Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Phoenix - The Brief History of an Irish Ale that Burned Brightly

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The history of Irish beer and brewing is awash with the flotsam and jetsam of brands that didn’t quite make it, as a quick look back through my previous writing on the subject will demonstrate. Most are vaguely remembered if at all, consigned as also-rans in the various shake ups, closures and takeovers that some would argue have damaged and monopolised the heart and soul of Irish brewing, or lost to the ever-changing whims of the beer drinking public as tastes and trends changed, driven perhaps by clever marketing teams more so than great brewers.

 But there is one brand, helped by its longevity, that seems to have remained in the public’s mind better than any other, and that is Phoenix. 

 A mention of the brand during a conversation in a pub or on social media will elicit responses such as:

 ‘Oh, Phoenix? My uncle used to drink that!’

‘There’s a glass mug with that name on a shelf in our house.’

‘Phoenix? Wasn’t that the same as Macardles?’

 Inevitably the conversation always ends up in one of two places, either with a mention of an advertisement1 of dancing glass tankards, or recollections of dusty pint bottles sitting on a low shelf in a bar somewhere - usually Waterford.

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Phoenix was born as ‘a new "bright" ale to suit Irish tastes and meet modern trends at a moderate price.’ according a newspaper article2 for its launch in April 1956. It was to be distributed by a newly formed company called Cherry-Cairnes Ltd, representing both of those breweries. Cherry’s was Guinness controlled at this time and had reopened what used to be the Davis - Strangman & Co. brewery (Now Waterford Distillery on Grattan Quay). Sir Richard Levinge, the chairman of this new company, said that the ‘ale drinkers in Ireland, in contrast to those elsewhere, prefer the full-bodied hop flavour and yeasty taste of a naturally conditioned ale.’ although he then goes on to say that it is chilled and ‘filtered to ensure biological purity’ so how the yeast bite mentioned in his first statement would remain seems contradictory. He continues to say that it can be enjoyed ‘to the last drop’ and therefore implying that its main rival Smithwick’s No. 1 the other main pale ale could not, due to it being bottle conditioned and therefore had cloudy dregs remaining in the end of their bottles.

For those who are interested in where the name came from, he addresses this by saying that the name Phoenix was ‘known to everyone and [...] is easy to say in Ireland.’ I take this as a nod to The Phoenix Park, Dublin’s largest green area and certainly known countrywide, but the article also states that there was a link with the old Phoenix brewery in Dublin, ‘once situated immediately adjacent to the new [...] Dublin [distribution] depot.’ [Edit: In the comment section below The Beer Nut suggests that this new depot was just the Guinness one at James's Gate, which makes sense.]

Colonel Cairnes, the chairman of his same named brewery, takes over the speaking and makes the point that although they are in partnership on this venture, his brewery will remain ‘completely independent’ and that they will continue to produce their own range of beers alongside of Phoenix, and implies Cherry’s would continue to produce theirs too.  He goes on to say that Cairnes Ltd. will supply everywhere north of a line between Dublin and Galway and Cherry’s would supply everywhere south of that with both suppling the Dublin depot on Thomas Street for sales in the city district. This seems like a clever way to achieve nationwide coverage and manage the volume of production required for an all-island assault and it appears to have worked quite well, as in its first year it had achieved 20% of the market share, mostly at the expense of Smithwick’s No. 13. Guinness are mentioned as being on hand to assist with any laboratory work or with other technical resources. (Coincidentally - or maybe not - Smithwick’s ran an advertisement right beside this article stating that the export version of No. 1 was now for sale ‘in the Republic’ and that it was ‘The “All Clear” Signal to Great Enjoyment!', so perhaps pre-empting one of the article's messages.)

Phoenix was launched in Northern Ireland in August 1956 being brewed by Cairnes as per their geographic agreement but ‘in conjunction with Cherry’s Breweries, Waterford’ according to an advertisement4 on that date, with a reinforcement of the message that technical assistance was being brought by Guinness mentioned again, implying that this was a mark of its quality. It was being bottled at this point by P. Murphy & Sons in Ballymena for this market (Findlater's bottled for Dublin and possibly the rest of Ireland), presumably being shipped in bulk (tankers pictured here) or cask to their bottling plant. Again, the focus is on it being a ‘full bodied flavour, a bright ale, and ale that pours clear...’ and there is no mention of it being available on draught yet in either territory.

Phoenix was marketed as ‘Special Ale’ and in 1957, the year after its arrival on the beer scene, its big brother/sister Phoenix Barley Wine was launched. It was marketed as beer for cold weather and also as one for women, with the by-line ‘P.S. And ladies love it.’ added to advertisements5 at the time. Interestingly it mentions that it was available on draught too, perhaps making it the first and only beer branded as a Barley Wine offered on draught in the country prior to the arrival the microbreweries. This would lead me to believe that ‘normal’ Phoenix was also on draught at this point, and it certainly was by 1958 from mentions I have come across elsewhere.

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Here are  couple of later labels for Phoenix Barley Wine from my own collection, and it is interesting that these two labels don’t mention it being brewed in Waterford, instead they keep the provenance vague leading me to think that at the dates these were printed, which I’m unsure of - maybe seventies and eighties - that these were not being brewed in the Waterford brewery.

Image Source - Author's own collection, do not reuse without permission

In 1958 Phoenix won an international award in Belgium and it changed its name from ‘Special Ale’ to ‘Prize Ale’ (I have also seen advertisements with ‘Export’ Prize Ale on the label, I’m unsure if this was a stronger version or not.) and the consortium posted the following advertisement in newspapers6:


PHOENIX ALE WINS FIRST PRIZE IN WORLD BEER COMPETITION

BELGIAN PREMIER PRIX FOR FAMOUS IRISH ALE: Before international panel of experts at Ghent, Belgium, Phoenix Ale has been awarded a Premier Prix in the World Beer Competition. The chief qualities considered by the judges were: flavour, condition, head-retention and “body”, and this popular Irish ale took first prize in the face of keen competition from the products of U.S.A., Britain and the Commonwealth, Canada and many European countries.

THE ALL-IRISH ALE: Phoenix Ale is chilled, filtered and pasteurised in the most modern plants of their kind in Ireland. It is produced by an all-Irish enterprise backed by Irish capital, employing skilled Irish labour and using native-grown barley. And it’s specially brewed for Irish tastes so the First Prize in world beer competition proves how discerning Irish tastes are!

A STANDARD SAMPLE TOOK THE AWARD: Some brewers brew specially for competitions of this kind but the Phoenix entry was a standard sample—the very some Phoenix Ale that thousands of Irishmen enjoy every day. Try it yourself. You’ll agree—at home or abroad it’s fine—it’s PHOENIX.

IT’S FIRST - IT’S PHOENIX

 

They are really pushing the Irish angle here, perhaps a dig towards the UK imports that were quite popular here such as Bass and others. This is the first mention I have found as to it being pasteurised as well as chilled and filtered, and possibly made it the first pasteurised beer in Ireland. (Perry’s brewery in Rathdowney had a filtered ale called ND (No Deposit) around 1900, perhaps making it the first filtered ale in the country.)

In an interesting aside, a Drogheda dredger was launched in this year not by smashing it with champagne but with a bottle of ‘Cairnes Phoenix’!12

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By early 1959 Cairnes Brewery was in trouble, regardless of the award winning success of Phoenix, indeed it had being operating at a loss since 1950 and the final nail in the coffin was that ‘the ale trade, due to adverse weather, had suffered in succession the three worst seasons for a very long time.’7 combined with increased production costs. And so, production of Phoenix appears to move solely to Cherry’s Waterford brewery at this time as indicated by another launch in Northern Ireland of Phoenix Ale brewed ‘in Waterford by Cherry’s Breweries Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Arthur Guinness Ltd.’8

An article about the launch of Harp in 1960 mentions that the marketing of Guinness’s new lager would be ‘undertaken by the Phoenix organisation, whose success with Phoenix ale at home and abroad greatly encouraged the Guinness company in undertaking the new venture.’ So, it seems that Phoenix’s success was in part responsible for the launch of Harp lager - along with changing customer tastes of course. The same piece states that at this point Phoenix sales were increasing by 12% per month and that annual output had quadrupled since its launch, with one third of that output being sold as draught. It also claims that Phoenix had only been launched in Northern Ireland in 1959, which is at odds with an advertisement from 1956 I quoted above, although I’m thinking that perhaps it was only launched on draught in the north in that year and that is where the confusion lies. The Cherry’s brewery in Waterford was upgraded around this time too, to help deal with demand.9 We can see here that Guinness appeared to be lining up to have a say in the growing lager market as well as pale ale and, of course, their stout – maybe as an attempt to cover almost every beer base. Indeed, with Irish Ale Breweries Ltd. (A sales and marketing group organised by Guinness and Inde Coop/ Allied Breweries) coming on the scene even the Macardle Moore brewed Double Diamond was being promoted with Phoenix – a curious partnership.10


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By 1965 some production of Phoenix was being brewed by Perry’s Brewery in Rathdowney in Laois, who had been taken over by Cherry’s in the late fifties. Brewing records for that year show a few batches of an ale with that name being brewed there. Edd Mather has transcribed one recipe I found showing it to have an IBU of 34 and an abv of 5.25%. (I wonder was this one a version of that Barley Wine? Ireland's take on the style all seem to have been relatively low in alcohol.) Ron Pattinson also has a different recipe in his book ‘Let’s Brew’ which is from 1966 that gives an IBU of 41 and an abv of 3.6%. Whether these were test brews or supplementary production to what was being brewed in Waterford I don’t know, but Phoenix did get a recipe change at sometime in the 1960s so perhaps these Perry's brews were the start of that production.

Image Source - Author's own collection, do not reuse without permission

It certainly appears slightly darker in undated television/cinema adverts from the sixties that highlighted that changed, so maybe it was being more closely aligned with darker Smithwick’s Draught, which was launched in 1966 to (eventually) replace the pale Smithwick’s No. 1 ale that was in my opinion a reaction in turn to some of the darker English ales that were starting to take hold in the market such as Watney’s Red Barrel. Indeed, Smithwick’s overtook Phoenix in sales in 19683 and perhaps that was the beginning of Phoenix’s slow death. (Incidentally, I possess a label that shows the abv was 4% around the 1980s.)

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Also from 1968, I came across this advertisement showing canned beer available from a wine merchants in Wexford. I'm assuming that this makes Phoenix Ireland's first canned ale?!

In ‘The Simon and Shuster Pocket Guide to Beer’ by Michael Jackson published in 1986, Jackson mentions Phoenix and states that it is slightly sweeter than Macardles but less so than Perry’s (which as far as I know was by then just another Irish Ale Breweries brand if it actually still existed by the time the book was published) with Smithwicks Draught being the sweetest. Jackson also mentions it in his ‘Beer Companion’ book published in 1993 and he says he tried it in the sixties and it was drier than Smithwick’s Time ale (What was Smithwick's Export before the rebrand.), frustratingly he also says it was ‘reddish’ but most adverts and descriptions from the sixties show it to be pale and bright, although admittedly it does look darker in some printed advertisements and photos. The recipe did change and perhaps it became slightly darker as I mentioned previously but that is just with an advert or two to go by, but I would not have said it was as dark as Smithwick’s currently is. He mentions it is still available at this date and brewed now in the same brewery as Macardles. I wonder did it get a different lease of life in the eighties when it did just become another ‘reddish’ ale as he says, but that his remembering of it in the sixties was through Irish-Red-Ale tinted glasses? I am not sure, he’s a difficult person to doubt but then again we can all look at the past erroneously. Another comment on its taste is via a scanned page from 1969 on The Brand New Retro11 website that likens its taste to an ‘old English bitter ale’, calling it light, dry and sharp with a characteristic hop aroma. [Edit: In the comment section below Séan Billings mentions that the 17 and 18 year olds he hung around with in 1989 in Waterford thought that Phoenix 'was the same as Smithwicks'.]

Somewhere after this point in the eighties it drops below the radar as far as I can see and seems to disappear, perhaps into local geographic pockets of dedicated drinkers, by this time or a little before the logo had changed again, and the word 'ale' had been completely replaced by 'beer' and the brand was mostly consigned to being a few dusty bottles on bar shelves.

Image Source - Author's own collection, do not reuse without permission

I have acquired a few Phoenix labels and you can see how the logo and name progresses and changes over time, becoming more modern in the seventies/eighties. Other breweriana is also commonish, with plastic signage and metal trays appearing occasionally for sale. But there really should be more pieces around given its relative popularity, then again I think many former drinkers held on to pieces for nostalgic purposes, and the artwork has a certain charm - the graphic designers did such a great job, especially on the early versions of the logo.

Image Source - Author's own collection, do not reuse without permission

Here is a pretty forlorn advertising piece showing the original logo that I spotted in the historic Morrissey's pub in Abbeyleix It is perhaps a fitting image now for the brand, sitting on a cluttered shelf of forgotten bric-a-brac, slightly battered with a broken wing. Still quite charming to my eye though!

Edit: More advertising - A commenter below tipped me off to a Phoenix sign that still exists on bar in Crossmolina in Mayo, here it is via Google Street View.





The bar is closed a while but at least the sign remains - for now....


@beerfoodtravel
Image Source - Author's own collection, do not reuse without permission

I cannot finish without mentioned the glorious Phoenix tankard, one of which I possess with the later logo design emblazoned on its side. I originally thought these were made by the Waterford Barware arm of the famous glass making company but I’m not quite so positive now, as a company called Celtic Glass in Bray seem to have been importing and decorating pint glasses at least so perhaps they had a hand in importing these too? This tankard design – and it is a beauty - was also used for Double Diamond in Ireland at least so more research might be required to either confirm or deny the Waterford provenance. Mine has an Irish verification mark but that is no guarantee of origin of course, as many glasses were imported from the UK or the continent and verified here.

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When does Phoenix finally vanish from pubs? There is a mention here of someone finding a bottle dated best before October 1989 but I’m finding it quite difficult to find out when production actually ceased. My present opinion is that it never saw the 1990s but I am still looking for information. (A column in one newspaper in 1989 of things that we had in the sixties mentions Phoenix, implying it was no longer available.) [Edit: In the comments below Séan Billings says he remembers drinking large bottles of Phoenix in Waterford in 1989.]

Edit: I was wrong of course, the brand lasted much longer that I thought! In fact I it made it in into the 21st century I'm delighted to report! Thanks to Robin Power from Waterford, who informed in the comments section below that he was drinking it around 2001 and very kindly provided me with a picture of the last pint bottle he drank, from a pub close to the old brewery in Waterford - with a nice Phoenix crate in the background.


The best before date is '27-02-02' which would lead me to believe this was bottled in 2001, so was this the last run of Phoenix? Quite likely - it is a pity it didn't quite reach its 50th anniversary...

Also of note on the label is the mention of the use of maize in the beer at this point, an ingredient certain not evident in the brewing records for those batches brewed in Perry's in the 60s, and a sign perhaps that this was - ironically - a pale imitation of the beer it once was, way back when it won that award back in Belgium almost half a century ago...

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So, that is what I’ve unearthed so far, and as you can see it is somewhat incomplete, as I’m missing - for now at least - a final couple of paragraphs that record its demise. The simple answer is to assume that it was surplus to requirements in the Diageo portfolio, and it went the way of Perry’s Ale. Unwanted and no longer loved it was finally put to sleep, as who needs four bottled ales when those that drink them are literally a dying breed? Macardles and Smithwicks won the battle in the long run …

Who knows, maybe Guinness will resurrect this bird one last time.

Wouldn’t that be something? Seeing the Phoenix logo rise again in another form or shape, I just hope if they do that it will be for a pale ale! I do have those recipes still…

(As with all of these posts on lost Irish beer brands this will get updated when I find out more information, as I am constantly finding new nuggets and scraps but I felt it was time to finally do this one, as I’ve talked about completing it for quite a while now. I'm also aware that it has too many possiblies, maybes and perhapses along with unanswered questions.)

Liam

(All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without full credit to its source and a link back to this post. All original photographs are my own and can not be used elsewhere without my consent. The image from Perry's brewing log is mine via Portlaoise Local Studies at Portlaoise Library.)

All advertisement images © Independent News and Media PLC and I have received permission to reproduce them here. All rights reserved. Sourced via The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). 


Note 1:

I have in my possession a Great Northern Brewery produced Phoenix Lager label which has puzzled me since it surfaced a couple of years back. Was it a marketing test or discarded brand? It states it was for a 60cl bottle or can so I suspect it was for non-domestic or non-UK market. The logo is more like the last iteration of Phoenix Ale so I’m thinking it was from the 70s or 80s.


Note 2:

Plenty of adverts created by McConnell’s Advertising Service from the 1960s here, just search 'Phoenix' and enjoy!



Note 3:

There are photos of the official launch of Phoenix in 1958 available here from Irish Portrait Archive


References:

1 Search ‘Phoenix Glass Dance’ on the IFI Player here

2 Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal - Saturday 28 April 1956

3 ‘Beamish & Crawford – The History of an Irish Brewery’ – Donal Ó Drisceoil & Diarmuid Ó Drisceoil

4 Belfast Telegraph - Saturday 04 August 1956

5 Sligo Champion - Saturday 09 November 1957

6 Sligo Champion - Saturday 26 July 1958

7 Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal - Saturday 03 January 1959

8 Belfast Telegraph - Friday 01 May 1959

9 Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal - Saturday 26 March 1960

10 Belfast Telegraph - Monday 08 May 1961

11 The Brand New Retro

12 Drogheda Independent - Friday 08 July 1988


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