WHat is the secret behind Smithwick’s? How does it get its rich red hue? What is the correct way it should be poured?
These are some of the mysteries uncovered in the tours of St Francis Abbey Brewery.
The tours began last summer on a trial basis to coincide with Smithwick’s 300th anniversary and were so popular that they continued over the winter on a limited basis.
So I went along for one of the afternoon tours last week, led by capable tour guide Ronan Morrissey, who previously worked at the brewery for nearly 30 years. In fact, this was one of the things remarked upon by those taking the tour – the authenticity of tours being led by someone who knows the craft so extensively, the brewery both historical and still actively functioning, the chance to sample the very beer that is being produced.
To start the tour, we meet in the entrance area off Parliament Street, where information panels explain the brewing process, the history of the St Francis Abbey Brewery and the Smithwick family. Tools of the trade are also on show, along with information such as the fact that St Francis Abbey can brew over 50 brews a week, a brew being 100,000 pints.
Our group of Americans, Germans and Irish then makes its way downstairs to the Cellar Bar, where we learn that this was the ideal place for maturing beer because of the room’s consistent air pressure and cool temperature throughout the year, which led to an even and consistent flavour in the ale.
Putting on our blue high-vis vests, we then venture out into the 1710 Courtyard, which was once overlooked by John Smithwick’s house and stables. Here, Ronan gives us some history about the family, from when John ran the operation, to when it was taken over and expanded by Edmund, and subsequently managed by James and then Walter Smithwick, until it was purchased by the Guinness family and then became part of Diageo.
History is also to the fore as we make our way to the Abbey of St Francis, which was consecrated in 1264. We even get to walk inside the abbey for a closer view of its detailing, including the seven-lancet window that was installed at a time when glass was a scarce commodity in Ireland.
The oratory next door is our next port of call, a structure that was built by the workers themselves in the 1950s. It’s a place where Mass was said, sometimes to crowds of 150 or 200 people – and, as Ronan tells us, “the very best place in the whole world to say an ‘Ale Mary’.”
Reverence of another sort is the focus as we make our way to the sampling room – which is even soundproofed so the professional tasters can focus on the job at hand without being disturbed by the rumbling of the passing 30-ton trucks that deliver the malt.
A video illustrating the process of combining the four elements of malt, yeast, water and hops shows us what we are about to witness, and we then walk over to the main attraction, the working brewery itself.
The warm smell of malt is in the air as we get a peek into the “mash vessel”, where a brown and foamy substance is on its way to becoming the trademark ale.
Then its on to “yeast territory”, a maze of pipes and tanks where this vital ingredient is added to an exact formula. The yeast is so important, Ronan says, that until about 100 years ago brewers lived at their breweries to ensure that the yeast was not jeopardised. “If you lost it, you were out,” he said.
He also explains that those who taste the beer for quality have all been trained to control their salivation, a natural reaction when the body realises a treat is on the way. And so it is as he guides us back to the Cellar Bar: “It’s all very well to talk about aroma and flavours and malt, but I think it’s time you had some beer.”
All are duly impressed as he lines up a dozen pint glasses on the bar, filling them in stages. And when he’s finished putting perfectly foamed tops on them – “like the fall of snow capped on a keg left outside the brewery overnight” – the cameras click away to capture the image, the light from outside gleaming through the red and giving it a mighty glow. It’s a surreal piece of branding, and those on the tour are impressed. “It’s definitely the nicest-looking pint I’ve ever seen,” says one, with another remarking: “The perfect pint.”
So as Ronan explains the levels of flavour that come to the fore throughout the pint, they marvel and attempt his “taste and roll technique” that spreads the flavours across all areas of the palate.
They are, in a word, delighted.
Tours operate from Tuesday to Saturday at 12.30pm, 1pm, 3pm and 3.30pm. The tour costs 10, takes approximately 1.5 hours and includes a complimentary tasting in the brewery’s Cellar Bar. To book a place on a tour, call 056 7796498 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The tours are for over-18s only.