Saturday 24 March 2018

Trio tap into the Disney magic... with a little help from granny

Rye River Brewing was barely two years old when it started supplying its beer to Disneyland Florida. It plans to treble its staff numbers by 2018

'I love that sense of the Irish grandmother,' says Niall Phelan of Rye River Brewing, 'harsh on the outside but deep down, a softie' Photo: Tony Gavin
'I love that sense of the Irish grandmother,' says Niall Phelan of Rye River Brewing, 'harsh on the outside but deep down, a softie' Photo: Tony Gavin
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

It's known as the place where fairytales come to life - and it's also a multi-billion-euro industry. Get a slice of that pie - Disneyland that is - and your company is onto a good thing. One young Irish business which has managed to get its foot into Disneyland is Rye River Brewing Company, the Kildare brewery behind the well-known McGargles beer.

Rye River Brewing has been supplying Disney Springs, a major shopping, dinner and entertainment complex in one of the Disney resorts in Florida, with its beers since early 2015.

"We spent most of 2014 seeing if there was an opportunity to supply Disneyland in Florida," says Niall Phelan, one of the co-founders of Rye River Brewing. "We then secured a big account with Disney Springs, it sells five of our beers on draft. We are working on opportunities to get into one of the other Disney theme parks by the end of next year."

Getting into Disney is clearly a great move for the company. "It's a big shopping window for your brand," says Phelan.

It's about two and-a-half years since Rye River Brewing was set up by Phelan, Alan Wolfe and Tom Cronin. All three men were working with Molson Coors in Ireland before they founded Rye River Brewing.

Indeed, it was Phelan who had set up Molson Coor's business in Ireland in 2009. Wolfe, who had worked in Diageo, was one of the first people hired by Phelan for Molson Coors. Cronin, who had worked in Heineken, joined Molson Coors in 2011.

Fittingly, it was over a couple of drinks that the idea for Rye River Brewing was borne

"Around the end of 2012, I had made the decision to move on from Coors," says Phelan. "I had been on the corporate bandwagon for long enough. I was also doing a lot of travel and I had young kids at the time."

Wolfe had also decided to move on from Molson Coors.

"His wife was expecting a baby and he didn't want to be travelling either," adds Phelan. "We had a couple of beers together around then. That's where we created the McGargles beer brand. But we said we wouldn't do it unless we could have a bit of craic doing it."

The company has certainly had fun with the McGargles brand. Each beer has a story based on a typical Irish family member and the characters in that family feature on the beer's bottle labels. One beer, for example is called 'Granny Mary's Red Ale', with the granny in question being described as "as fiery and strong as her malt-driven ale".

Other characters in the family include pirate impersonator 'Knock Knock Ned', the mad 'Uncle Jim', the cool 'Cousin Rosie', and the sultry daughter 'Gravy Maevey'. Most of us would recognise at least one or two of these characters from our own family and so the beer comes with the clever tagline: "You can't choose your family but you can choose your beer!"

Phelan cites Granny Mary as his favourite character. "The Granny Mary is loosely based on my wife's grandmother and on Irish grandmothers in general. There's something about the granny in the family being the real boss of the family even though she doesn't have to say a lot. I love that sense of the Irish grandmother, harsh on the outside but deep down, she is a bit of a softie."

The wacky characters that the McGargles bottles are donned with certainly make the beers stand out. This is one of the reasons that McGargles has managed to compete on the international stage.

"We're up against some big players with a lot of money behind them," says Phelan. "It's very difficult for a big business to create a brand like McGargles. The brand pushes some boundaries in the world of beer. Big breweries and big brands don't like to offend people. They tend to sit on the fence as much as possible - whereas McGargles has an opinion about everything. We wanted to create a beer that people would love.

"You'll find lots of talk about McGargles online. People either love it or hate it and that is the sign of a good brand. We have captured imaginations. McGargles is something that looks different on the shelf and tastes good too."

But why craft beer?

"We were leading the charge on craft beer inside Coors," explains Phelan. He also believes there is a big appetite for craft beer today.

A recent change to the beer landscape in recent years has helped to drive that demand, he believes.

"If you go back 100 years, the variety of beers available in the world then were far more than there have been in the last decade," says Phelan.

"However, in the last 20 years or so, a number of small breweries were established which really changed the beer landscape. People want a variety of beer. Once you go from a bright yellow liquid to something more floral, sweeter, or more bitter - or even a combination of these - it's very difficult to go back to something else.

"Small craft or artisan beers with a more authentic story and less of a corporate culture around it are growing in all industries. People want to know where their beer is coming from and that there's nothing nasty in it. The production of craft beer grew by over 70pc in Ireland last year, whereas mainstream beer production declined by 10pc."

Phelan travels to the US a lot and given the popularity of craft beers there, this is a good thing. "The US is definitely leading the charge on craft beer," says Phelan. "Craft beer represents about 20pc of the US market compared to about 3pc of the Irish market."

His favourite part of the US is Chicago.

"I love the food culture and energy in the city," says Phelan. "In winter and summer, it's like two completely different places. The lake comes alive in the summer and the rooftop bars open on every corner as people soak up the sunshine and atmosphere."

He is clearly adventurous himself in his choice of beer, citing peanut beer and a bacon and chocolate beer as amongst the most unusual he has drunk.

The company currently exports to 16 countries and this year, it will export into another three as it expands its contract with Lidl. In late 2014, the German retailer partnered with Rye River Brewing to sell a range of craft beers known as 'The Crafty Brewing Company' in its stores. This year, Rye River Brewing will supply Lidl stores in five countries - the US, Canada, Germany, South Korea and Italy - under the Crafty Brewing brand.

Getting the contract with Lidl has helped to bring the company on, according to Phelan.

"When we started working with Lidl, the standards of brewing were quite challenging for a small company like us," he says. "This probably helped us to step up our game. And Lidl are always looking to add something else into the challenge."

The company supplies all of the major Irish retailers, including Supervalu, Dunnes Stores, Tesco and Spar, as well as a number of international retailers, including ABC Fine Wine and Spirits in Florida and Lotte in South Korea.

"We are expanding our US presence but we are doing it slowly," explains Phelan.

The brewery employs 50 people full-time, though this can increase to 70 at peak times. Rye River Brewing was originally based in Kilcock but is now in Celbridge. It plans to treble its staff numbers over the next two years on the back of a major expansion. That expansion includes a new 12,000sq.ft brewing centre and a visitor centre.

Phelan, who is originally from Tallaght, lived in Celbridge for a long time and he also went to secondary school there. He now lives in Straffan, Co Kildare with his wife and two daughters, aged nine and 12.

He clearly has an entrepreneurial streak.

"I come from a very entrepreneurial family," says Phelan. "My Dad went out on his own in the 1980s. He was in the restaurant trade and did very well.

"My Mum and Dad were very hard workers so I got a work ethic built into me from a very young age; everyone in the family did.

"We were encouraged as children to work for our pocket money whether that be the shelling of prawns or washing dishes. I can't eat shellfish now as a result."

His upbringing then is probably one of the main reasons that 39-year-old Phelan doesn't believe in the Lottery. Rather, he believes you should work for everything you earn.

"I just don't do the Lottery", he says.

Judging by his ambitious streak, he is unlikely to ever need to either.

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