In the wilds of the Wicklow Mountains, wolves once prowled. With the inexorable encroachment of civilization, these wild lupines were hunted to extinction, and for nearly three hundred years, Wicklow was tamed.
But in 2014, the wolf was born again in County Wicklow, albeit in a much tastier new form. I visited the cozy facilities at Wicklow Wolf Brewery to meet the team and learn more about this fast-growing new player in the Irish craft beer scene.
I met Peter, head brewer and fellow displaced American, at the brewery door. He immediately sat us down in the homey tasting room and expertly poured a sample of American Amber, their flagship brew. It was a dense, dark red, with the fruity hops aromas and flavors one expects from an American-style craft ale; this wasn’t one of the thin, flavorless Irish reds I first tried at American Irish bars. With the smooth, velvety mouthfeel of the amber on our tongues, we sat down to talk about the delicate economics, science, and art of the independent craft brewery.
“We don’t do test batches, we go full-scale the first time,” Peter tells me of building new brews. This kind of confidence could only be that of a skilled brewer with a solid formula. When I ask about his inspirations for new recipes, I am surprised to hear how near it can be to those of the weeknight cook in the kitchen. “You have to take a look at what you have; what’s available at the time and what makes sense.”
Balance is key in designing a beer recipe; the bittering and flavor compounds of the hops must be in tune with the sweet and caramel flavors of the malted grain. “Recipes are always changing; we’re always making minor tweaks between batches to get what we want.” Sipping the American Amber, I think that anyone who could produce this—or anything like it—on the first crack must be the Miles Davis of beersmiths.
We “studiously examine” the rest of the regular Wicklow Wolf lineup, available through the year in bottles and on draught in pubs in Dublin and around the country. The new Elevation Pale Ale is an approachable American pale, crisp and fruity; the IPA a dry-hopped dark golden beauty with sweet aromas to balance the stronger bitterness. Black Perle Porter takes its name from the German Perle hop additions. The coffee and chocolate flavors and aromas come from caramelized grains—no coffee or cocoa beans are harmed in the making of this dark drink.
Eyeing a few cases of coffee from Java Republic, a well-known Irish roaster, I ask about Wicklow Wolf’s plans for specialty and holiday beers—a very common and very delicious trend among craft breweries. The coffee is for “A Beer Called Rwanda,” a new brown ale with “a blend of sweet barley and wheat malt to balance the strong flavors of the coffee.”
I was particularly excited to hear about another seasonal specialty: the Locavore Blonde. Borrowing the new-age term for local food enthusiasts, this yearly brew is made with 100% Irish ingredients, including fresh hops grown on WW’s hop farm in Roundwood. Peter tells me, “The harvest will change from year to year, depending on which varieties we plant and seasonal growing conditions.” The local appeal and once-it’s-gone-it’s-gone nature of this yearly brew should have us all marking our calendars for the next edition.
Speaking of unique beers, I was very keen to learn about their Free Ranger IPA, made with Falconer’s Flight hops. Unlike the well-known single hop varieties, this is a luck-of-the-draw blend of American hops from the Pacific Northwest. The characteristics will always resemble the fruity, citrusy flavors and aromas we’ve come to expect from American ale hops, but it always be the same.
Says Peter: “It’s always going to make an IPA, but it won’t be consistent…and that is a good thing.”
I agree. As more young people begin looking for interesting, unique stories with their food and drink, appeal for inconsistent-by-design beers like the Free Ranger and Locavore Blond can only continue to grow.
The team at Wicklow Wolf isn’t content to brew beer just for the greater Dublin area, nor even are they willing to settle for domination of the Republic. The Wolf team has plans for expansion as the Irish craft beer market thirstily demands more of their popular beers. Their first international target is across the border in Northern Ireland, beyond that, who knows?
Larger premises are certainly in the cards for expansion. Peter walked me through the all-purpose workroom. Shiny stainless steel mashing, boiling, and fermenting vessels nearly filled the room, and storage racks of ingredients, bottles, and kegs were carefully arranged in the spare space. It was all very carefully stacked and organized…it had to be.
“As you can see, we’re at capacity. We’re brewing as much as our space can handle just to fill the orders we have. We’ll need more space to increase production.” A good problem for any growing business to have, I thought.
In the corner, I spied some wooden casks, housing some barrel-aging experimental beers. Proof that Wicklow Wolf, whatever their size and scale, continues to experiment and innovate. I hope to get a taste of whatever is in those barrels before I depart the shores of Ireland.
Brewery co-owner Quincy described his plans for the future of Wicklow Wolf very simply, with a big smile and a laugh: “I won’t say we’re greedy, but we want to be on every tap handle in every pub!” After meeting the dedicated team and tasting the result of their efforts, I have no doubt that they will get there.
Nuts and Bolts
- For now, group visits to the Wicklow Wolf brewery are set up by appointment only. As craft beer tourism continues to grow in Ireland, they hope to offer regular tours and tastings.
- Barring a visit, simply enjoy the beers where and when you see them. The Wicklow Wolf line is on draught at many pubs in and around Dublin, and in bottles at off licenses (liquor stores) around Ireland. When they go international, keep your eyes peeled in your own local, wherever you are!
- Big thanks, cheers, and sláintes go to Peter, Quincy, and the rest of the Wicklow Wolf team for inviting my wife and me down to their brewery. We were happy and grateful to get to see this up-and-coming company in the early chapters of what will surely be a successful, sudsy story. We’ll keep an eye out for the American Amber in Colorado!
See my full disclosure for more about invited reviews.