It's a rite of passage for the Irish beer drinker to be able to reminisce on a failed Guinness brand extension. You're not fit for a bar stool if you can't bore innocent people senseless about your memories of Breó, or the St James's Gate series, or the Brewhouse series, or (the holy grail of failed Guinnesses) Guinness Light.
I've tasted most of these (yawn, yeah, whatever, grandad) and in several cases they weren't bad beers: they just weren't ready for that time and place. Diageo are currently pushing out a new brand extension -- this time to the venerable Smithwick's marque -- and, in the opinion of this amateur market analyst, it's in a much better position.
Smithwick's Pale Ale is a very pale -- blonde, really -- beer being launched on keg and in half-litre bottles around the country this month. It's 4.5% ABV and has been late hopped, including dry-hopping, with Amarillo. And it shows. While light of texture to the point of wateriness and a little on the gassy side, at least from the keg, there's no mistaking the flavour of proper hops: a sweet and juicy peachiness is given an empty stage to sing its heart out.
Cleary, a lot of thought has gone into this product, and it owes its existence to more than Diageo's general revitalising of the Smithwick's brand and the flatlining of mainstream beer sales in the developed world (though I don't doubt both those things had a lot to do with it). Why, of all things, a hop-forward pale ale?
Five years ago such things didn't exist here. Microbreweries made red ales, and lagers, and stouts and wheat beers. Then Galway Hooker came along and changed the parameters, eschewing the mainstays of Irish beer and going for high doses of Saaz and Cascades. Established craft breweries followed them and the hoppy pale ale is now in the repertoire of most of the nation's micros. It's an accessible style of beer and just different enough from the other taps on the bar to make it worth investigating. But most importantly it just tastes nice. You don't need a slick brand identity to shift this stuff, nor countless centuries of brewing heritage, nor suggestions of sophistication or the exotic. It's the sort of beer grown-ups like to drink and it stands on flavour alone.
There are apparently several more to come in this Smithwick's series, but I reckon they've started in a safe and sensible place, and my perspective on the beer offerings in the Typical Irish Pub is certainly brightened by its existence.
However, I also think there's a darker lesson for Ireland's independents. Medium-strength hoppy keg ales are done. Diageo make one now, and unless you can play the local card or have some other unique selling point I imagine it's going to be a much harder thing to flog. Time to make something else.
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