One of my last days in Kilkenny, I decided to take a tour of the brewery of what has become one of my favorite beers: Smithwick’s.* What I liked about this tour is that it had really interesting information, a well informed and friendly guide, and a proper tasting at the end. You get a real pint, which you sample in the Smithwick’s Brewery bar, where normally I’d only get to go if I’ve been specially invited!
The St. Francis Abbey Brewery, where Smithwick’s is brewed, is Ireland’s oldest operating brewery! Cool, huh? Right in the heart of Kilkenny! Even before 1710, when John Smithwick started brewing his ale, the Franciscan monks were brewing their own ales on that site. The ruins of the abbey are still there today, amidst the hustle and bustle of the modern brewery.
In 1950, the family decided to tap into the Irish-American market and began exporting to Boston; Smithwick’s is easy to find throughout most of the US today, and looking back I realize I definitely drank it before coming to Ireland. Now I have a much different appreciation for it!
Despite many challenges, the Smithwick ale mostly remained in the hands of Smithwick family members until 1965, when it was bought by Guinness (both are now owned by Diageo, which also owns Smirnoff, Johnny Walker, & Baileys, to name a few).
From the tour it was clear that the brewmasters and other employees at Smithwick’s were very proud of their product; folks in charge taste everything, from the water being used to clean the equipment to the final product (of course). Part of this is sticking to what they know works; only recently did Smithwick’s begin experimenting with producing other types of ales. A Smithwick’s Pale Ale is currently available in Ireland, and it’s possible it may be exported in the future.
I was disappointed to learn that Diageo is actually moving production of Smithwick’s from Kilkenny to Dublin in the next year or so. I really liked that the same ale had been brewed in the same place for so long, but the company has sold the building and grounds to the city of Kilkenny so hopefully the good folks there will make sure its history remains intact.
If you’re ever in Kilkenny, I highly recommend taking a tour, especially if you’re there before the actual production of ale moves! It’s 10 euro/person for the tour, and the tours themselves are small–capped at 14 people, I think–so it was a nice size. I was on my own, but the size of the group made chatting at the bar a lot easier when we were enjoying our pints at the end of the tour.