JOHN DALY: Craft brewing comes of age to be a serious exports industry

Back in 1996, the phrase “craft beer” was relatively unknown in Ireland.

Franciscan Well brewer Shane Long, whose North Mall premises is a long-established fixture on the Irish craft beer scene.

In June of that year, Dublin’s Porterhouse Pub opened its doors in Temple Bar and ushered in a new era producing its own beers for an Irish consumer base ready for change.

With the 21st birthday of this thriving niche sector just around the corner, the craft beer industry has come of age all across the country, with dozens of brews and producers now present in a market continuing to expand. Showing little sign of saturation at this point, it seems a sector with further to grow.

With his cousin Liam LaHar, the late Oliver Hughes founded the Porterhouse, a business that eventually expanded into a chain of pub-breweries in Dublin, Wicklow, London, and New York.

Concentrating on selling craft beers brewed on the premises, Mr Hughes was influenced by the real ale movement he had witnessed during his student days in the UK.

“Brands like Erdinger and Herrnbrau were completely unknown in Ireland then,” he recalled. “And local brews like Galway Hooker were very exotic to Dublin taste buds. We were the first to make a pale ale in Ireland, nobody knew what it was, or even what hops were.”

As they opted not to serve either Guinness or Heineken, local publicans were certain the venture was doomed to fail.

“We found out years later a book had been opened on us surviving,” Mr Hughes said. “Some said as soon as two weeks, with the most optimistic giving us six months.”

The industry has surely come a long way since the iconic “a pint of plain is your only man” when it came to choice for the Irish beer drinker.

All has changed as increasing numbers of microbreweries continue to push e in on a market previously dominated by a handful of international giants.

In the early 20th century, Ireland had a vibrant regional brewing industry, with many towns boasting their own unique brands.

However, with the arrival of larger brewers, the independents died off by degrees leaving Ireland’s beer lovers faced with a virtual monopoly. Even as the modern micro-brewery movement gained healthy traction across Britain, the US, Scandinavia, and much of the EU during the 1980s, Ireland still languished.

Then came the 1990s and a draught of fresh air arrived as Dublin’s Porterhouse and other sites such as the Franciscan Well in Cork led the renaissance of an industry that had been almost forgotten.

There are an estimated 90 microbreweries operating in the Ireland, of which 62 are production microbreweries.

The number of microbreweries has more than quadrupled since 2012. The total turnover of craft beer production companies in 2015 was estimated at €40m and, in the five years since 2011, turnover has increased eleven-fold.

In 2013, Ireland ranked 12th in terms of microbreweries by population size in 2014.

“Consumers are generally very supportive of their local brewery and have clearly demonstrated their demand for a quality product,” says Seamus O’Hara of the Carlow Brewing Company.

“Our survival has been down to the quality of our brews and perseverance during the early years when craft beers in Ireland were still rare. We were export-focused in the early days because craft beer was so new to the Irish market, but we are encouraged by the surge in domestic demand in the past couple of years.”

Carlow’s Institute of Technology launched a degree programme in brewing and distilling last year.

“One of the biggest factors in meeting industry needs is higher education and training,” said president Patricia Mulcahy. The brewing and distilling sector is now one of Ireland’s fastest growing industries, exporting over 95% of its production.

According to the Food Wise 2025 national plan, Ireland’s brewing and distilling industry will contribute towards the creation of an additional 23,000 food and drink jobs, help provide an 85% increase in food and drink exports to €19bn and a 65% increase in primary production valued at €10bn.

“The category is rapidly developing its export capability and this will be reflected in export volumes,” said Bord Bia beverages manager Denise Murphy.

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