Probably the smallest brewery in Ireland, Elbow Lane in Cork recently announced it would be doubling its brewing capacity with match-funding from Cork City’s Local Enterprise Office. It’s expected the €60,000 investment will help the micro-brewery keep up with existing demand and help develop its distribution within the region.

Elbow Lane Brewery is part of the Market Lane Group which also includes Elbow Lane Smokehouse, Market Lane, Goldie, ORSO and Blackrock Castle restaurants. It’s also one of the few Irish breweries that strictly adheres to the principles of the ancient German Purity Law, ‘Reinheitsgebot’, meaning only four ingredients are used – malted barley, hops, yeast and water. “Reinheitsgebot dates back to 1516 and was probably Europe’s first consumer protection law. It governed what went into beer at a time when people were throwing nearly anything into it. We follow that law; no additives go into beers at Elbow Lane. The fermentation of the beer is not artificially accelerated, nor is it filtered, so it’s all totally natural. We rely on time and gravity sedimentation to allow our beers to settle out,” said Master Brewer Russell Garrett. You won’t find trendy beers containing ingredients like hazelnuts or vanilla at Elbow Lane; quality and taste are paramount, with beers formulated to work with the food offering across the Group’s five restaurants.

No enzymes or stabilizers mean a shorter shelf life for Elbow Lane beers. Distribution is kept to roughly 30km from the brewery which, says Russell, helps guarantees quality. “That three month shelf life ensures a high quality beer. So while expanding across the country isn’t something we’re pursuing, we want to sell more beer within that 30km catchment area and the recent investment is allowing that to happen. Here at the brewery we always say, everybody remembers the bad pint they had on a night out, but nobody goes home and talks about the great pint they enjoyed. We go to great measures to ensure we’re the ones selling that great pint.”

Products from Elbow Lane launched 10 years ago, while work on the brewery began in 2014. Russell has been with the brewery since the beginning and is celebrating 36 years in the industry this year. He got his first taster of brewery life in 1986 working for the original Manhattan Brewing Company. Stints across the US followed, before he moved to Ireland after marrying an Irish woman. “Back in 1998, I was a partner in Franciscan Well; I came over with the equipment from the States, I installed the brewery and I formulated the recipes. I was there for about a decade before leaving to do some consultancy work and then joining Elbow Lane.” Craft breweries were few and far between in Ireland in the 1980’s. In the US the craft beer market had already taken hold, with upwards of 25% of beer sales categorised as craft beer. “Quite a few of the older Irish craft breweries have closed down, as they were forced to pay the same excise duties as the larger breweries. It wasn’t until 2004 when the Irish government granted us the reduction in beer duty that we got on the same level as the rest of Europe. That was a game changer for the craft brewing industry.” Sales among younger people took off; they had moved on from drinking the same pint as their grandfather. “That change really kicked in around 2012. Even though the tax break came in, it was still tough for a number of years. Craft brewers talk about three waves of craft brewing; the first wave was the original guys, the ground breakers, that set up shop around 1995. The second was the small number that set up in the early 2000s and the third wave came around 2012 when we began to see the number of craft breweries go from around 20 to 70 within a few years. That was a big change.”

Traditionally, tourists have played a big role in the success of the brewery and thankfully, says Russell, they’re coming back. “We rank highly on TripAdvisor so if you’re looking for the best steak or the best seafood in town, we’re the place to visit. The last couple of years have been tough for the industry but just this morning, I saw large group of tourists with their suitcases coming out of the bus station. It’s great to finally see some normality.”

During Covid, demand for Elbow Lane’s packaged products spiked. To keep up with customer requirements, investment in new equipment was essential. “We invested in a new four head bottle filler and a 5 litre mini keg filler. We’re also starting to see the benefits of the new tanks that we invested in last summer. We’re really focused on continuing to do what we’re good at doing, which is brewing really excellent beers and matching them with the food we offer in our restaurants. The investment has allowed us to increase our capacity by a certain percentage but with demand as high as it is, we could easily hit that ceiling within a year or two.” Russell and the team are quite selective when it comes to where their products are sold. “In the past, we’ve been approached by pubs that wanted to take our beers but didn’t seem to share our ethos. We don’t just grab any tap that comes our way.”