Wednesday 31 January 2024

100 Years of Irish Brewing in 50 Objects: #16 – Cairnes Brewery Invoice (1940)

I last tasted (and swallowed every drop) a glass of Drogheda strong ale, and if any of my readers in Ireland or England or any where else doubt an Irish brewer’s capacity to brew ale, let them get a bottle of William Cairnes & Son’s Drogheda strong ale, and I will vouch for an ‘encore.’

The Whiskey & Allied Trade Review via The Drogheda Argus - October 1897

If there is one enduring misconception about Irish brewing it’s the often perpetuated myth that breweries in Ireland really only ever brewed stout and red ale, or variants of both of these beers. This impression is somewhat understandable given the behemothic effect that one brand of stout has had on the beer drinkers of the country and indeed the world, plus the clever-if-duplicitous branding of certain so-called 'Irish Red Ales' - a relatively new term in the present interpretation of the style at least.  This is compounded by the apathy shown by much of the beercentric population, exacerbated by the utter decimation of most of our regional breweries, plus the neglection of our true brewing history by the latter decades of the 20th century. I doubt most Irish people - let alone those who live beyond our shores - know that in the not-too-distant past there was a wide range of ales brewed in Ireland, although admittedly on a much smaller scale than porter and its extended family.

Thankfully, in the last few decades, the country has started to rediversify into those styles again due to the many microbreweries which have sprouted up across the land but - as noted - this is just a return to the norm of our brewing past, and back to a time when there were many more breweries in Ireland, some of whom were brewing a range of styles to rival or beat many of the world’s breweries of that era. In short, there was a fine selection of Irish-brewed pale and non-red ales of different styles available to our ancestors, as well as other variants, and this is perfectly exemplified by this invoice from Cairnes Brewery in Drogheda from 1940.

The Cairnes Brewery started life as the James’s Street Brewery and commenced brewing on the 6th of October 1826, with their first beers being a pale butt and a table beer, followed a month later by a strong ale. Its proprietor William Cairnes had previously been in business - since 1813 - with John Woolsey at the Castlebellingham brewery and had married into the Woolsey and Bellingham family, but that partnership was dissolved in the same year that William set up his own brewery in Drogheda town, with John Woolsey continuing to brew on the original site. In April 1890 both breweries merged to become the Castlebellingham and Drogheda Breweries Limited and were brewing in both locations. The former brewery ceased production in 1923 with all brewing moving to the Drogheda site. The company changed its name to Cairnes Ltd in late 1933 and finally ceased brewing in 1959 when the brewing arm was sold to Guinness controlled Cherry-Cairnes (Distributors) Ltd, a company originally set up to market Phoenix ale.


 A run through of the ales available from the brewery shows what would be seen as an excellent range in many an English brewery at this time, but was relatively extensive for an Irish one - especially this late in our brewing history.

So what exactly were these beers?

The eponymously named ‘Cairnes’ was their standard draught and bottled ale and was described as pale or golden - not red by any means - with a delicate flavour in advertisements from this era, so perhaps akin to and X ale or a pale mild, and indeed they brewery had exactly such a beer – a ‘Mild Ale’ - in its range a few decades earlier.

‘No. 1 Strong’ may be a version of the older strong mild ale or 'Drogheda Ale' from from a previous era and earlier advertisements. There appears to be no mention of its colour in common sources but an entry on its chemical composition in a Dublin science journal* seems to show it was over 8% abv and it would not be unreasonable to assume this version was the same or similar strength, and it was even mentioned as ‘3 XXX’ [sic] as late as 1950 in a newspaper writeup on the brewery. An advertisement from 1885 shows that Cairnes were brewing an ‘XX Stout Strong Ale (Mild)’ which it would be nice to think was a variant of the same or similar beer, with stout meaning strong here as distinct from the newer connotations of the term. Mild in this case seems to refer to the taste, which it often did in this country and certainly at that time, although it can also mean a fresher or newer beer.

Stingo was a touted as an Irish Winter Ale and advertisements** from around this time state it was brown in colour, but no mention is made of its strength or taste other than it sharpening the appetite, helping digestion and being refreshing, which might imply it was dry and relatively well hopped? Cairnes appear to be the only Irish brewery to ever brew this style of beer in Ireland under that name, which is often used in England, although how close the Irish version was to the English one is difficult to know.

The name ‘E. I. Bitter’ - East India Bitter - most likely refers to their interpretation of an IPA, a version of which they were brewing for several decades, and back in 1885 it was being advertised as an ‘X Stout East India [Ale]. (Bitter)’ and in 1900 as just ‘E I Bitter Ale’ as per our invoice. Curiously just three years later in 1903 in another advertisement they were brewing a beer under the same name plus one called an India Pale Ale. To add further confusion, in 1905 they had alongside their IPA an ‘I. E. Ale (Dinner) but it’s worth noting that advertisements such as these are not always an accurate representation of the actual output of a brewery. India Pale Ale was a style that was quite common in other breweries in Ireland too, so well before the modern resurgence of this type of beer there were plenty of Irish IPAs.

The Nut Brown ale of which, according to our invoice, Mr. Hughes purchased a half barrel is a bit of an enigma as there are very few mentions of such a style in Ireland, although they were certainly brown ales available other than the Stingo mentioned above. Findlater’s Mountjoy brewery made one in the 1950s, and there is a bottle label showing a ‘Mellifont Brown Ale’ - which may be connected to the Cairnes brewery - in circulation too. This is yet another style that is associated with English breweries so it is of interest to see it represented on this side of the water too. Sadly again we know little about it apart from the colour and that it was definitely being brewed at this time.

Pale Ale is next on our list and was probably a lighter version of the I E Bitter and a little stronger than the next brew the Dinner Ale. which was a light and refreshing beer that was served with meals. There appears to be little record of the exact qualities of these two beers from the Cairnes’ stable but they certainly seem to have existed, possibly giving seven ales - plus three porters/stouts - being made by the brewery in the 1930s and early 1940s, although possibly not for much longer than this in truth.


Irish ales had a hard time competing with the popularity of porter in Ireland from the mid to late 18th century onwards, and that issue along with the availability of Scottish and English ales - especially Bass - over here meant that it was an extremely competitive marketplace, with too many brands vying for too few customers. Eventually Smithwick’s, as a brand, won the ale battle with its new kegged draught ale, giving the consumer what it seems they wanted by the latter half of the 20th century.

But back in the day, we brewed pale - and brown - ales, and that's worth emphasising.

Liam K

*The Composition of Drogheda Ale – The Dublin Quarterly Journal of Science Vol. II 1862 - Page 174 (14.3% proof spirit = 8.15% abv, which is 57% of the proof for UK and Ireland in some sources but this may be incorrect?)

** My own post

Please note, all written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission, full credit to its sources, and a link back to this post. The photograph and invoice itself are the authors own and cannot be used elsewhere without the author's permission. Newspaper research was thanks to The British Newspaper Archive, and other sources are as credited or linked. DO NOT STEAL THIS CONTENT!


The Beer Nut said...

Great stuff, as always. The brewery obviously kept a close eye on what their English counterparts were selling, and borrowed their terminology extensively. That makes me wonder if "Drogheda Ale" is intended as an answer to "Burton Ale": the strength seems to more or less match. It's sad that neither style survived. I've only just realised this winter how much I miss Porterhouse Brainblásta, the nearest latter-day equivalent.

Crafted Strong Beer said...

It is a well written blog about beer. Subscribing it for the future updates.