Despite visiting the area and Ballymaloe regularly, we visited Litfest.ie for the first time this year. The festival is in its fifth year and, as you would expect from the spiritual home of Irish cooking, has a heavy food and drink focus. The festival itself was awash with delicious treats, from Artisan cheesemakers (the Toonsbridge Smoked Scorza was amazing!) to meaty local oysters, beautiful pizzas and gorgeous curries, we ate very well! Then there was the bar, stocked with great local beers (Wicklow Wolf Arcadia and Cotton Ball Indian Summer were particular highlights) and a selection of natural wines, so we drank well too…
We had booked most of our sessions in advance and unsurprisingly ended up as regulars in The Drinks Theatre. We saw two panel discussions with Kristen Jensen, one on Irish Cider and one on Irish Craft beer, we also watched two natural wine authors, Isabel Legeron and Caro Feely, attended a family estate sparkling wine tasting and finally a cocktails and mindfulness session. Several similarities struck me across these sessions. Firstly I should say they were all tutored tastings, and we had some truly special drinks! The second common factor was how important sustainability was to everybody, the raw materials, the land, our planet, being just as important as the drinks we were enjoying, this was truly refreshing to hear. Finally I thought about the similar issues around tax, red tape and transparency facing artisan, craft or natural drinks producers vs the big boys not just in Ireland, but around the world and whether collaboration from smaller producers across beer, cider, wine and spirits could help everybody.
Mary Dowey showed us six different sparkling wines, all from small producers, and family owned vineyards. The biggest issue for all of these, especially in Ireland, was tax. There is around €6 a bottle duty on sparkling wine, and that doesn’t include VAT. It means that to be able to drink something delicious, something that somebody has made with love rather than in a ‘wine factory’, you have to pay a little more. The three sparklers we tasted were between €25 and €35 a bottle and the Champagnes were all about €55/€60. But when you consider a cheap supermarket prosecco is €12, where almost €3 is VAT, and €6 is duty. The remaining €3 has to cover the retailers margin, the importers margin, the bottle, the cork, the label, the box, the shipping costs and finally, a few pence, or cents, on the wine itself. Those costs hardly change (with the exception of VAT) no matter how much you spend on your wine, so almost every penny over €12 you spend gets spent on the drink itself. Upping to €16 spend could see you drive the amount received by the grower and ultimately spent on on the wine tenfold!
Listening to Isabel Legeron was inspiring. She is dedicated to educating the world on the dangers of continuing to farm industrial monocultures with heavy chemical reliance and she champions organic and biodynamic farming methods. One of the issues facing smaller producers is the legislation around labelling. It isn’t compulsory to put your ingredients on a bottle of wine, the only obligation is to state if a wine contains sulphates, but not the amount. Given the sulphates can occur naturally in wine in small amounts, this is fairly useless. A natural wine may contain sulphates up to 20mg per litre and a small amount may be added at bottling for stability. An industrially produced wine may legally have up to 200mg per million in the EU, these may have been added at almost every stage, crushing, pre-fermentation, post-fermentation and bottling, not to mention what may be been added in the field. During tests carried out in France, some big business wines were found to have pesticide residues which were significantly above what we consider, and legislate, as safe for drinking water, in some cases 200 times higher. There is no such legislation for wine meaning that despite not being allowed to drink those chemicals from the tap in the UK, we can happily pour them down our throats from the bottle. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself why would you consider putting something into your body where you don’t know the ingredients?
Organic farming is labour intensive, and that costs money. Caro Feely described herself as a ‘wine farmer’. Her ethos of natural wine production has rubbed off on her neighbours in France. The region in the south west where she farms has above the national average of organic farms. An organic farm apparently uses 1.6 man hours to every 1 at an industrially run farm. There is less spent on chemicals and machinery, Caro explains, so in real terms, it’s about 30% more expensive to farm considerately, respecting the land and this cost needs to be passed on with the cost of the end product. Educating customers is one of the big challenges she faces. Why are her wines more expensive, and why is it worth paying the extra?
In our mindful cocktail session, Ally Kelsey, of Lyan group, and local cork man Andy Ferreira the double act whipped up some great cocktails and talked about locality and sustainability of cocktails. Their commitment to reduce waste in the bar industry is astounding. Citrus fruit is hugely wasteful, we fly it half way around the world to pop a squeeze in our G&T and throw it away because we can’t eat it. At White Lyan, Ally’s cocktail menu didn’t include ice (the energy expended for ice production is hugely inefficient) or citrus. Instead he used energy efficient fridges to chill batch prepared cocktails and herbs and botanicals like lemon verbena which doesn’t need to be flown in and doesn’t fill bin after bin behind the bar. Rhubarb is tart and fresh and can be made into a syrup to flavour drinks, following the lead of the food industry their zero waste, or ‘nose to tail’ approach even saw them experimenting with rhubarb roots, it seems they taste just like pineapple when roasted! They also sourced their spirits in 10l refillable containers to eliminate glass waste, great idea huh!?
The cider industry in Ireland has a huge tax issue, unlike the UK, Irish cider is taxed far more heavily than beer. Despite cider growing world wide, ironically lead in part by the orange behemoths of Irish ‘cider’, the cider market in Ireland is shrinking. All the while interest in food and drink is growing, craft beer is in growth, while cider holds the burden of duty around four times more than a brewer pays, over 90 cents a litre vs just 23. The outdated taxation was targeted at large scale producers with low costs, most of the drink was water or sugar with as little as 15% fruit in some so called leading ‘cider’ brands, but now farmers growing apples and making cider with 100% juice are facing the same punitive charges with little legal or labelling distinction available. This is something the UK cider market is also struggling with.
Compared to all of these it seems, with lower tax and an industry in growth, in Ireland at least, that craft beer has it easy. But listening to the panel they aren’t going to sit and enjoy the ride, they’re determined to take it one step further and graft for a better future for brewing. Beer is, and always has been, about community. Since the big brewers took over these communities have started to erode, grains are no longer grown or malted locally, hops are flown in from around the world. White Gypsy aim to not only source all of their ingredients locally, but also to sell the majority of their beer locally, keeping the money in the local economy, building their community. They want to see the farmers booming, local maltsters return and proffer, the bars benefit, and ultimately the customer too. It seems the resurgence of consumer interest in provenance in the food is spilling in to craft beer. Ireland once had a thriving hop industry and, like the UK, has the perfect climate for growing great malting barley. We listened to stories of brewers growing their own barley and hops and maltsters championing local farmers with single region malt releases. We know how the land and environment affects how hops grow and taste, the same can be proven with malt. We hold certain vineyards in higher esteem because of their location, we champion certain vintages of wine because of the weather. Why not for beer, why shouldn’t brewers choose malt from a certain region or hops grown by a specific farmer? Well some are, and these guys are leading the way for the next big thing for beer. We heard a lot about a certain word during the various wine and cider talks, now it’s beers turn for terroir.
So whether you’re in Ireland, the UK or most likely anywhere in the world, whether you are a wine farmer, a cider maker, a brewer, distiller or barman, the challenges facing the artisan drinks market are the same. Imbalance in tax and duty, misleading labeling and marketing from big brands who can purport to be ‘craft’ or artisan and finally being able to afford and source sustainable raw materials. It was exciting to see so many producers and drinks professionals passionate about shaping the way the industry behaves. Hopefully they can all get together and through strength in numbers effect those changes quicker. As a professional in this industry across all of the fields above I hope something like this can happen in the future.
As a consumer, the one thing I took away was something that’s been said by many people before me, and will most likely be said by many more. Having a drink? Think a little more, spend a little more, maybe drink less but definitely drink better.