I know, case I know. Amateur day, cheap you say. But does it have to be? Just because the rest of the world is crowding the Irish bars getting sloshed on green swill doesn’t mean that the good-beer loving rest of us should dump the holiday altogether. There is good Irish beer out there. Let’s reclaim St. Patrick’s Day!
And by “good Irish beer” I don’t mean Guinness, Harp, Smithwick’s, Murphy’s and all the other usual suspects. There is good craft beer from the Emerald Isle available to us here in the Twin Cities. Some of the best comes from the Carlow Brewing Company in Carlow, Ireland, brewers of the O’hara’s brand beers. If you haven’t had O’hara’s Irish Stout or Irish Red Ale, you haven’t had the real thing. These beers fit the mold of their respective styles, but are so much more flavorful than those from the bigger brewers that they almost seem like totally different things. Although I do have a couple of others that I turn to on occasion, if I am going to pour an Irish stout or red at a tasting event, it will more than likely be O’hara’s.
Founded in 1996 by brothers Seamus and Eamonn O’hara, Carlow is one of the pioneers of a rapidly expanding craft beer movement in Ireland. Where there were once only three or four brand available in any Irish pub, there are now a bevy of craft brands competing for tap space and winning converts to the cause.
A while back I had the opportunity to chat with Seamus O’hara over lunch at The Local. We talked about the brewery, but also about the state of craft beer in Ireland. As we went I was continually reminded of the state of craft beer in Minnesota and the Upper-Midwest region in general. Both are experiencing a rapid expansion based on education, festivals, and an evolving consumer palate. Both are seeing increasing pressure from bigger breweries whose market they are chipping away. It was fascinating to see how small breweries over there are coping with similar issues as those faced over here.
What follows is an edited transcription of that interview. It’s long, I know. But I found the perspective interesting. I remain committed to long-form journalism to tell the stories of beer and the beer industry. And come on, have our attention spans really gotten so short? I’ll follow up the interview over the next couple of days with tasting notes of different O’hara’s beers.
I’ve talked to a few folks from Ireland and I get varying opinions and attitudes towards Irish themed American bars.
So you got their opinions, you don’t need mine. Some of them are great, some of them are a bit contrived. It’s great that the Irish bar is a thing and that it’s out there. When you go in to chat with the owners they are so on top of their culture and history that they almost put you to shame. It’s only when you live abroad that you start to reflect on your culture and where you come from and all that. Certainly the first few times I came over to America with our beer, I’d go to Chicago or Boston and meet some of the people who had been over here for a long time or who were second or third generation and definitely I felt a little put to shame. I need to go home and educate myself. So with those guys it wasn’t contrived. It was really authentic. But also in some ways a kind of historic reflection, because Irish pubs have moved on. So it’s like an impression of an Irish pub from years gone by. But it’s always interesting.
Let’s get to the brewery. Give me some background. How did you come to running a brewery?
Actually my background is in biotech. As part of that we studied brewing and we had a pilot brewing plant in college. When I graduated I went to work in pharmaceutical biotech, but I was also an active homebrewer and just got into making beer and wine and all sorts of stuff. But it was funny, when I went to work in pharmaceuticals I was working abroad, initially in the UK, and that was the first time I got introduced to all the beers and cask ales. I kind of really got into it and really loved going to the bars for different guest beers each weekend. Three years later or so I moved back to Ireland and it was almost a shock to the system. I didn’t realize that we had such a limited selection – like the same three or four products in every pub in the country. So over a couple of years I kind of got the idea about maybe setting up a brewery. I got inspiration from American craft brewing that you can do it. You can set up a small brewery. It’s not just for the big guys. So that’s where the idea came from. Eventually myself and my brother just got together and worked out a plan. In 1996 basically, we set up a company and went about looking for a building and equipment. We raised a small amount of money from friends and family and the first products came on the market in 1998. I kept another job. It was kind of part time. We couldn’t afford to be full time. But it’s been great over the last three or four years to be full time. And we’ve had a lot of growth over the last three or four years.
You just alluded to this, but over here Ireland is known for a good pub culture, but not so much a good beer culture. So what gave you the idea that starting a small, craft brewery in Ireland was a good idea?
To be honest, looking back we didn’t really fully appreciate that fact. I suppose we were kind of a little bit naive. We kind of got excited ourselves about beer and thought that once people tasted this and got introduced to different beers they were going to be as excited as we were. But it’s not as straightforward as that. One of the reasons we started exporting as a relatively young company was for our survival. As we gradually grew our business in the local market we had other avenues of business. But I think over time the Irish palate has developed in terms of different beers. There are a lot more import beers now and a lot more local craft beers. But to be really honest I think Irish craft is about one percent of the market. Three years ago we were about half a percent of the market, so a lot of it has happened in the Irish market over the last three or four years. Before that it was kind of more specialist kinds of pubs. But now about 120 bars in Dublin have our beers on draft. I think there’s a total of 600 bars in Dublin, so it’s a good percentage. And there are other craft breweries out there as well, so craft has now kind of got a profile.
Craft brewing in Ireland is not something that we really think about over here. I don’t think I even knew it existed except for a couple of breweries like your own. Describe the craft beer scene there.
When we started there was kind of a first wave of breweries around the same time. There were up to about eight small breweries back in the late 90s. But we all had the same issues. Not only were there only the same beers in every pub, but because there had never been small breweries, none of the infrastructure was there for distribution. You couldn’t plug into a distributor. There was no line cleaning. You had to do everything yourself. So it was a challenge. From that time there are only three survivors, I think. But then there was a change in excise law in the early 2000s to allow an excise break for small breweries and that kind of helped the viability of the business. Bringing it up to date, one of the other hats I wear is that I’m involved in running craft beer festivals in Ireland. We started that business in 2011. Because there were so few opportunities to get craft beer out there we set up our own festivals. The first year we did it we had twelve breweries. The second year we had 16. The third year was 23. This year we think we’ll have 35. So there’s been quite an increase. It really has taken off in the last two or three years. It’s a recognized thing and category. Bar staff know about it. Pub owners know about it. It’s kind of opened up. It’s a really interesting time.
So obviously the Irish palate has developed.
Hugely, yeah. It was always progressing, but maybe it just gets over a critical mass and enough people are talking to enough people and suddenly it accelerates. And I think things like Twitter and Facebook helps get the word out. It’s that word of mouth thing that kind of accelerated it. The other key thing that happened in Ireland is that we had a steep recession that also hit the pub business. Something like a pub per day closed down in Ireland over the last five years. Prior to that they were all busy. It didn’t matter what they served. Then they went through a stage where they were saying, “Hang on a second. I’m losing business here. I need to look at my offering, my customers, and what they want.” They were certainly much more receptive. You could go in and talk about “what might it do for me?” So there was just a total mindset change in the bar business as well. I think that was the big catalyst.
In the early days, aside from the fact that there were only a few major brands, were there other things missing in the Irish beer scene that you wanted to fill in?
Definitely. At that time I was interested in any sort of wheat beer. Like American wheat ale type products. At the same time we were very interested in the Irish beer styles, which we kind of viewed as having been kind of watered down over the years. They’d become a bit insipid and dumbed down for the mass market. We wanted to bring the flavor back into the Irish beer styles. So we had kind of a twin thing. That’s why when we started out we started with a stout and a red and a wheat beer.
You’ve now got a double IPA.
Double IPA is about a year old. Again it’s a sign of how the market is developing in Ireland that people are into hoppier beers and are willing to drink a higher ABV beer. Our double IPA is still at the lower end of the ABV range for double IPAs. Again, it’s just our kind of pub culture in Ireland. That kind of pub culture, which is about drinking pints and having a good long night out. Plus we did some barrel aging. We got some whiskey barrels. We’ve done our extra stout Leann Folláin in Bushmills whiskey barrels. And we’ve done some seasonals. We just had a winter seasonal that was just kind of a spiced amber ale. We just brought out an amber ale called Amber Adventure, which we’re using southern hemisphere hops. We call it Amber Adventure because we’re going to play with hops and have an adventure with hops. For St. Patrick’s did a collaboration with some Polish brewers. We have an oatmeal stout that has polish hops and Irish malt. We’re really happy with that. That’s our first collaboration, so we’re kind of looking at those things as well. We’ve expanded our capacity a bit over the years. We’ve added more tanks a couple of times and we just have some more coming again. We’re keeping a bit behind the curve for our needs in terms of capacity, but where we were much more restricted previously, now were doing new beers. We’re doing seasonals. We can do collaborations.
So I am struck by how similar this all sounds to the American beer scene right now; the rapid expansion, continually coming up with new products. Part of that here is that breweries have to keep themselves front and center in the minds of serial drinkers, people who don’t have any brand loyalty, so they have to keep bringing out new things. Is that the same in Ireland?
That’s not really my driver to be honest. I’m a bit scared by that. For us it was more these are the things we wanted to do. We had a kind of a backlog of things we wanted to do in terms of product styles. But the craft beer consumer in Ireland is learning from America as well. There is a demand for new stuff and a little bit of rotation in the bars, but not as much as over here. I’m hoping we can get a balance. Honestly just from the business point of view when there is so much rotation and so much new things it’s hard to sustain that. I’m hoping we can manage it.
I don’t think it’s realistic, it’s just that is the state of the market here right now.
I think the Irish beer consumer as well, they like to try different beers, but they do tend to get one and stick with it. Maybe for what they buy to take home they are more adventurous and try new things, but a good 50 to 60 percent of beer consumption is still on-premise, so people tend to have a bit of a go-to beer at that end. So I don’t see it getting as bad as here, at least in the short term. But it probably will eventually.
Brand loyalty seems stronger in Ireland. I was doing a private party at a client’s house and they had some guests over from Ireland. I was pouring your Irish Stout, because that’s the one I typically pour. I said that it was more dimensional in flavor than Guinness and mentioned that I’m not a huge Guinness fan. Boy, I thought I was going to get killed for a second.
To be honest, Guinness is a huge success in Ireland. It’s one of these things that that kind of brand strength is out there. It’s one of the things that we’re up against. If we can get that kind of brand loyalty closer to our products that would be great. That’s part of what we’re trying to do in Ireland is educate. To say there is more out there. Try something different.
So how do you go about educating consumers?
We try to start with the bar staff. We go in and we taste one of our beers and give them some key information about the products. Get them kind of interested in it. We always invite them to come do tours of our brewery. It’s that kind of face-to-face, point of sale type thing. Also, the Grand Beer Festival. It’s good to mention that. That started in September 2011. I do kind of trace back a big jump in craft beer sales to around the same time. The festival has grown. We had 3000 people the first year. 6000 the second year. 10,000 the third year. But I think definitely it’s a case of one beer fan dragging his three mates along. I think the same thing happened with bar owners and bar managers. When you see 10,000 people in a big hall all enjoying this craft beer in a great atmosphere and a nice quality crowd, I think the feedback from the bar owners was, “Okay, I need to look at this harder because that’s the kind of audience I want in my pub.” And then we do sampling for customers as well. A lot of media sources in Ireland have been interested in the sector. We’ve got a lot of good PR. A lot of good online stuff as well, with beer bloggers kind of generally spreading the word. It’s those kind of things. I do think it’s one of the key things to grow the market.
What’s the situation with craft beer bars in Ireland?
There’s a few craft beer bars in Dublin. There’s probably five pubs now in Dublin that wouldn’t serve any Heineken or a Guinness. None of the big brands. Then there’s another layer of maybe 20 that would have fairly significant craft beer offerings. Most of the pubs that we would be in would have maybe three or four craft beer lines, which is kind of one of the challenges, because most Irish pubs don’t have a lot of beer lines. So as a craft brewer you’re fighting over a small number of lines. Molson Coors and a couple of other big companies are trying to target the same lines. So it is a challenge. But I think the bars that have focused on craft have been quite successful. So that’s going to bring more people to it. You know, I could see some people start adding more lines, but it’s still the early days in that regard.
I just keep being struck by how familiar all of this sounds to me.
Yeah. But I think familiar as in how recently. We’re probably ten or fifteen years behind. But it probably won’t take us ten or fifteen years to get there. We’re just starting, but it will probably accelerate. We don’t have any sour beer breweries for example. There’s nothing like the range and the depth of things going on. But we’re very happy with the way it’s going in Ireland right now. We’re on a wave. We hope that wave keeps going, moving forward, you know. I’m always concerned about what sort of backlash or activity the big breweries will come up with to try to keep us down, but you know, we’ll just have to deal with it.
We’re seeing things like that here. Are you seeing this kind of thing with the big breweries over there?
Yeah. But look, the genie is out of the bottle at this point. When you drink craft beer you can’t go back to drinking a mainstream beer. The market we have now, they can’t get it back. And there is growth there as people talk and taste. There will be short term setbacks, you know. A certain dealing gets done and our beers are out. And the big guys bring out their own kind of craft beer – imitations or whatever, products to position in that space. So I would say, I hope we have enough momentum. My belief is that we’re not here for the short term. We’ve had our ups and downs. We’re here for the long term.