An evening at Cork's Franciscan Well Brewery Pub
As a native of Cork and a loyal patron of the many unique and intimate establishments dotted across the city it was no surprise that a tour of one of its most famous public houses (Pubs) would be high on my bucket list. Long famous with Corkonians for their delicious craft beers as well as the atmospheric bar and outdoor seating the Franciscan Well has always had a special place in the hearts of the discerning pub-going people of Cork.
The idea of doing a tour of this wonderful institution and learning more about its history and its beers & stouts seemed like the perfect day out. And so, together with two of my colleagues here in the My Ireland Tour office, it was decided that this was a mission that did indeed need executing slippedy-quick.
"So, if ya wanna do a tour, you're gonna need a guide!"
Enter: Kate. Kate has been with the Fran-Well (as it is known to its friends) for over two years now, during that time she has had great success running tours and has morphed triumphantly into their resident marketing guru. From the first email to our first meet, she was a delight to deal with. She met us in the bar (where else). Pleasantries were exchanged and so our tour began. Her infectious enthusiasm and easygoing manner made her a perfect fit and we were instantly at ease enjoying the banter. So far, so awesome!
So 'tis History you're after?
Kate started with a brief rundown of the history of the Fran-Well. How she managed to fit so much into so little I do. Not. Know. Wow! Let's quickly run through the highlights (I don’t want to ruin the tour for you):
Rapid-fire history of the Franciscan WellSkip this bit »
The place was started as a Franciscan Monastery (the Franciscans were said to be the hippies of their day) sometime around the 13th Century (1229AD at two o'clock on a Thursday afternoon to be precise) by the Irish chieftain, Diarmuid McCarthy Mor. The monks sold water to the people of Cork. Selling water you say? Yes, the site is built on a well which of course gives the place its name. Hops were added to make the water more drinkable, Kate said something about bacteria in the water killing people back then, makes sense. And so the history is of brewing on this site is quite old!
In 1540AD King Henry VIII (yes, the bad one!) confiscated the Abbey and its lands from the monks. Of course, that didn't stop the local Cork people from secretly going to mass at the well. It was also around now that the royal survey detailed that most of the abbey be knocked and so from here the lands passed back and forth between various parties until around the 18th-century when the houses, that currently occupy the area, came to be.
From 1804 to 1866 the location was occupied by various private peoples. During this time the houses were rebuilt and as the foundations were being dug a whole bunch of medieval graves and sarcophagi were found. It seems there is a lot of history in the ground around here. So cool!
From 1866 to 1907 a water bottling plant and beer brewery were located at the site. These were owned by the Abbot brothers. Here they bottled Guinness and water from the well among other things.
Sometime around 1912 the location became the Well Bar (woo-hoo!) and has remained a public house ever since. The bottling plant still remained active for while longer. There is, still much history to be told and so let's keep going!
The place was purchased by one Mr. James Coleman in 1913. This would prove to be a bad move by Mr. Coleman as his faith when entwined with that of the Franciscan Well would have a somewhat murderous and sinister ending but to find out more about this story you shall have to ask Kate on your own tour! After this, the bottling plant and pub continued to operate until the 1970s during which the ownership changed a number of times. In 1988, it was taken over by its current owner Shane Long.
In 1998 Shane produced his first craft beer and the rest is history!
How is the beer made? Magic and skill!
The next part of our tour took us through the brewery itself. We got a full tour of the actual brewery floor, moving through the entire cycle of beer production from tank to tank. We met the guys who work there and saw what it takes to actually make a batch. I have to admit during this portion of the tour I was lost in a maze of tanks, pipework and shiny valves but Kate's excellent knowledge of the brewing process kept us afloat! From what I could gather they do something like the following:
The Magic behind the BeerSkip this bit »
Carefully selected malted barley is soaked in hot water in a large stainless steel and copper tank. Malt sugars are released. This involves a person called a "Maltser". This person has the coolest job title ever and if you disagree with me on this we may have to have words! :-)
The malt sugar mix is boiled and hops are added for seasoning. This seems to be where some serious magic happens. This may even be the point where a beer either becomes something akin to expensive dishwater or the sort of beer you want to bring home to your mother to see if she approves of you marrying it (Chieftain IPA is a good example of the latter, so nice!). I believe we now have what is known as "wort".
This wort is then left to cool. Yeast is added. The yeast begins the fermentation of the sugars. Fermentation is good because it releases the alcohol. Alcohol is good cause it makes beer amazing. Beer is good because it makes life amazing. Therefore fermentation is amazing.
Once fermentation is complete the beer is bottled or put into kegs for transportation. This is important because for some reason the government won't run a piped beer network around the country the same way they do with water. Crazy! I know right!
Using the process above, and some variations of it, they produce a whole variety of delicious finely balanced beers and stouts. They currently produce five main types of beer: Rebel Red, Chieftain IPA, Blarney Blond, Friar Weisse and Shandon Stout. Of these, my favourite by far was the Chieftain. It just works and I don't know why. Kate graciously offered to explain, which takes us to the next and final part of the tour: The tasting!
Next Step? Tasting!
This was by far my favourite part of the tour. Kate gave us a detailed explanation of the genesis of each of their five main beers, and also what sort of tasting notes we might experience with them. Each beer was analysed, sipped and analysed some more. We really got to see how Shane (the owner and founder of the brewery) took a simple idea like Chieftain IPA and turned it into one of the most perfectly balanced and wildly popular beers in Ireland.
Ok, now I'm gonna tell you a story...
On a tour like this, it's hard to choose a favourite moment because well... it's all amazing but there is one moment that stuck out and it will take a little explaining to really understand it so stick with me...
See a few years ago this Shane guy (Franciscan Well Head Brewer and all-around legend) had a bright idea: Let's ask the good people in the Jameson distillery (just down the road here in Cork) if we could borrow a couple of their finest whiskey barrels. "Why not!" he thought... Sure wouldn't it be a great idea to put Franciscan Well stout into whiskey barrels to see if it can take on some of that silky smooth Jameson taste for itself!
Now realise, Shane's stout was pretty smooth all on its own... but... It seems that this Shane fellow was a bit of an experimenter so off he went to Midleton to ask for some barrels. It seems the sound people at Jameson apparently liked the cut of his jib because they went ahead and said "No Bother! How many would like?" (I may be paraphrasing here).
So, Shane went back and made a whole batch of stout in Jameson Irish Whiskey barrels and my oh my was it tasty.. so much so that it sold out in 24 hours! Satisfied he had done some solid work in furthering the field of knowledge around his particular craft Shane dutifully returned the barrels and that was that. Or so we thought.....
See here is where the story should end if it were not for another chap by the name of Dave Quinn. Dave was of a similar mind to Shane (an experimenter) and just so happened to be the Head of Whiskey Science (Yeah, there are a lot of awesome job descriptions in this article) over in Jameson. Upon return of his barrels (now soaked in Fran Well stout) Dave said to himself: "hey... why not fill these bad boys with some fully matured Jameson and see what they taste like in a few months!". A few months passed and Dave went to check the contents of the barrels. How was it you ask? It was nice, oh but was it nice! No, A taste such as this needs far larger words than "nice"! It was breathtaking, magnificent, wondrous, mind-blowing and a whole host of other multi-syllable words. It was in a single word: Perfect!
My Favourite part of the whole experience
And so that is the story of Jameson Caskmates. One of the most popular Irish whiskeys to be produced in recent years. Kate told us this story. It was a good story and she told it well. The part that really made me love this story and this tour was the bit that came next: She paired a glass of the various Franciscan Well beers with a glass of an appropriate Jameson and carefully instructed us how to drink them together. A sip from one glass followed by the other. Hold the beer slightly longer than required in the mouth. She called it a boilermaker and it was truly a revelation. Franciscan Well Beer and Jameson. This pairing and the taste and sensations it produced was the highlight of the tour for me. It really made me see what a truly unique thing the people at the Fran-Well are doing.
How it all ends
The tasting was over. The tour was finished. We learned a lot, we saw a lot, we laughed a lot and we drank even more. Seeing as we were a special group Kate decided we needed a parting gift. A gift suited to the occasion, a gift that occupies a deep and symbolic part of any Irish person's heart: She gave us a "bag of cans". Of course, these were cans of the finest beers this country has to offer: Franciscan Well beers!
With the tour complete we thought our time at the Fran Well was over but Kate had one more trick up her sleeve: She motioned towards the pizza counter out back and said in a low hushed voice that the real pro's finish a night here with a pizza and a pint. We considered ourselves such people and so sat down to a delicious freshly made stone oven-cooked pizza accompanied by a pint of the Fran Wells finest. Conversation slowed to a trickle as we eagerly wolfed down our perfectly paired pizzas and pints. With our minds and our bellies filled we left the Fran Well, happy content and with far more knowledge on the history and products of a little place in a little corner of Cork that continues to punch well (pun intended) above its weight. Win!