Red Ale Rising: An upstart Irish brewer is betting Americans will soon tire of exotics and embrace classics

Ian Hamilton // Photo via Sullivan’s Brewing Company

One afternoon last fall, Ian Hamilton hoisted a glass of red ale to his bearded lips as he recalled his days at the old Smithwick’s brewery. Hired at age 21, the tall Irishman had spent nearly two decades across two stints working at the manufacturing facility in Kilkenny, Ireland. In 2013, however, Smithwick’s longtime owner, Diageo, maker of Guinness and other beers and spirits, shuttered the business and moved operations to Dublin, 80 miles away. Hamilton, then 55, was planning to spend his free time pursuing his twin passions—motorcycle riding and geology—once his pension plan kicked in. 

“But, of course, that’s not how things turned out,” Hamilton says.

The red ales Hamilton drinks today are from Sullivan’s Brewing Company, headquartered less than a mile from the decommissioned Smithwick’s site. The brainchild of a trio of Irish businessmen who wanted to keep the town’s brewing traditions alive, Sullivan’s launched in 2016 and coaxed Hamilton, something of a local legend, out of retirement to oversee its debut offering, a red ale. (Hamilton, master brewer and fellow of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling,  has since added a handful of other beers to the Sullivan’s shelf.) 

Maltings Irish Ale is made with four malts, three varieties of hops, and a cask ale yeast. It has become the backbone for building the Sullivan brand, which produces 3,000–5,000 barrels annually, and has won a clutch of awards. Nostalgia has kept Kilkenny residents loyal to Smithwick’s, but Hamilton and his peers felt confident that there might be a little room in the market for a newcomer, especially if they could craft something that intrigued discerning red-ale drinkers. “We decided if we could sell a red ale in Kilkenny, where four to five times more Smithwick’s is sold than any other city in the world, then we could sell a red ale anywhere,” Hamilton says.

Beer is poured at Sullivan’s // Photo via Sullivan’s Brewing Company

The Sullivan name was carefully chosen—and well-known to local residents long before the company’s cherry-red logo began appearing on local tap pulls, bottles, and cans in Kilkenny. Historical records show members of the Sullivan clan brewing beer as early as 1702, an age when nearly every family had its own homebrew recipe. More than a century elapsed before the scion Richard Sullivan, a merchant and member of Parliament, turned the family business into a large-scale commercial operation. Industrialization subsequently squeezed out smaller players and boosted Sullivan’s success. By the 1850s, only two players remained in the once-vibrant Kilkenny brewing scene: Sullivan’s and Smithwick’s.

The Smithwicks and Sullivans were competitors, Hamilton notes, but they were also joined at the hip—with members of the family related by marriage, political connections, and social ties, as in any small town, “the two stories get intertwined at a number of places,” he says. The most dramatic story in family lore begins with a black-sheep member of the Sullivan clan losing the business in a bad horse-racing bet in 1918 and ends with the Smithwick family swooping in for the rescue, purchasing the entire operation and retaining scores of workers. (It’s also no accident that some of the founders in the new brand include descendants of the Smithwicks and the Sullivans.)

Kilkenny’s history is steeped in red ale, of course, but isn’t the variety a bit tired? A drink of days gone by? Early on, at beer festivals, Hamilton admits that many people seemed puzzled by the limited selection at the Sullivan’s booth and passed by in search of edgier selections. “But many of them came back later and didn’t leave,” he notes. “There are good reasons why classic beers have survived for decades, even centuries. Our consumers tend to be those who have, say, 10 years or more of beer experience. They’re looking for a flavor they enjoy and aren’t always hunting for the next new thing. They’re confident in their own choices.”

Sullivan’s is betting that American tipplers will also return to classics like red ale. He’s not a fan of exotics like piña colada milkshake IPAs or roasted jalapeño blueberry porters. “With intense aggressive styles, do you really want to have a fourth or fifth pint?” he says. “I’m not going for an American pale-ale hop attack. The ale should be flavored in a more balanced, less assertive way. We do 90-minute boils and one-hour mashes. We try to keep things as traditional as possible. We’re not trying to build a reputation for weirdness.”

Tourists can sample the brews at Sullivan’s taproom on John Street in Kilkenny, a stone’s throw from the River Nore, under the shadow of a castle built in 1195 by Norman colonizers. Sullivan’s currently contracts with other brewers to make its product, but there are plans to complete construction on a 500- to 700-liter brewery and open a Sullivan’s Visitor Experience center next summer. 

American drinkers don’t necessarily have to jump the pond either: Sullivan’s recently started selling its product in Buffalo, New York (where some of its financial backers live), and the company hopes to use the city as a beachhead for reaching the American market. Hamilton says he’s often impressed by Irish expat communities he finds in Boston, Buffalo, and other U.S. cities. “There are parts of Buffalo that make me feel like a fake Irishman,” he jokes.

Catering to Americans may be part of the business plan, but with Hamilton at the helm, don’t expect Sullivan’s to veer from its Old World traditions as it tries to win over New World drinkers. “The great thing about Sullivan’s is that we have the stories and we have the heritage,” he says. “We need to be true to that.”

The Road to Kilkenny

Kilkenny Castle // Photo via Tourism Ireland

Editor’s Note: Aer Lingus paid the airfare for the writer’s trip to Ireland.

Getting to the Emerald Isle from the Frozen North is easier than ever now that Aer Lingus has started daily round trips between Minneapolis and Dublin. Evening departures touch down mid-morning, and return trips are easy—you’ll clear U.S. customs before your flight, saving you the hassle once you land in Minnesota.

In Ireland, Guinness is practically a religion, so you might as well launch your visit with a stop at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, a seven-story temple to stout, where visitors learn the history of beer and the art of pouring pints. If you prefer a more expansive view of Irish history, hit up the National Museum of Ireland and ogle some Celtic gold and bog bodies, or check out the illuminated pages of the ancient Book of Kells at the Long Room at Trinity College. For an actual religious experience, slip into Christ Church Cathedral, where you can tour the crypt, then head over to the Roe + Co. Distillery for an excellent tour plus a nip of Irish whiskey. To top off the day, nab a table at the The Pig’s Ear and book a room at The Mont Hotel.

The road to Kilkenny isn’t long, so take the leisurely route: Stroll through the elegant Powerscourt Gardens, tour the Gothic relic that is Johnstown Castle, and board the Dunbrody Famine Ship as you make your way through Ireland’s so-called Ancient East. In Kilkenny, check out the purveyor of local crafts, Kilkenny Design Centre, and tour the Smithwick’s Experience before heading over to Sullivan’s to sample a red ale. Before heading back to Dublin, splurge and stay the night at Mount Juliet Estate, a 32-room Georgian manor that sits on a golf course, has a Michelin-starred restaurant, and overlooks a stud farm.