and even some clients that are not local – who are enthusiastic about anything we do. People get excited when we bring stuff back. We have one beer that returns every summer – a Strawberry Milkshake IPA.
“People also get excited about barrel aged beers, juicy pale ales and haze pale ales. And they are excited if we do something trendy, or when we do anything really – and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I just mean that it is great to see that we have a fierce loyalty to beer in this country, almost regardless of the brewery.”
Donnelly admits that the future of the beer industry in Ireland remains somewhat unclear, especially with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he believes that accessibility and education will continue to push the industry to grow.
“We need to stop using the term ‘craft beer’ and start using the term ‘local beer’ because it is locally brewed beer. We need to capitalize on people’s opinions and sentiments, which have changed because of the pandemic, to supporting more local businesses. We are local businesses. We need to make more of a song and dance about how people can support their local breweries by buying a local beer. We need to innovate and experiment with new beer styles, absolutely, but we need to keep in mind that we should exploit gateway styles like lagers. We need to work on changing people’s perceptions. Here’s the thing: they are already drinking beer, so the hard part is done. So, you just need to reach them and let them know that craft beer is a welcoming thing.”
Setting Wales Apart
One of the biggest challenges for Welsh brewers has been setting themselves apart from the rest of Britain. Although robust with its own brewing scene, Wales and its beer offerings are often spoken of in the same breath as their English counterparts.
Tomos Watkins Brewing in Swansea and Monty’s Brewery in Powys are two Welsh firms honouring Welsh’s unique identity and craft beer.
“A sad fact is that the biggest selling cask ale in Wales is made in England,” shares Russ Honeyman, who co-owns Monty’s with his wife, Pam. “It is called Butty Bach, so it is a Welsh name, but it is made in England at the Wye Valley Brewery in Herefordshire. We would like to see that change. We want Welsh beers and Welsh products to be available in all pubs in Wales, and to create the awareness that Welsh beers are great beers.”
Monty’s – established in 2009 – offers a variety of beers, including their popular gluten free stout, Dark Secret and their award-winning traditional dark ale, Old Jailhouse. Their most renowned spirit, however, remains the very first that Honeyman’s wife ever brewed.
“Sunshine is still our biggest selling beer,” he says of the floral beverage. “It is totally different from Dark Secret, a stout or a Guinness. It is a golden ale.
“Like many places, there was a revolution in Wales,” he continues. “People wanted to try new flavours and new styles. We like to call our beers traditional with a twist. Not the extreme ones with mango and coconut, though there is certainly a place here for those.”
Just southwest of Monty’s is Tomos Watkins. Acquired by Connie Parry and her late brother in 2002, it is also a family-run brewery offering a distinctive range of Welsh beers.
Parry has been around the beverage industry most of her life – the family-run business, The Hurns Beer Company, now operates as a sister company to Tomos Watkins and supports its distribution.
Like Honeyman, she believes that Welsh beer is both fiercely distinct and important, in large part due to its history.
“It used to be that, in every village, there would be four of five pubs. People would arrive at lunch time and spend the afternoon there. Beer was the hub of that community. If we look at the history, it goes back to when water wasn’t safe to drink. Back in Victorian times, beer was safe to drink because it was pasteurized, and it just became part of our DNA after that.”
Tomos Watkin’s beer (or, cwrw in Welsh) is vast and traditional, and includes everything from their easy-going blonde ale, Delilah, to their rich OBS (Old Style Bitters). More recently, patrons have been ordering their Bicycle beer, a blonde lager brewed with floral and citrus flavours.
“Customers are a lot more discerning in the beers they try now,” notes Parry. “They sample different ABVs and different colours. They are more adventurous.
“The craft revolution has taken over the world. Its emergence got the youngsters drinking beer and experimenting with local brewers.”
She is confident about the future of beer in Wales, especially if brewers focus on sustainability and ethical consumption.
“We are in a great and much more interesting place than we have been in years. I believe that low alcohol products will be popular in the future. Gluten free will also be extremely important, as well as vegetarian. Provenance is a big thing; people like to know what is in the products they consume and where they came from.”
It isn’t just Ireland, Scotland and Wales harbouring a deep appreciate for beer. The other Celtic nations – Cornwall, Isle of Man, Bretagne, and Galicia – also have strong connections to the beloved drink.
Cornwall has a full and unique line of lagers and ales. One of its leading facilities, the St. Austell Brewery – one of the oldest businesses in all of Cornwall – offers a solid selection of beers, including its popular Cornish Best, which is crafted from “British hops, Maris Otter Barley and Cornish spring water.”
In 2016, Bretgane’s selection of brews was called “eccentric and isolated” by Owen Ogletree of The Beer Connoisseur Magazine, who described Breton culture – and beer – as independent from the rest of France. Ogletree made note of the region’s La Brasserie du Bouffay brewery, which was founded in 1998 and continues to serve up an eclectic variety of ambers, blondes, and white beers, along with an interesting rotation of experimental brews.
The smallest of the Celtic nations, the Isle of Man also has a deep love for beer. With a population of just over 85 000, it is home to several breweries that produce high-quality lagers and ales.
The Spanish province of Galicia has a notable relationship with beer as well, says Alberte Fernandez Perez, founder and head brewer at the popular Galician brewery Menduiña.
“In the past, the ancient dwellers of our land used to drink beer,” he explains. “However, Mediterranean wine culture settled in after the arrival of the Romans. So, beer was relegated as a pagan drink for the uncivilized. Menduiña’s aim is to recover a part of that lost culture.”
Menduiña was established in 2008, when Perez returned home after living in Patagonia, Argentina, where he first discovered his love of craft beer. Located in Rias Baixas, a rural area in northwest Spain, the brewery is described as “a leader in the Galicia craft beer revolution.” As such, Perez is considered a forerunner in the field.
“To be a pioneer in a western land in a corner of Europe with a strong wine tradition means that brewing and opening a craft beer market can be difficult,” he says. “Craft beer was unknown in Galicia in the 2000s. At that time there was a limited access to internet, so it was difficult to find information and to buy ingredients and specific machinery. I had to travel around Europe and North America to learn the trade.”
While the brewery has experienced some challenges due to its out-of-city locale, it continues to be a popular spot in Galicia, partly for its great beer and partly due to its dedication to Celtic and Gaelic culture.
“I brew with typical ingredients from Galician culture, including bay leaves, smoke, aged oak, elder flowers, and homegrown hops. And the local water is very suitable for brewing. I name my beers after well-known characters in local Galician/Celtic culture, including Santa Compaña (local Banshee), Lobishome (Werewolf), as well as characters out of local history, such as Maria Soliña (accused of being a witch and burned at the stake) or Demo Neghro (black devil). Celtic Galician culture and craft beer culture work well together.”
Perez adds that beer preferences among Galicians have changed quickly over the last two years.
“When the presence of craft beer became unstoppable, bigger companies in the industry began to release new and old styles that they had never brewed and long despised, mainly for its profitability.”
Brewers are now more likely to offer a more varied menu, including red ale, IPAs, stouts, and barley wine.
“Little by little, craft beer, with its various styles is making its way. So now it is easier to find more varieties of beer, as per current trends in North America. As the beer offerings changed, more people tried new things and opened their minds to the broader beer culture. These days there is real a preference for hoppy beers and strong beers.”
In the end, regardless of where it was brewed or what its legacy is – or what style is most popular – beer is an important part of socializing, as it creates community. As such, the most important thing we can do – as brewers, servers, and drinkers – is learn how to talk about beer and recognize the impact is has on our lives.
“We will often ask people to describe it in terms of memories,” says Sara Robertson. “That is how the brain works – it stores memories using place and smell. If you can get people to start picturing a place it just opens everything else up. It always amazes people when their answers are similar – it kind of spooks them and makes them laugh. Beer allows us to connect with one another.”