"Malt-drink in Ireland, as has been already stated, was of early origin, but its general use was inconsiderable till after the English invasion. A duty of 5s. 3.75d. a barrel was imposed on it in 1787, when its consumption became of some magnitude. While it was in operation, this duty varied in proportion to the exigencies of the state and the views of the ministry ; but the government, from a wish to encourage the use of malt liquors, and the advancement of agriculture, thought it expedient to repeal the duty altogether; at the same time the duty was raised on malt from 9.25d. to 1s. 3d. the bushel, and afterwards gradually increased to 4s. 5d., and was again lowered to 2s. 7d., the present standard duty. It appears from the Parliamentary returns, that since 1796, the year in which the Irish beer-duty was rescinded, there has been on the whole, a falling off in the consumption of malt, notwithstanding the immense increase in the population, clearly shewing that the abolition of the beer-duty did not answer the intention, and proving that the Irish people preferred spirits.Apart from those lovely numbers, there was something else that attracted me to this text: the explanation of why the Irish drank proportionally less beer and more spirits. A pretty obvious one, really. Whiskey was better value and the beer was crap.
To what this taste may be attributed might be worthy of inquiry ; for it must be admitted, that an Irishman has nothing inherent in his composition to render him more devoted to ardent spirits than the native of any other country. The most plausible reason for this predilection seems to be, that the malt-drink made in Ireland was never of strength, flavour, nor purity, equal to that manufactured in England: hence to the warm and exhilarating spirit a preference was given, rather than to the thin, cold, and unpalatable beer or ale to be met in the shops and taverns of the kingdom. In England, the greatest care was observed by the brewers; in Ireland the trade was in the hands of persons, the majority of whom were men of no capital, subject to no check nor regulation, and studying every thing but the interest of the public, while malt and hops formed but a small portion of the drink imposed on the community. On the other hand, it may be argued that the high duty on these articles induced the brewer to limit their use as much as possible, and to this the inattention of the legislature, in no small degree, contributed. Had the duty on malt been lowered, and a lighter duty been laid on beer with a higher impost on whiskey, it might have had the effect of making Ireland more an ale and beer than a whiskey country, and have prevented many of those misfortunes that have arisen from the unrestrained and prevalent use of ardent spirits, to the disgrace of the national character. It can scarcely be questioned, that were the trade conducted under the control of wholesome laws and the regulations of government, it could not fail to have a salutary effect by producing a pleasant, wholesome beverage, encouraging the fair trader, and punishing the deleterious manufacturer. The quality of the Irish malt-drink has, of late, through the conduct of some spirited individuals, been greatly improved, and is getting into greater repute not only at home but in the sister kingdoms, and even in foreign countries. The quantity of malt used in the breweries in the year ending the 5th July, 1827, was 1,391,456 ; and in the year ending 5th July, 1828, 1,415,832
* Parliamentary Paper, No. 30. Sept. 1828.
bushels, yielding for the one, at the rate of two bushels of malt for every barrel brewed, 695,728, and for the other 707,916 barrels of the different sorts of malt liquor.* The following is the number of bushels used by the licensed brewers for the years specified:—'
YEARS. BUSHELS. BUSHELS. 1832 Dublin 491,227 Ireland 1,543,265 1833 do 539,226 do 1,683,285 1834 do 790,713 do 2,055,326 1835 do 577,021 do 1,829,589 1836 do 617,035 do 2,032,856
The malt drink exported was, for the year ending 5th January,
1826 9,855 } 1827 10,800 } 1828 11,261 } Imperial barrels* 1829 14,499 } 1830 15,207 }
Of these, there were sent to England 11,101, and to Scotland 220 barrels, while in 1829 there were sent to the former 11,754, and to the latter 118 barrels.** The imports of beer during those two years were 747 barrels from England, and 875 from Scotland. In 1832, there were in Ireland 216 breweries, and in 1837, there were 247 breweries, in which the malt consumed in that year, was 2,034,557 bushels."
"A philosophical and statistical history of the inventions and customs of Ancient and Modern Nations in the Manufacture and Use of Intoxicating Liquors" by Samuel Morewood, 1838, pages 622 - 6
I love the way Samuel Morewood puts it: "an Irishman has nothing inherent in his composition to render him more devoted to ardent spirits than the native of any other country".
As Morewood points out, the quality of Irish beer was improving. Remember it was in the 1840's that Guinness started exporting serious amounts of beer to England and Scotland. Over 40,000 barrels in 1840, or getting on for triple the amount of all Irish beer exports in 1830.
Before the 1800 Act of Union, beer taxation was controlled by the Irish parliament. And it often took a different path to its English counterpart. Excise duty on beer is a good example. It was always lower in Ireland than in England and was abolished in 1786 - 44 years before it was in England. Ironically, unlike most of the rest of the Irish economy, brewing wasn't damaged by the union, with the number of breweries and the amount of beer produced both increasing.