Saturday 18 November 2017

Hope and glory: The mum who set up a brewery after a 17-year career break

Hope Beer co-founder Jeanne Mahony aims to inspire other 50-something women to live the startup dream

Some women ‘might be planning for retirement, but some are thinking about what they will do next. Especially, if like me, they have zero interest in cruises’, says Jeanne Mahony. Photo: David Conachy
Some women ‘might be planning for retirement, but some are thinking about what they will do next. Especially, if like me, they have zero interest in cruises’, says Jeanne Mahony. Photo: David Conachy

Gabrielle Monaghan

Looking around the stands manned by trendy young brewers at the Irish Craft Beer Festival in 2015, Jeanne Mahony and her fellow 50-something co-founders of startup Hope Beer realised their age profile made them stand out from the crowd. The 50-year-old Malahide, Dublin, native says: "I remember thinking 'we are racking up the average age here big time'. And I had never seen so many beards at once. So, I said to one of the boys 'you're going to have to grow a beard!' And, in fairness, he did."

That "boy" was Des McSwiggan, who spent 30 years in the financial sector before swapping banks for beer at the northside Dublin microbrewery he set up with old childhood friends Mahony and her husband, Wim de Jongh, in 2015.

The three beer aficionados had spent years working in the corporate world but decided during late-night chats across a kitchen table - over a couple of beers, naturally - that they would perform a dramatic volte-face by turning their passion for beer into a second career.

The transformation was even more pronounced for Mahony, who had spent 17 years out of the workplace while caring for three children and living in the European cities where her Dutch husband was managing packaging companies.

Mahony first met Wim while studying for an MBA at Trinity College after finishing her languages degree. In 1991, while working as a business development manager for Unidare, a now-defunct Dublin-based engineering products company, Mahony was tasked with looking for acquisitions in the Netherlands. After moving there, she also ran a market research company to help clients such as Coras Trachtala, now part of Enterprise Ireland, connect with importers.

After living in the Netherlands for eight years, she and Wim moved to a German-speaking region in Switzerland, where Mahony found it difficult to find work because she didn't speak the dialect.

She wound down her market research business after having the couple's first child and gave up work altogether when their second child was born, though did manage to squeeze in a degree in psychology at the Open University.

Mahony and Wim eventually returned to Dublin in 2003. "We were having a grand old time jogging around Europe, but there comes a point in your life journey where you stay where you are or come home," she says.

As their children got older, Mahony and Wim had more time to reflect on the microbreweries they had encountered as expats on the continent.

"Every village and town has its own brewery, especially in Germany, Holland and Switzerland, and people were a lot more interested in drinking local beer, which was different to our experience in Ireland," Mahony says. "So we thought it would be an interesting option for Ireland."

While Mahony and Wim were mulling over starting a beer business, a Dutch friend of theirs, Paul Riteco, began developing breweries, bars and restaurants in Amsterdam and encouraged the couple to open a craft brewery.

Paul became a co-investor in the brewery, along with Mahony and Wim. He shared some of his expertise, though he remains a silent partner based in Amsterdam.

While Des and Wim were pursuing a brewing course in Cork, Hope Beer at first relied on selling an IPA, a saison ale, and a blonde ale made by a contract brewer, albeit to recipes specially designed for the startup by an international craft beer expert. Hope Beer's first customers included Dublin restaurants and bars including Deep in Howth, Gibneys in Malahide and The Cock and Bull in Raheny.

It brewed its first in-house beers in June 2016, using equipment imported from southern Germany. The beers are now sold in 150 outlets, such as independent off-licences, SuperValu, Dunnes Stores, restaurants and gastropubs.

Because the company was established just as the economy was emerging from the recession, the co-founders opted to include "hope" in the name of the brewery. They also wanted to stay true to their northside roots, so their brewery is located on the Kilbarrack Road, beside the Howth Junction Dart station, making it the only microbrewery in Fingal.

The names of their beers have been inspired by local history and folklore: one of Hope Beer's four core beers is called Handsome Jack, a double IPA with American and Japanese hops named after a 17th-century pirate who set sail from Ireland, plundering and womanising his way to Spain and Italy.

"We spent a huge amount of time with the Fingal County Archives and the Howth Historical Society to find interesting stories to put on the beers," Mahony says.

At Hope Beer, Mahony is a jack of all trades, handling everything from sales to bottling to tastings. But her marketing nous have proved especially helpful in creating back stories for each beer.

"With craft beer, people want to spend time on it: they look at the back of bottles to see which hop varieties were used and which yeast, so we wanted a more layered branding story," she says. Mahony believes their location will prove an advantage when tours of their brewery commence, after the cabinet this summer gave the go-head to legislation that will enable visitors to microbreweries to buy alcohol on site once they've had a guided tour.

"You can see the brewery sign from the train," Mahony says. "Not only will tourists know we are here, but locals can take the tour, taste the beer and take some product home with them. We are finishing work on our tasting room for the tours."

While the craft brewery scene in Ireland has become increasingly busy, with a report last year estimating that the number of microbreweries more than quadrupled between 2012 and 2016, Hope Beer has been striving to carve out a competitive edge by brewing beers that can be paired with food. The company also opted to package the beer in 33cl bottles, rather than 50cl bottles.

"We wanted not just beer that's good with food but beer that works well in a gastropub environment, where a smaller 33cl bottle works better," Mahony says.

The company's hard work paid off in May, when Hope Beer won the Best Startup Award at the National Enterprise Awards.

Mahony says: "The awards were presented at the Mansion House by Enda Kenny. It was one of his last gigs, and I got a kiss off him and he was able to hang around.

"At our table was the team from the Fingal Local Enterprise Office, which has been hugely supportive - not just financially, but as mentors. They were just as pleased when we won because they were part of our journey as well."

Related: Use our calculator to estimate your small business loan repayments

For her part, Mahony believes her experience as an older entrepreneur demonstrates that bright women who took a long break to raise a family can succeed in setting up a business and should have programmes to meet their needs.

"There are so many women like me who are well-educated, maybe well-travelled and were at home rearing their kids until suddenly they were 50," she says. "Some might be planning for their retirement, but some are thinking about what they will do next. Especially, if like me, they have zero interest in going on cruises."

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