Brewing is an ancient tradition. It is thought that beer was consumed in Ireland as far back as the Bronze and Iron Age. In early Christian times Monks used herbs to flavour their brews. This was called gruit. During the 15th and early part of the 16th century ale was the staple drink. Water was not safe to drink due to contamination and milk was only available in the calving season when excess was used for butter and cheese production.
Both ale and beer are made from barley, but hops are added to make beer. Hops helped preserve the beer. Ale with its short shelf life had to be brewed every few days. This was a job mainly carried out by women in the lower classes. Ale wives or brewesters sold any excess from their premises giving rise to the term ale houses. Ale came in different strengths. The first brew was known as Strong ale, the 2nd brew produced an average strength ale and the 3rd brew produced an ale with a very mild alcoholic content called small ale. This was drunk at breakfast and by children. It was weak and very bitter.Beer on the other hand had a longer shelf life which resulted in a decline in home brewing as it became mass produced in the 18th century. Beer brewing was traditionally done by men. Here in Ireland Arthur Guinness, himself the son of a brewer, bought a small brewery in Leixlip, Co Kildare in 1756.
By 1759 he had taken a 9000 year lease on St James’ Gate, Dublin. By 1799 Guinness stopped making ale and concentrated on the production of porter. At this time, it is estimated that Ireland had over 100 local breweries. However, the success of Guinness meant that many of these regional breweries did not survive. The development of Irish porter brewing companies in the 18th century, according to industrial archaeologist Colin Rynne, depended on 3 main elements:1. A supply of barley2. Access to an urban population3. Access to water transport for the supply of raw materials and finished productRynne estimates that 14 breweries existed in County Tipperary between 1798 and 1925. One of the remaining successful breweries outside of Dublin at this time was in Clonmel. It was originally named Greer and Murphy and first opened in 1798 on New Quay in Clonmel. In 1829 it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in Dowd’s Lane/Nelson Street and thereafter called Murphy’s Brewery.
Bassets’ Directory or The Book of County Tipperary 1889, features a drawing of Murphy’s Brewery and tells us that it is the oldest and most extensive brewery in Ireland, outside of Dublin, occupying 2 acres beside the River Suir. Messrs Thomas Murphy & Co. produced ale, stout and porter. The ale and stout were exported to England and Wales as well as supplied to regimental canteens and distributed throughout County Tipperary and the surrounding Counties of Waterford, Limerick, Clare, Kilkenny and Galway. Porter brewing required huge quantities of water and Murphy’s had 2 wells on site for sourcing water for the brewing process. Both malt and hops were used, and the brewery had 3 large malting houses. Some of the barley used was sourced locally but most of it came from the Horse and Jockey area. In the mid 19th century Murphy’s Brewery employed 200 people.
All of the casks and barrels used in the brewery were produced on site by Coopers and there was even an on site saw mill. In 1885 the Dublin Artisans Exhibition awarded a 1st class Certificate for Excellence for the cooper work sent from the Brewery. Coopers were the craftsmen who made all the staved (length of wood) wooden vessels used in the brewery such as casks, barrels, vats, buckets, troughs etc. The job of Cooper frequently ran in families. An apprenticeship took 7 years. The profession gave rise to the surname Cooper. The skill of the cooper can be further subdivided depending on what type of vessel or container he was making.1. Dry cooper – made casks for storing dry goods such as flour and tobacco2. White Cooper – made dairy and domestic containers such as those used in butter making3. Wet Cooper – made watertight containers used in the fermenting process in brewing.
The cooper’s tools were invaluable and frequently passed down through the generations much like the job itself. They included an axe used to first roughly shape the length of timber – a process called listing the stave. A hollow knife was then used to hollow out the stave. A jointer plane angled the stave. The staves had to be made to fit properly. They were sloped to make the barrel shaped when assembled. Temporary or raising up hoops were used first. A 3lb hammer and driver was used to drive on the hoops. The next stage of the process involved lighting a fire of shavings on the inside of the barrel. Using the driver the timber would be squeezed together with the aid of the heat to warp the wood. Oak was used as it retained its shape after cooling. Reeds were used between the staves.
These would swell on contact with the liquid thereby sealing the barrel. The cask was then turned over and further temporary hoops put on at intervals. An adze was used to cut and bevell the staves. A topping plane squared off the ends, allowing the used of a chiv to level the inside of the cask. A croze cut the groove for the top and bottom of the barrel. A drawing knife evened off the outside while a round shave smoothed the inside.Permanent hoops were fitted before finally the head and tail of the barrel were assembled using a compass to measure the circle and a hand saw to cut it.
The work of the cooper was a length and skilled process and you can understand why a 7 year apprenticeship was needed. Economic stagnation post-Independence in 1922 meant many of the remaining smaller breweries folded, including Murphy’s of Clonmel in 1925. In 1935 William Magner took over Murphy’s Brewery premises in Dowd’s Lane and in partnership with Bulmer’s of Hereford began making cider.
Below is an image of Murphy's brewery.