Bottling success: Ireland’s growing craft beer industry

From pale lagers to oatmeal stouts, the Irish craft beer industry has been making a name for itself. Gary Ibbotson talks to the people behind the success.

The global craft beer industry has been booming in recent years, with Ireland’s brewers taking full advantage of the modern phenomenon and taking it upon themselves to develop a thriving sector of their own.

Be it from their travels to the United States or being introduced to microbrews on these shores, our local brewers and breweries have slowly but surely established the craft beer industry as a legitimate economic asset to the country.

In a report drawn up by economic consultant Bernard Feeney, there were 90 fully functional microbreweries in the Republic of Ireland by the end of 2016. Out of these, 62 are production breweries while 28 are contractual companies.

Combined, these breweries accounted for about two and a half percent of all beer sales last year with the figure predicted to grow up to five percent by the end of 2017.

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A number of production microbreweries has quadrupled since 2012, figures by Bernard Feeney, image by Gary Ibbotson

In the report commissioned by Bord Bia, the number of microbreweries in the country has quadrupled since 2012 with Joey Shore, co-founder of Irishtown Brewing Company, only seeing the popularity of craft beer rising in the coming years.

“I think we might hit eight percent of the total beer market that could be craft. I was speaking to Dunnes recently and they told me that craft accounts for five percent of all of their total beer sales, meaning they’re over indexing [performing better than the national average]. Which is great,” Shore tells me at the Alltech Craft Brews Fair in Dublin.

“But I’m not after the five percent, I’m after the 95 percent – so the mainstream beer drinkers,” he adds.

However, when a product’s popularity surges, a by-product of this success is often experimentation.

“It’s also about some of the craft beer brewers learning that you don’t have to make a seven percent oatmeal stout. It’s not necessarily all about the brewers, you should think about the consumers a little bit more,” Joey says.

The United States are currently leading the way worldwide with craft beer accounting for ten percent of all beer sales in the country. However, the once steep incline in sales has steadily plateaued in recent years which Joey believes stems from reactionary moves by the big breweries.

“Big brewers are keeping their claws in and they’re not going to let that go easily. If you look at the success of Hop House, it’s doing so well because people don’t necessarily want to drink yellow fizz like Budweiser anymore but they don’t want to drink smelly socks either. So Hop House went in the middle and I think that’s what’s so clever about it.”

However, Jonny Garrett, founder of the Craft Beer Channel on YouTube, sees things differently.

“I see larger breweries/brands/entrepreneurs trying to use “fashionable” marketing to disguise bad products as artisan ones. Often these companies’ products are very wide of the mark and make the industry look try hard and shallow.”

Although prominent and influential figures within the industry may have differing opinions on certain matters, an undeniable fact is that the industry is continuing to see growth.

Cathal O’Donoghue, founder and brewer of Rascals Brewing Co. in Rathcoole, Co. Dublin says that for the industry to keep on this developmental path the calibre of the brews have to stay at a high standard.

“The quality of the beer has to keep on improving, we are very young and very new in Ireland at making craft beer so continued growth can only happen with a great tasting product,” he says.

The Intoxicating Liquor Act 2016, proposed by TD Alan Kelly, may provide another avenue for this growth in 2017.

At the time of writing, it is illegal for breweries to sell directly to the public. So, if a tourist wants to purchase some beer after a tour of Carlow Brewing Company’s premises, for example, they can’t.

“Because of globalisation, everybody wants to go back to where we are self sufficient in our own little towns.”

                                                  – Joey Shore, Irishtown Brewing Company

The bill proposes amendments to the license so that breweries can sell their product on-site between 10am and 6pm.

If passed, more rural and lesser known breweries could be provided with extra income as there will be more incentives for casual beer fans to explore the industry.

According to the Feeney report, there are microbreweries in operation in 23 of the 26 counties, so not only is the sector growing but it also geographically diverse.

“I think you have many lifestyle breweries going into business which means sometimes they can hit a wall,” Joey says when questioned whether or not the potential for saturation within the market is possible.

“What I find is there are a lot of people who are passionate about making beer who go into business but aren’t necessarily the best businessmen in the world. I think what will happen is that you’re going to have natural decline.”

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Since 2011 the craft beer industry’s annual turnover has increased nearly 11 fold, figures by Bernard Feeney, image by Gary Ibbotson

The business of craft beer is still sourced from a small, niche community but Joey insists that its ideologies are based on something much larger.

“Years and years ago there was a brewery in every town and there was a baker in every town etc. Because of globalisation, everybody wants to go back to where we are self-sufficient in our own little towns. It’s an idealistic way of thinking but it would be wonderful.”

“If we can get to ten percent of total beer that’s being made by a John or Mary in Carlow or Kilkenny or Galway or wherever. I think that’s an awesome way to go,” he concludes.

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Featured image by Gary Ibbotson

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