Kinnegar Brewing in County Donegal | A Trip Down the Rabbit Hole
Kinnegar Brewing. County Donegal. There is nothing small about this part of Ireland.
Not the dramatic landscape. Not the vibrancy of its music and arts scene. And now, not the beers.
Perched against the backdrop of the stunning North Atlantic coastline and the wild countryside of Rathmullan and its surrounds, Kinnegar Brewing brings together the brewing traditions of Europe to its east and North America to its west; not surprising given the time founders Rick LeVert and Libby Carton spent living in both the United States and in Germany.
Although his family roots lie in Boston, Rick spent most of his early life in upstate New York, studying film at NYU. It was in the Big Apple that he met Libby 25 years ago. After the Berlin Wall came down they spent some time together in Germany in the 1990s. Libby was able to convince Rick to move back to the place where she grew up and the spot where the brewery is now based – near the Kinnegar strand in Rathmullan, Co. Donegal.
KINNEGAR BREWING LOCAL ROOTS
Even though they distribute their beer across Ireland, Kinnegar Brewing are a local brewery. “We want each of our beers to tell a story,” says Rick. “Kinnegar is the name of the beach down here below the brewery. I’m not an expert in Irish, but I believe that Kinnegar is a derivation of ‘coinín’, so ‘rabbit’, or in this case, ‘rabbit’s warren’. There is a big rabbit’s warren on that beach.”
This connection with the local area features prominently in the way the brewery has branded itself with each beer telling a story linked to a very specific local characteristic. “The Devils Backbone is a ridge behind the brewery,” says Rick. “Yannaroddy is the name of a field off to the side of the brewery. One of our specials was called Long Tongue – that’s another field behind the brewery. Limeburner is a sea pinnacle just off Fanad head. Scraggy Bay is a bay just up Lough Swilly.”
They’ve even tried to match the names with the style. Scraggy Bay has obvious links to the sea faring history of the IPA style. The amber colour of their Devil’s Backbone has associations with hell.
DESIGNED TO HOP
The warrens of Kinnegar bay form the basis of the brewery logo, the ‘follow the hops’ theme sees ‘Hoppy’ (a hare rather than a rabbit) hop excitedly across the labels. Libby is a professional graphic designer. Each beer is branded with its own colour and the beauty of the bottles is their simplicity.
“We wanted to keep everything very clean,” says Rick. “We want our beers to have a very clean crisp flavour. We want our appearance to be clean and crisp as well. We find that if you go into retail outlets, there’s an awful lot happening on the shelves. We specifically said, let’s reduce the amount of detail.”
STRADDLING BREWING STYLES
Kinnegar Brewing look to both Europe and America for inspiration. “We definitely see the products we are making here as straddling the border between continental and North American styles, while also kind of putting our own twist on them,” says Rick. “We’re not just trying to imitate beers from these different areas.”
The ‘continental’ influences are evident in the physical lay out of the brewery. “Our brewery is probably what we would call a continental style brewery,” says Rick. “From the set-up of the brew house, to the way we ferment and condition, it is all very much continental style. Most of our equipment actually comes from the continent. We did source most of it in Germany.”
Despite being quite close to Ireland, Rick and Libby’s personal beer preferences mean that they have looked past styles of beer associated with Great Britain to those of mainland Europe. “We want a slightly higher carbonation profile than English or British Isles style beers,” says Rick. “We carbonate in primary fermentation. We use a German technique of ‘sponding’ to hold in CO2 at the end of primary fermentation. We feel that it gives a very particular bubble size. It’s a nice little prickly bubble size.”
On the other hand, they’re keen to take on styles which have been popular in America; notably a rye ale and an American-style IPA which uses various new world hop varieties. “Continental styles, they don’t tend to dry hop,” says Rick. “North American, they dry hop a lot. We dry hop a bit.”
And Rick likes Belgian breweries and beers. “When you pop in to a bier café in Belgium, you’ll try one of 25 different styles,” he says. “And you’ll have maybe hundreds of beer choices”. Kinnegar Brewing are fermenting a Belgian-style Saison on my visit.
DOING IT THE RIGHT WAY
Rather than jump head-first into this venture, Rick studied and developed ideas in a small pilot facility, brewing at first as a hobby, then for a few locals, and now commercially. “We gradually built up knowledge and expertise through trial and error,” says Rick. “I spent some time in the University of California at the Technical College of Berlin to try to formalise some of that knowledge so we weren’t completely green.”
They have been brewing at their current scale for just over a year, starting back in the first week of August 2013. “We made the decision that it was something we wanted to pursue about 2 to 3 years ago,” says Rick. “It took about 18 months to get everything put together, plan the facility, go through the planning process itself, raise finance, commission the equipment, install the equipment, get everything set up.”
KINNEGAR BREWING COMMUNITY
They have embraced the brewing community in Ireland and contributed to the supportive network of young Irish brewers. “It very definitely is a supportive atmosphere,” says Rick. “Everybody kind of knows each other. You meet each other at different events. If you’re having a problem with something or you’re not sure how to do something, you can ring somebody up. They might have had the same experience and they can tell you how to resolve the problem. There’s a constant communication going on between different breweries.”
Kinnegar Brewing are also involved with the Association of Craft Breweries of Ireland, a fledgling organisation of small independent brewers in Ireland who look to bulk buy ingredients, cut down on transport costs, rationalise dispense gas at outlets for pumps as well as a whole series of other initiatives to improve their efficiency. “Right now, we probably have about 1 or 1.5% of the market share in Ireland,” says Rick. “The only way that that’s going to become bigger is if we actually work together to make it bigger.”
THE RANGE OF BEERS
Rick and Libby’s approach to brewing is to produce a variety of beers which they feel will keep people interested in what they’re doing and meet the taste profiles of a wide spectrum of Irish drinkers. Their regular rotation includes a pale ale, an IPA, a rye ale, an amber ale and a porter. “It’s more interesting for us to make a variety rather than focusing on producing one beer,” says Rick. “We think it’s more interesting for our customers to be trying different things from our brewery.”
“We’re not trying to push to the extremes, either in terms of alcohol content or flavour profiles,” he says. “Our IPA is a moderately hopped IPA, we’re not trying to overly challenge people with a big hop bomb.”
Kinnegar Brewing beers range from 4.2% to 7% a.b.v. They are brewing a core product range that is intended to be very drinkable and are looking for something of which people can drink more than one. “We’re not averse to doing more extreme beers down the road,” says Rick. “We might say, ‘let’s try one of our specials as an extreme’.”
Rustbucket Rye Ale 5.1% ABV
Their 5.1% ABV Rye Ale goes by the name Rustbucket. While most of the other Kinnegar beers are named to honour landmarks in the local area, Rustbucket is the only one named to commemorate a “really nice dog” that Rick and Libby once owned and loved.
It has a citrusy hop character with an understated spice from a 20% rye count and pours a hazy amber colour, to suit the name. “She’s relatively well hopped and we do dry hop her as well and it gives her some citrusy notes,” says Rick. “It combines well with the spiciness of the rye. The rye dries it up a bit, gives it a slightly drier profile. And there’s a little bit of a spiciness. With a relatively good hopping regime, it’s a nice combination.”
Yannaroddy Porter 4.8% ABV
Yannaroddy is their 4.8% ABV Porter. “We just bottled this, this morning,” says Rick.
Yannaroddy is the name of a field quite close to the brewery, a bastardisation of the Irish name of the field.
I’m not sure whether this derives from the Irish ‘leana’ (children) or from ‘lann’ (tablet), both of which may easily have come to be pronounced locally as ‘yanna’. The resulting anglicisation gives the field’s name a sense of exoticism and it was this hint at the tropical that inspired Rick and Libby to add an ingredient very unusual for a porter. “We dry hop it as well,” says Rick. “But in this case, we dry coconut it.”
Using coconut in beer? “We toast coconut,” Rick continues. “It brings out the oils. We actually put it in our conditioning tanks and we flow the beer in over the coconut and it basically takes the coconut oils into the beer.”
The Porter is smooth with soft chocolate notes. The coconut is so subtle as to be barely noticeable. Perhaps it is used, not as a major flavour additive but more as an innovative fining agent? Fining agents improve the clarity of the beer by attaching themselves to the proteins, yeast and tannins in a beer and make them heavier so they fall out of suspension and settle to the bottom of a fermenter. “We don’t want people to get this big forward blast of coconut,” Rick says. “It’s intended as an extra layer of flavour that rounds off the character. What we want is a full roasted flavour coming off the roasted malts without the acridness and bitterness that you can get from that. And then we use the coconut to just round off those flavours. You will get a hint of coconut, but you won’t find that there’s a big wash of coconut.”
Aside from their year-round range, Kinnegar Brewing bring out a special every two months. Last autumn they produced a pumpkin ginger beer as a harvest ale. They produced a burnt red IPA for Valentines Day. On my visit, Rick has a Belgian-style saison in the fermentation tanks. “We’re trying to keep the palette fresh and kind of changing all the time,” he says. “It’s more interesting for us and it’s more interesting for our consumers.”
SMALL BREWERY. BIG BEERS.
Although this brewery is small, demand will ensure that this might not always be the case. Rabbits are famous for multiplying at incredible rates and I think the quality of their beers will ensure that Kinnegar will grow equally as fast.
If you live in Ireland and you still haven’t tasted one of their brews by the time New Year comes round, you’ll have been living with your head in a rabbit warren. Get your nose out of that hole. And put it into a Kinnegar.
The Kinnegar Brewing Beers
Limeburner Pale Ale 4.7% ABV
Devil’s Backbone Amber Ale 4.9% ABV
Scraggy Bay India Pale Ale 5.3% ABV
Rustbucket Rye Ale 5.1% ABV
Yannaroddy Porter 4.8% ABV
Otway Pale Ale 4.2% ABV