In this installment of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle finds a true taste of Wicklow.
It may be hard to picture now, but the formidable grey wolf once called our land home. Stalking through an era before electric light, the howls echoing across the moonlit Irish landscape would have been especially chilling, and it’s little wonder that wolves feature prominently throughout our native mythology.
The Morrígan, the shapeshifting Irish goddess of death and battle, became a red-furred wolf in her battle with Cú Chulainn. Cormac Mac Airt was said to have been raised by wolves, and could understand their speech; four wolves would accompany him in his rebellion against Lugaid Mac Con. The Annals of the Four Masters tells how, in AD 690, “it rained a shower of blood in Leinster this year… the wolf was heard speaking with human voice, which was horrific to all.”
Our Irish wolfhounds were bred as specialised guardians, designed to protect against and hunt wolves, and they brought down the last of the Irish packs on the slopes of Mount Leinster in 1786. Long after the end of her reign, the wolf remains entrenched in our collective imagination, skulking through our ancient tales and padding softly through our language in phrases like ‘lone wolf’ or ‘keeping the wolf from the door’. Six years ago, a new breed returned to Wicklow, its roots firmly in our local soil, its pack strong and diverse.
Wicklow Wolf was established in late 2014 by two friends with a common interest in good beer. Quincey Fennelly and Simon Lynch both fell in love with craft beer while living in California.
“I had spent most of my career in the drinks industry working with brands in a sales environment, and a small stint in California working as a baker,” says Quincey. “Simon was busy outdoors, getting his hands dirty as a horticulturist. We had different backgrounds, but a common love for Wicklow, homebrewing and craft beer.”
When bringing their Wolf to life, provenance and pride were key, and Wicklow fast became the focus behind the brand’s values and ethos. “Wicklow is a wild landscape, full of vast forestry, meandering rivers, rugged mountains, bountiful lakes and a diversity of wildlife. We decided to plant the business’s roots deep, and build a brand that is proud of everything we do, placing sustainability and minimal environmental impact at its core.”
One of their first moves was to establish their own hop farm in the Wicklow mountains. “With the Irish climate, we are truly at the mercy of Mother Nature and beholden to the nothing but the seasons,” says Quincey. “Our hop harvest takes place once a year, usually around the last week in September. We grow eight different varieties in a combination of European and American styles: Chinook, Cascade, Perle, Bramling Cross, Challenger, Nugget and Prima Donna. The hops are hand-harvested and brewed the same day, producing a fresh hop beer.”
Every year, they brew one special beer made using solely their own hops, called Locavore. The recipe changes based on the yield and quality of hops that Mother Nature provides; Locavore 2019 was a dry Irish stout, brewed with roasted barley from Athgarrett Malt. “Locavore champions the terroir of the Wicklow mountains, with the hops providing a unique aroma and taste compared to those grown in Europe and America, and a subtlety of flavour including an earthy, floral spice.” While they’d love to be able to grow enough hops for all of their beers, our climate means that this is simply not an option. “However, it does make our seasonal release of Locavore just that bit more special.”
The farm is 100% chemical-free, with over 1,000 indigenous Irish trees planted by Wicklow Wolf to help offset their carbon footprint. They plan to double this number in the coming months. “The farm is home to a wide variety of wildlife and is at the heart of everything we do. We don’t spray any chemicals; instead, we employ the help of a number of hardworking goats who do all our weeding and pruning for us.”
This obsession with sustainability carries into their brewery, too. In 2019, the Wolf outgrew its original home in Bray, moving to a brand new, custom-built premises in Newtownmountkennedy, run on 100% renewable energy and with an integrated goal of producing that energy in-house in the near future. Whether brewing, hosting tours, packaging, getting deliveries ready or figuring out who’s making the tea, the brewery is constantly buzzing. “Beer doesn’t know what day it is,” says Quincey. “Every day is different.”
No matter how busy the day, sustainability is at the forefront of everything they do. “We are on our way to becoming one of the most sustainable breweries in the world, and we want to bring our customers on that journey with us.” Recently, they swapped their bottles for cans, better for both the environment and the beer. They also signed up to Origin Green, “to help us be accountable for our actions and manage our waste and the way that we operate,” explains Quincey.
Their sustainability plans focus on four key areas: energy, water, emissions and waste. “Our new brewery has allowed us to capture massive savings on the amount of water used per hectolitre of beer produced. We are currently looking at ways to reduce emissions and become a carbon neutral brewery. We also signed up to Repak to help us manage our waste, and have drastically reduced the amount of plastics used and waste destined for landfill.”
The Wicklow Wolf Wildfire Red Ale has been my pint of choice for a long time now, and I’ve developed a recent obsession with the creamy Apex Oatmeal Stout. Quincey says their bestseller is their Elevation Pale Ale, which doesn’t surprise me in the least; easy drinking and full of light, fruity flavour, it’s a favourite amongst my mates. Whether a core range or a special edition, the entire pack reflects nothing but quality, consideration and a real connection to the locality. “We like to describe them as exceptional beers, brewed without compromise and in a sustainable way. We want to provide a high quality, premium product that our customers can enjoy guilt-free.”
I ask Quincey how much the industry has changed since they began. “We thought we would be brewing beer for a few friends, but five years on we can’t believe the journey that we have been on. The Irish craft beer scene has thrived, with a lot of exciting Irish microbreweries opening across the country, and the standard has come along way from the days when we first thought of opening Wicklow Wolf. The market is tough and there is increased competition from the bigger breweries, but it is great to see so many local breweries doing well and giving the consumer choice.” Their business has grown with the market and now employs 18 people.
Meeting an increasing demand for non-alcoholic options without a reduction in quality, their new non-alcoholic hoppy ale, Moonlight, is a truly evolved product. “Our goal is to provide every customer with an enjoyable experience. You might only get to sit down and relax to one beer, and whether that’s Moonlight or another one of our core range, we want every drop to be full of flavour,” says Quincey. “I’m getting old, and being able to have a can or two of Moonlight and wake up feeling perfect is great. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m drinking a non-alcoholic beer.”
Wicklow Wolf Master Brewer John Allen elaborates, “There’s a misconception that non-alcoholic beers require less attention, when the opposite is true. At Wicklow Wolf, we don’t dealcoholise — instead, we create a beer that is low in alcohol, which takes a lot of care. We strive to ensure all our beer is brewed without compromise and these beers are no different.”
I’ve treated myself to a couple of cans of Moonlight in the last few days, and I’m honestly stunned. It takes a lot for a booze-free beer to impress me, but this is hoppy, fresh and infinitely enjoyable. I can easily see this becoming a mainstay in off licences, pubs — and my fridge.
Meanwhile, this Wolf shows no signs of slowing down. “We don’t like to sit on our hands, so we have lots of exciting plans to continue to bring exceptional beer to our customers and keep growing the brand, including developing our taproom and visitor experience, open new export markets, and develop our non-alcoholic range.”
What truly makes a beer local? Is it the water, the barley? Is it the fields where the hops are grown, the location of the brewery? I would argue it’s all of the above and more — it’s terroir, the very essence of the countryside, carefully and deliberately translated into every pint while simultaneously respecting and nourishing that land. The Irish word for wolf is mac tíre, translating to “son of the countryside,” — a fitting description for this range of true Wicklow-born beers.