Kilkenny has a rich brewing history, most famously known as the home of Ireland’s oldest beer… no, not Guinness… Smithwick’s! The Smithwick’s brewery was founded here in 1710 – acquired by Guinness in 1965, production finally ceased in Kilkenny in 2013. The old brewery is now the home of the Smithwick’s Experience, a tourist attraction.
There’s more to beer in Kilkenny than Smithwick’s though – and as one of our favourite places in Ireland, we’ve listed the best beer spots below…
Brewery Corner (29 Parliament St)
Brewery Corner is the essential craft beer stop in Kilkenny. Owned by O’Hara’s, it’s Kilkenny’s first, and to-date only, craft beer dedicated pub. O’Hara’s beers take centre stage with a wide range available on tap but they’ve also got lots of guest beers on rotation featuring the best of Irish craft beer and the occasional beer from further afield (such as Wild Beer Co, pictured above).
Brewery Corner is one of those welcoming bars devoid of pretension – they have board games, a roaring open fire, a Super Nintendo hooked up to a big screen, a wall covered in old vinyl records and a great selection of burgers and pizzas to soak up the amazing array of craft beers. They’ve got regular live music, Meet the Brewer events and they’ve even got loyalty cards – buy 7 pints and your 8th is free! This isn’t just our favourite spot in Kilkenny, it’s one of our favourite bars in Ireland.
Cleere’s Bar & Theatre (28 Parliament St)
Cleere’s Bar & Theatre is right next door to Brewery Corner, so it’s a no-brainer to pop in here for a pint while you’re in the area. They do some great stew and it’s the home of Kilkenny’s longest running trad night on Mondays which was been going for more than 30 years!
In terms of beer, when we visited they had some Kinnegar, Yellow Belly, Costello’s and Sullivan’s on tap – more than enough decent options to pass a few hours. Cleere’s is famous for its stone-walled theatre room hidden away at the back of the bar which has hosted some of Ireland’s finest musicians including David Kitt, Bell XI, Christie Moore, Damien Dempsey, Mark Geary, Luan Parle and loads more.
The Hole in the Wall (17 High Street)
The Hole in the Wall might just be the smallest bar we’ve ever visited. Housed in the oldest surviving townhouse in Ireland – the 1582 Archer Inner House – upstairs is a music venue. When we visited, it appeared to be home to a significant amount of Beatles memorabilia and indeed when chatting to the owner, Dr Michael Conway – cardiologist turned tavern owner and writer – we were regaled with stories of his fond memories of the Beatles and their music. He also told us he’d written a sequel to the Commitments – a hugely friendly, welcoming and entertaining character; it’s worth visiting the bar just to hear his stories.
Back downstairs! The snug, is a tiny, and we mean tiny, bar area. There’s three or four stools at the bar and room for another five or six to stand around behind. Ten people and this bar is full, ladies and gentlemen. It’s one of the quirkiest, most interesting and unique bars we’ve visited.
The beer menu? It’s a chalk board with “craft beer: €7” scrawled on it. When we asked for a pale ale, we got a bottle of Costello’s. When two Spanish girls asked for a dark beer, they got a Costello’s porter rummaged from a box stored out the back. It’s that type of place. What it lacks in terms of beer selection, it makes up for in character and quirky Irish charm – a real hidden gem.
Sullivan’s Tap Room (16 John Street Lower)
Sullivan’s are famous for their Maltings Red Ale. It’s an award-winning beer which has also found some success in the export market, having made its way to the USA.
The original Sullivan’s began brewing in Kilkenny in the early 1700s. During the potato famine in 1845, Sullivan’s Brewery became one of Ireland’s largest soup kitchens. The brewery suffered a massive fire in 1880 and thanks to their good-standing in the community, everyone came out with buckets, pots and pans full of water, saving the brewery when the local fire service couldn’t.
As legend has it, Master Sullivan, who inherited the brewery, placed a wager on a horse in 1918 – in a bid to impress a lady, of course. When his horse lost, he was forced to choose between paying the Count in full or battling him in a duel. The brewery closed less than a year later. A lover, not a fighter and certainly not a shrewd businessman, he essentially lost the brewery by backing the wrong horse.
Fast-forward to 2013. Smithwick’s had just ceased production in Kilkenny. Direct descendents of the Sullivan family paired up with the Smithwick family to revive the great brewing heritage of the city – Paul Smithwick is chairman of the company, while Dan Smithwick serves as chief financial officer.
Sullivan’s tap-room is very modern; it’s a little out of place in the landscape of Kilkenny boozers but it’s very much on trend for the discerning craft beer generation. It’s an amazing space, both industrial and inviting. On our last visit, they had Yellow Belly’s Citra Pale Ale on tap alongside their own brews. They’ve also got a beer garden at the back which is home to some of the best pizza we’ve ever had. It may not be an authentic Irish ale house but their heritage is steeped in tradition – the taproom just brings their offering into the modern era.
The Wine Centre (15 John Street Lower)
The Wine Centre is right in front of Sullivan’s taproom – it’s part of the same building. It’s the only bottle shop you need visit if you’re in Kilkenny. They have a massive range of Irish craft beer featuring the likes of Whiplash, Yellow Belly, Rascals, The White Hag and a whole load more. Their international range of beer is equally as impressive, with some BrewDog and Sierra Nevada beers we’ve not seen anywhere else in Ireland.
They probably sell wine too, given their name. We were too busy filling our boots with their stunning beer selection to notice. Seriously, one of the best off-licenses we’ve visited in Ireland.
Left Bank (1 The Parade)
Left Bank ain’t a craft beer bar. Let’s make that clear. However, it’s an amazing feat of architecture in the centre of Kilkenny. A former Bank of Ireland building constructed in 1870, it’s the safest bet if you’re looking for somewhere to watch sports, somewhere to see some live music, or somewhere to get some good food.
It’s the sort of place that caters for everyone. Craft beer fans will be happy because they’ve got a couple of local beers on tap – usually Costello’s again – aside from Sullivan’s, Costello’s are Kilkenny’s local brewers, so you’ll often find their beers in most pubs here. They’ve also had 12 Acres on tap on our last couple of visits.
If you’re in a large group, Left Bank is a great choice. It’s spread over a couple of floors and there’s several rooms downstairs with open fires, multiple bars, lots of nooks and crannies and a patio area where they’ve got televisions and an outdoor bar. It’s a one-size-fits-all bar to suit everyone; no matter whether you’re here for live music, to watch football or to simply enjoy some quiet drinks, there’s a spot for you here.
Billy Byrne’s (39 John Street Lower)
Billy Byrne’s makes the list because it had a slightly different vibe to the other bars. It’s a bit more of a mix between traditional and modern. The draught list in terms of craft beer was somewhat limited – again, 12 Acres and a couple of Irishtown taps. They also had some bottled beers including Costello’s (again!).
What we really liked about this place was the general feel – there’s a quirky smoking area to the side, a couple of different bar areas and the overall vibe, during the day at least, was very family friendly. We’d recommend this place if you’re in town with the kids and you’re looking for somewhere to have a quiet afternoon pint.
Bridie’s Bar & General Store (72 John Street Lower)
Bridie’s is part of Langton’s hotel complex – it’s a bar which doesn’t look like a bar from the exterior. Apart from the massive sign that says ‘Bar’, that is. You’d swear it was a sweet shop otherwise. In fact, when you walk through the doors, it’s like an olde world general store. They have sweets from old school jars and a selection of novel, quirky items which are genuinely available for purchase.
When you’re in the store area, you’ll notice the double-saloon doors which lead you into the secret bar – a long, dimly lit, narrow space which brings you back to a forgotten era. Tiled flooring, wood-panelling and marble counters make up the decor while the walls are covered in old photographs of sports teams and people of interest from Kilkenny’s days of yore. At the very back of the bar, there’s a deceptively large beer garden, kitted out with Victorian-style bus shelters.
Bridie’s feels like one of those secret drinking dens. You swing open the saloon doors and you’re instantly taken back in time. The beer selection in craft beer terms is limited, again you’re looking at some of the local beers you’ll find in most pubs but this is a bar you need to visit for the experience. Come here, sample a Guinness from an authentic, vintage tap served by staff in full-length aprons and pretend you’ve time-travelled. Then Instagram the shit out of it.
The Pumphouse (26 Parliament St)
The Pumphouse is a great bar, split over a couple of levels. It’s not a craft beer bar by any stretch but it’s got a decent selection of beers and again, you’ll find Costello’s here. There’s also a pool table and they have trad music sessions, Monday to Wednesday during the Summer season.
The main reason we’ve included The Pumphouse as a must visit spot is because they have a huge framed poster from the Nirvana gig which was scheduled to take place at the RDS, Dublin on the 8th April 1994. This gig obviously never happened as this was the day Kurt’s body was found. Rumour has it, there were only 12 of these posters printed – they were hung around the RDS to promote the gig and eventually given away as prizes on The Beat Box on RTE2 a few months later. We’ve no idea how this one ended up here but if you’re a Nirvana fan and you’re in Kilkenny, stop in here for a pint and wonder what might’ve been…
Smithwick’s Experience (44 Parliament St)
Smithwick’s has been a significant part of Kilkenny for hundreds of years – not just in terms of beer but as part of the city’s heritage – a key component of the community and a major employer of local people during their time brewing here. The Smithwick’s Experience, while it’s very much a tourist attraction, gives a fascinating insight into the history of Smithwick’s, the building and brewing in Kilkenny from a historical perspective.
The tour includes holographics, hands-on time with some of the old machinery, getting up close and personal with hops and we were guided by an incredibly enthusiastic tour guide whose family had worked in Smithwick’s for many years – so it felt very authentic. It feels like it’s been put together to honour the brewing tradition of the city, rather than as a money-making tourist attraction.
Yes, you exit through the gift shop but you get to sample some beers along the way too. While Smithwick’s may now be owned by Diageo, they played a huge part in the story of Irish beer so you’d be foolish to visit Kilkenny and not take the tour while you’re here if you’re even remotely interested in the history of brewing in Ireland.
Is there anywhere we’ve missed? Let us know your favourite craft beer places in Kilkenny in the comments below.