NOT so long ago the iconic ‘pint of plain’ really was your only man when it came to choice for the beer drinker.
All has changed over the past decade, as increasing numbers of micro-breweries muscle in on a market previously dominated by a handful of international giants.
In the early 20th century, Ireland had a vibrant brewing industry, with many towns boasting unique brands.
However, with the arrival of larger brewers, the independents died off by degrees, leaving Ireland’s beer lovers with a virtual monopoly as the only choice. So poor was the choice, in fact, that it indirectly inspired the establishment of Britain’s enthusiastic Campaign for Real Ale movement, after four UK holidaymakers experienced the lack of choice during a holiday here in the 1970s.
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 far behind. Then, towards the end of the 1990s, a draught of fresh air finally arrived as The Porterhouse and the Franciscan Well, located in Dublin and Cork, respectively, led the renaissance of an industry that had been almost forgotten.
Today, there are 16 dotted across the country, all carving out a distinct niche in their local areas, while others have seen their products enthusiastically consumed as far away as New York, San Francisco, Berlin and Kiev.
“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. There has never been a more exciting time to be part of the craft beer scene on this island, a new diversity in available styles has begun in the last decade, with craft brewers and craft beer consumers becoming more numerous, confident and adventurous than ever before.
“We were export-focussed in the early days, because craft beer was so new to the Irish market, but we are very encouraged by the surge in domestic demand in the past couple of years as more people get to know what craft beer is, and what it entails.”
FRANCISCAN WELL BREWERY
ONE of the earliest players in the Irish micro-brewery movement, Cork’s Franciscan Well Brewery was established in 1998, and it will shortly begin construction of a greatly enlarged operation to cater for its planned entry to the North American market.
Having recently completed a deal to supply its products to a large US distributor operating in 39 states, the Franciscan Well seems set to see its fortunes rise with the growing demand for Irish craft beers in cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco.
“We are currently negotiating on a new site within Cork City,” says owner Shane Long. “Our current output of 4,000 kegs a year will expand to over 40,000 when we have the new brewery fully operational.
“We have seen a phenomenal growth in the Irish market over the last four years, to the point where we actually had to turn away potential accounts. The new brewery will allow us cater to this domestic demand as well as the growth potential in the US.”
Built on the site of an old Franciscan monastery dating from 1219, legend has it that the water from the adjacent well had curative properties drawing people from across Munster.
Using a 100-year-old recipe in the brewing of its Shandon Century Extra Stout demonstrates that the beers from a century ago can hold their own against the technology and brand-led beer industry of today, Mr Long believes: “The concept behind the stout was to take a recipe from 100 years ago and brew it again today and see how people reacted to it. It is higher in alcohol, as would have been the case 100 years ago to help preserve the stout, and our research into historical brewing records indicate that stouts brewed a century ago were brewed to a much higher concentration of flavour and character.”
Last month, the brew was named Europe’s best dry stout at the annual World Beer Awards in London. “This is the biggest thing that’s happened to us and it couldn’t come at a better time; thousands of breweries took part in the competition,” said Mr Long.
The brewery is currently working on a stronger brew, which will be part of its spearhead into American market.
“We are currently working to create an even stronger stout. It was 6% proof going in, but we don’t know what it will be coming out. It will definitely be the strongest we’ve ever made,” he said.
Currently employing three, that figure is expected to rise to 10 at the new premises. “That’s just the start of it, I would expect that figure to increase substantially at time goes on.”
The new brewery, aided by Enterprise Ireland and Cork City Council, will be have additional space for further expansion when the need arises. “My trips to the US over the past year have blown me away by the demand and support for our products. Everywhere from pubs to restaurants to major suppliers have been hugely enthusiastic about our prospects. In that regard, this will mark a seismic change for the Franciscan Well,” he says.
CARLOW BREWING COMPANY
ANIMAL health and nutrition group, Alltech, is moving part of its whiskey business to Ireland, birthplace of the company’s president and founder, Pearse Lyons.
The move began with the recent shipping of a number of Vendome whiskey stills from the company’s Lexington Brewing Company in Kentucky. The new Irish whiskey, as yet unnamed, will be distilled by the Carlow Brewing Company.
“Shipping these stills from Kentucky to Ireland has completed the cycle with this fantastic craft finally returning to its place of origin,” said Mr Lyons. “This will set the stage for a new Irish whiskey with a Kentucky flair.”
Carlow Brewing managing director Seamus O’Hara predicted the venture would result in new jobs being created in the area.
“This is an opportunity that we are delighted to explore. We have been working very closely with Alltech to get this joint venture off the ground,” said Mr O’Hara.
Alltech already makes the well-known Town Branch Bourbon in the US. Mr Lyons, who comes from five generations of coopers, was once a master brewer in the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. He holds a master’s degree in brewing and distilling, and a PhD in yeast fermentation.
Twelve years ago, Alltech took over the Lexington Brewery, where it began to brew Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, which has recently been made available in Ireland.
“The success of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale took us all by surprise,” said Mr Lyons. “We began with just five barrels six years ago and now there are 5,000 barrels aging at any one time. With the Irish government’s 2013 initiative, The Gathering, we decided that the time was right to bring an Irish-Kentucky product back home. This led to our partnership with Carlow Brewing Company, who will act as our beer importer in Ireland. They were an obvious choice, being the number one craft beer producer in the country,” he said.
Because of this, Mr Lyons says he has begun his own revolution, bringing whiskey full-circle by taking his Kentucky stills back to Ireland, where the history of whiskey began.
WEST CORK DISTILLERS
COUSINS Gerard and Denis McCarthy, like many in their West Cork village of Union Hall, had both taken on careers as deep-sea fishermen until fishing quotas and the rising cost of diesel forced them out of the industry.
Hooking up with childhood friend John O’Connell — a food science graduate of UCC who had spent a decade working with Unilever and the Kerry Group — the trio realised their dreams by opening the West Cork Distillers in their hometown. Establishing the company in 2008, they are Ireland’s only independently-owned distillery.
“We were lucky to get the right advice and assistance in the beginning,” said Mr O’Connell. “The help we received from Barry Walsh, who was once the master blender with Irish Distillers, was particularly important to us in determining the products.”
He also cites the West Cork Enterprise Board and Barry & Fitzwilliam Distributors as pivotal in getting the distillery’s products — Drombeg, Lough Hyne and Kennedy’s — into the marketplace.
“Drombeg would compete in the sector occupied by Baileys, peach schnapps and Pimms,” he said. “Whereas Lough Hyne competes against the likes of Southern Comfort, Irish Mist and Captain Morgan.”
The company’s Irish whiskey brand, Kennedy’s rivals Jameson, Powers and Bushmills. Lough Hyne and Kennedy’s won gold medals at the prestigious 2012 Great Taste Awards, in London.
West Cork Distillers products are found in major retailers, including Tesco, Dunnes and Supervalu, while distribution agreements have opened up the likes of the US, the UK, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong and China.
The company turnover is over €1m, which is expected to rise steeply over the next five years. They recently installed a bottling and labelling plant capable of processing 1,400 bottles per hour.
Targeting the 25 to 40 age demographic, Mr O’Connell is confident for the future, citing the global sales of Irish whiskey: 15% per annum, making it the fastest growing spirit in the world.
Currently enlarging their premises to cope with the demand, the owners expect the number of staff to rise over the coming year from eight to 20.
METALMAN Brewing is the brainchild of Gráinne Walsh and partner Tim Barber and was born of a desire to see more beer produced by independent brewers. The pair were frustrated by the lack of choice of authentic Irish beer. The brewery was commissioned at the Tycor Business Centre in May 2012, and supplies mainly to the Dublin market. Metalman Pale Ale is the core product, supplemented by the seasonally available Windjammer and Alternator brews.
“Over the course of the summer, we branched out from Waterford into Wexford and Cork, and we plan to continue this process, but slowly,” says Gráinne. “Women are more demanding of flavour than men are, and they are definitely more inclined to try a craft beer than any of the mass-produced generic brands.
“Despite the challenging economic circumstances, Metalman Brewery continues to exceed its commercial targets, even in its fledgling first year.
“We are doing better than we anticipated and, in fact, we have outlets calling us for product, rather than the other way around,” says Gráinne.
“We are limited in the geographical reach we can have at this point, but it is tremendously encouraging to see just how popular craft beers have become with the general public.”
STONEWELL CRAFT CIDER
STONEWELL, a new Irish craft cider-maker based in Nohoval, near Kinsale, Co Cork, secured a bronze medal at the prestigious Blas na hÉireann National Irish Food Awards, at last month’s Dingle Food Festival. The first year that cider was included as a category within the awards, it was contested by a field of 10 producers from across the country.
The award came just days after Stonewell had concluded an export agreement with Qualita Club, a specialist distributor based in Verona in northern Italy, that sources smaller artisan producers across Europe for introduction into its local market. Qualita Club selected Stonewell as the sole craft cider within its portfolio as it seeks to build on the Italian consumers increasing awareness of the product.
The agreement is core to Stonewell’s objective of achieving 40% of turnover through exports.
“It was astounding to have such good news in so short a period of time,” said Daniel Emerson, head cider maker and Stonewell proprietor. “Despite the strong headwinds, it is encouraging to see that small Irish food businesses are still able to compete, perform and appeal at a national and, prospectively, an international level. Whilst still very early days we hope to be able to maintain our momentum and become a dynamic company within our community, working with Irish suppliers, using traditional methods and generating net income for the country.”
The business was established in 2010 and Stonewell Cider is made solely from Tipperary, Kilkenny and Waterford apples.
It is also exported to France.
DINGLE BREWING COMPANY
LAUNCHED in July 2011, Tom Crean’s Lager is the sole product of the Dingle Brewing Company.
Housed in a former creamery close to the Conor Pass, brewery owner Jerry O’Sullivan was used to friends questioning his sanity on investing up to a €1m at a time when the recession was at its full intensity.
“There were people who said it was a mad idea, but it never discouraged us from ploughing on with what we were always sure would work,” he recalled.
A year later, the business plan is intact as sales targets for the lager continue to be met.
“We were never interested in getting the product into as many bars as possible, rather we profiled it into the kinds of places we thought it would work best and deliver the maximum exposure,” he says. “Outside of Dingle, we looked to Dublin first, and picked a number of pubs where we felt it would be received well, and, thankfully, that’s exactly what happened.”
It was followed by a low-key launch in Cork, another part of the measured marketing.
“We can’t compete with the big breweries out there in marketing spend, but we are finding pub and restaurant owners are increasingly welcoming us as a much-needed breath of fresh air into a market dominated by the same products for years.
“Young and innovative owners see the incentive in having a product like ours, something new for their customers, and, in this case, a product with a history attached.”
Producing a maximum capacity of 2,000 litres a day, the company is eschewing banks as it expands through a public offering.
“We want to get smaller investors to become part of the enterprise.”
Offering shares in units of €100 to €500, the take-up has been good.
“People like the idea, and we would hope they might look on this the same way they did with Kerry Co-Op shares all those years ago,” says Mr O'Sullivan.
WHITE GYPSY BREWERY
Cuilan Loughnane samples some of the hops he has grown. Left: White Gypsy beer is designed to complement food.
THE White Gypsy Brewery was established in Templemore, Co Tipperary, in 2009, but owner Cuilan Loughnane has been involved in the industry since 1997.
Having witnessed the real ale movement in the UK, he apprenticed at Dwan’s and Messrs Maguires before setting up his own operation in his hometown three years ago.
“Our aim is to produce a range of niche beers that will complement any food dish,” he says. “We grow our own hops right beside the brewery which allows us to make Ireland’s only fresh-hopped 100% Irish beer. Our philosophy is about getting back in touch with the things that made Ireland famous for its beer, but have long-since been forgotten.”
His products include Emerald Irish Pale Ale and White Gypsy Ruby Red.
“Our draught beer is sold within a 30-mile radius of the brewery, with a good local following which is exactly what we set out to do. We have only recently added bottled beer to our output, and that is mainly for the Dublin and Cork market,” he says. “We don’t go for big, gung-ho marketing — it’s more about a slow and sustainable build amongst loyal customers.”
Employing three at present, he sees great potential for the future of this growing industry.
“I lived in Canada in the early 1990s, when the big operators like Molson and Labatt’s virtually dominated the industry. Publicans were losing customers to cheap beer being sold in supermarkets and looked to craft beers as a very viable means of attracting trade back into their premises.”
The same scenario is playing out in Ireland today, he believes.
“People won’t pay for an overpriced pint of a generic brand in their pub when they can drink the same thing at home for well under half the cost. Ireland’s micro-breweries account for less than half a per cent of the market, whereas in countries like the UK and the US, they have won up to 5% of the market. That demonstrates how much there is still to play for here.”
GALWAY HOOKER BREWERY
ESTABLISHED in the summer of 2006 by cousins Ronan Brennan and Aidan Murphy, the Galway Hooker Brewery was inspired by their “complete boredom with insipid, mass-produced, yellow fizz dominating the market”.
“We consider beer to be like any other food: the fresher and less processed the better,” declares Mr Murphy.
“Most multinational breweries do their best to reduce the flavours in their beers in an effort to appeal to the widest possible audience. That is not for us, and, love it or loathe it, our beer has taste.”
The last four years have seen an explosion in interest in craft beers among the public, he says.
“It’s very much about a positive reinforcing circle, consumer demand has encouraged more publicans to stock craft beers, which promotes the products to a wider audience in ever-widening circles.”
With the local Galway market and a number of Dublin outlets accounting for 85% of sales, they aim to double the workforce over the next three years.
“We are particularly gratified by the reaction of American tourists to our products, they are hugely favourable and we would definitely look to a time when Galway Hooker would be available in New York and Boston,” says Mr Murphy.
OLIVER Hughes was a law student when he first developed a taste for good beer.
Partnering up with his cousin, Liam LaHart, the pair became the godfathers of Ireland’s modern craft beer movement with the opening of their iconic Porterhouse in Dublin’s Temple Bar in 1996. That was followed over the following years by Porterhouse North, Porterhouse Central, Porterhouse South William Street and Porterhouse Dundrum.
Eighteen months ago, the group invested €1.5m in The Fraunces Tavern, one of Manhattan’s oldest buildings at the edge of the Wall Street district, only to see the historic premises badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Works are currently under way to have this open again in 2013. “I remember well the opening of our first premises in Dublin in 1996,” Hughes recalled.
“There were a number of publicans present and many of them betting on how long this crazy microbrewery concept would last. Six months was the most optimistic estimate. That was 16 years ago. We now employ over 350 people and export over 50% of our output to the US, the UK, Scandinavia, Spain and Italy,” he adds.
Even the enormous demand for locally brewed craft beers evident over the past decade still leave us lagging substantially behind our neighbours, he believes.
“We think we know a lot about the business here in Ireland, but we’re still 12 or 15 years behind other countries. Publicans are often the slowest to gauge the changing tastes of the consumer — in fact, your local restaurant will often be a better source for new beers into the market. It is long overdue that we in Ireland should embrace our local products — the world has loved them for years and it’s high time we did the same,” he says.
He lists the Porterhouse’s recent move to the famous New York tavern as another milestone in the graph of the success story began 16 years ago: “Now the thousands of visitors who visit there every week will also be able to avail of a Porterhouse Bar stocking our wonderful stouts and ales imported from Ireland.”
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