Words: Rob Gilmour
Flavourly’s own Monaghan man Rob Gilmour catches up with his compatriot, Seamus McMahon of Brehon Brewhouse, to talk NEIPA brewing in rural Ireland, the terroir of time and who know what else…
Every so often, an editor lets a literary wild cannon in their repertoire loose. Even rarer in those every so oftens, they will do this with a temporary lapse in judgement, a disregard for the consequences. Rarer still these every so oftens will allow this to happen in the perfect storm; the wrong eejit talking to another wrong eejit.
This never happens in three distinct steps. Much like the cold chill of realisation the editor will feel eventually, it will all happen in a sudden singular thunderous moment that will echo in the mind of the editor until the piece is handed in. The “that would be great” to my suggestion that I interview fellow Monaghan man Seamus McMahon about Brehon Brewhouse is doubtless one of these perfect storms.
Conscious of the responsibly resting on my shoulders not to wind up our editor – I got down to the serious business at hand of discussing beer, brewing, and the two new hop driven beers from Brehon with Seamus.
“Did you see the big news?” I ask.
“Which?” replies Seamus.
“Jackie’s [Jack Charlton] gone.”
“Yep, yep, Jack’s gone. Ah he wasn’t in a good way. Ah Jaysus, he was a good one, wasn’t he? Ah you can laugh about the World Cup, but it really lifted the spirit of the nation at the time.”
Finally, we manage to leave aside the grief felt by so many people for Jackie’s passing as Seamus asks: “Many pints last night?”. It is this question that finally gets us chatting about what we were here to talk about: beer.
There’s obvious pressure on smaller brewers now of the bigger beer companies coming in to try and muscle in on small brewers’ lines in pubs as doors hesitantly open post lockdown. Seamus seems simultaneously proud and slightly surprised by the robustness of some of his lines – he explains he’s had people he supplies turn down advances based on the quality and locality of the beers. Like everyone though, innovation and not resting on laurels has been key to Brehon’s success.
The Brehon aesthetics are truly farmhouse, traditional and very unbothered by fads or fashion – but that belies something, Brehon have always been quiet and unboastful innovator… Well, they’ve not spent much time boasting to anyone on the internet, maybe it’s a different story if you get caught talking to Seamus in person.
Brehon were one of the first out of the traps in Ireland to really go full haul on a stronger IPA with Stony Grey, and they have been experimenters-extraordinaire with their barrel-aged beers. A commonality throughout the beers has always been the ability of Brehon’s brewing character and quality to hide alcohol, carry huge flavours and add an earthy rustic presence that almost marks the beers with a terroir, or what Monaghan People might trivialise as: “Ah, that’s just the taste of it”.
If you’ve pawed these pages for a while now, you’ll have encountered Brehon before. We caught up with Seamus at the start of 2019 and featured a range of his house beers; Killanny Red, Ulster Black, and Brehon Blonde to great response. With a year having passed, it’s not gone quietly at Brehon; they’ve made it to America, and the Continent, and despite the global pandemic, have actually seen an increase in demand driven by small pack, meaning they’ve been able to keep staff on.
The big innovations for Brehon in beer have been revisiting pale ales through Seisiún (Irish for – yes, you guessed it – session) and Imagine NEIPA. Probing at the logic for revisiting the pale side of the spectrum with Seamus I threw the thought out there:
“Did the decision to look at these styles come from the challenge of small pack becoming a bigger thing, diversity breeding innovation?”
“Ah I suppose Rob, we were happy in our nappy,” Seamus responsa. “We were happy enough with what we were doing, we had a very good reputation in our stouts, in our higher end ones. We had probably one of the first [Irish] IPAs, Stony Grey, you know it was on the other scale of IPA, a spicy smoky type of IPA that sold really well in Ireland.
“You know, we always had [revisiting these styles] in the pipelines. We knew what way the trends were going in the market, lower ABV and New Englands, the higher ABVs, that sorta nice smooth mouth feel and hoppiness.”
Being a Monaghan man settled in the big smoke of Edinburgh, and being lucky enough to be drenched in some of the best murk about, it is hard not to associate NEIPA with urban area. Monaghan, is many wonderful things, but a cement jungle it is not one of them. Soft wee drumlins (aesthetically pleasing little hills to you) – that’s more the speed.
So, the question of if there was a difference to producing NEIPA without urbanites gasping for hazy IPA to soak up his produce was impossible to avoid. Laughing away, Seamus says:
“Well there is no doubt about it Rob, you know exactly where we are. We’re stuck on a dairy farm in rural Monaghan where the sun shines maybe 30 days a year and, I suppose, giving somebody a bit of sunshine in the bottle like we tried to do with the New England – it’s probably the way to go. But even in rural Monaghan, we’re only an hour and a half from Dublin and an hour and a half from Belfast, so we’re ideally positioned.”
Seamus admits that, despite the ideal location, the departure from stouts and amplified styles has been out of Brehon’s comfort zone. The reception, however, has been nothing short of great. Favourable applause and some hindsight seems to have lit something of a fire for Seamus and the team to get moving even faster.
“We sat and maybe we didn’t diversify quick enough, but this new departure has breathed a bit of life into the staff and myself, and you know it’s definitely captured the imagination of Joe Public”
Joe Public has been filling up Brehon’s inbox now with those captured imaginations – asking to visit Brehon’s Brewery (a must for anyone who loves beer and stories). It’s obviously something that leaves the Brehon team proud and humbled from the way that Seamus chats about it: “It’s like when we started back in 2014 and we had people coming off the road to see this new brewery in Monaghan, people had never seen a brewery in Monaghan, and now people are rediscovering what we are doing.”
From IPA with Stony Grey to “happy in the nappy” with great classic Irish styles, along with some of the most memorable amplified beers coming out of Ireland – it was always going to be a journey back to IPA. Asking him to talk us through the two beers featured in our Beers of the Month, Seamus’ infectious laughter and general gift for a rambling story gets into gear.
“Imagine is called after my wife Siobhan. After she’s had a few drinks, you’d be chatting away to her and everything is grand, and she has her last pint into her and you say something to her and she always says ‘imagine.’”
Whether this is something of a ponderous utterance or a brutal cutting down to size is unclear. Though, having half a touch for the same gift as Seamus, that ‘imagine’ is not unfamiliar, and is usually the cap on some woeful patter on my part.
“So, we were looking at the different profiles that were out there and we wanted something that was unfiltered and very natural as well – full of flavour obviously – so the hop boarding is quite high in it. It’s been double hopped, you’ve Citra and Mosaic in abundance in it and you’re getting that nice creamy mouthfeel in it from the yeast. It’s coming out at 6.2% so you are getting that punch too.”
Chatting through the rustic feel that Seamus seems get into the beers that adds that layer of interest, he has a culprit in mind: “I’d say that unknown is time. You know we don’t rush the beers, there’s no rushing on the beers. Even sometimes if we are in a panic to get beer over to you, we have to give beer time, and I think that’s the key element in brewing. Obviously, you have all the other variables, but time is the main thing.”
“Now, be honest, is that just because you like taking your time?” I ask.
Laughing, Seamus almost dodges the question: “Aye, I suppose that’s it when you’re up at six in the morning!”
Jumping on to the Seisiún – Seamus chats us through the beer, it gets the same hop bill, but only a third the mash, of the Imagine, making for a massively flavoursome session beer. He notes that he upped the carbonation on personal tastes, something he feels compliments the style.
Cheekily, I ask which is his favourite between the two, and it seems habits die hard with Seamus quickly jumping to the Imagine which he feels shares more kinship with his higher volume stouts and barley wine. Though, reflecting, he notes that Seisiún shares DNA with an earlier Brehon Pale Ale called Fiesta which, given the success of this new pale, may make a return.
Talking into the future, Seamus leaves us with a taste of what this departure means for Brehon – with cans, Double IPAs, and a Black IPA all in view. The portfolio is now looking like it will stretch to every style on the planet, I ask Seamus if there is any drink he won’t turn his hand to successfully? Laughing away again, Seamus gives and emphatic “no!” but does ask if there is “anyone out there looking for a lock of milk?”.