Monday 18 December 2017

The hardest thing in business? Selling dad on my cider startup

Craft beer has rushed into the national consciousness, but craft cider still has some catching up to do. We talk to one of the dedicated brewers trying to help the burgeoning sector take off in the market

'Dad was very against it. A guy in his mid-twenties with an endless supply of alcohol might not have turned out so well,' says Olan McNeece. Photo: Frank McGrath
'Dad was very against it. A guy in his mid-twenties with an endless supply of alcohol might not have turned out so well,' says Olan McNeece. Photo: Frank McGrath

Paul O'Donoghue

When Olan McNeece pitched his idea of pressing cider to his father, he was shot down almost instantly. Although he was probably frustrated at the time, looking back on it now Olan himself is the first to admit that denying a young man access to several hundred litres of home-brewed cider was probably not an unreasonable call on his father's part.

"He was very against it, and probably for the best. A guy in his early 20s with an unlimited supply of alcohol might not have turned out so well," McNeece laughs.

Despite his father's initial misgivings, McNeece now runs Dan Kelly's Cider, named after his great grandfather. The cider is home-brewed on McNeece's farm and orchard in Drogheda, Co Louth, which was bought by his parents in 1962.

McNeece started making cider at the business just over two years ago, and is hoping to ride the wave of popularity that has helped to slowly filter craft beer into the mainstream consciousness.

There are now over dozens of craft breweries in the country with craft beer sales rising by more than 4pc, the first such increase in more than a decade. However, consumption of craft beer in Ireland still makes up just over 1pc of total market sales compared to a more mature market like the UK, where it has a share of around 11pc.

The Irish craft cider market is at an even more embryonic stage again. The most recent figures available from the Central Statistics office show that last year about 62.4m liquid litres of cider, which translates into about 2.8m litres of pure alcohol, was consumed in Ireland, a 0.4pc increase on 2013. Despite the growth this is still far behind the amount of beer consumed, which was 18.8m litres worth of pure alcohol in 2014, a 4pc rise.

In the smaller cider market, one player reigns supreme: Bulmers, which makes up about 80pc of all cider sales in Ireland.

A number of small independent craft cider pressers have been emerging in recent years, trying to carve out a niche .

McNeece is one of those producers, although if his father had had his way he may never have even ended up working on the family farm, which at the time was just focused on producing apples.

"My father would have encouraged me out of the family business, to get other experience and learn how to work under a boss that isn't your own family," he says.

He looks thoughtful for a minute, before saying emphatically: "It was the right attitude."

Although he clearly believes that getting some experience away from his family was invaluable, that is not what you would assume when you hear McNeece describe his other possible path in life.

After finishing the Leaving Cert at 16 he studied accounting in Griffith College in Dublin and worked in an accountancy practise for two days a week.

While he says that the work in the practice was "fine", McNeece makes sure that in the family business it is his brother who handles the accounts, not him. When asked why, his response is somewhat blunt.

"I hate, hate, hated it," he says. He pauses, and then, just for added emphasis, says: "I just hated it."

Fortunately for him, McNeece was happy to go into the family business at 19 and his father was happy to have him there, although he is at pains to emphasise that he did not get an easy ride because of his surname.

"I was 19 when I went into the business, I was looking for jobs outside of the business but they weren't forthcoming. [I started off] doing the worst jobs, I did everything that you would expect on a fruit farm," he said.

"I used to can apples, helping out at the peeling machines, driving tractors, all that went with that business. The guys who were there before me, I didn't waltz in and tell them to do the dirty jobs.

"There wasn't a job that I would ask anyone to do that I wouldn't do myself. They could never say that I wouldn't do the hard work or the dirty jobs."

McNeece soon took over several responsibilities from his father and by his mid-20s was handling much of the business by himself such as sales, production and deliveries, although he says that his father "would have been the boss of the orchard until very recently".

"I still had the experience of my father and still do have the experience of my father to rely on, but if you were to ask my father 20 years ago who the boss was, it was him, but he would point to me," he says. Now in his mid-40s, McNeece says that he was effectively running the orchard in his early 30s.

It was a few years prior to this that McNeece got the idea of pressing craft cider. Although the family had frequently made a small amount from leftover apples from a harvest, it was McNeece who wanted to make it a commercial operation.

"I had wanted to do it about 20 years ago but my father discouraged it and I think probably for the best [at the time], but around 2008 we were looking for different opportunities and I felt that this was something worthwhile," he said. "The whole craft beer sector had taken off and cider had been revitalised by Bulmers [so] I felt that there was an opportunity for a new product."

He says that his aim was to create a cider that was different to mainstream brands and did not have large amounts of added sweeteners or preservatives, adding: "A lot of the mainstream ciders would be very processed, whereas ours has no chemicals so it's a very natural product."

After setting up shop on the family farm, McNeece began to press his own apples, although only in relatively small amounts at first, producing several test batches from 2010 onwards.

While acknowledging that most of his sales are from his local county of Louth, Dan Kelly's cider can now be found at independent off-licences across the country and in several Dublin outlets.

Last year marked both the first full year of trading for the new cider arm of the family business and a significant ramping up of production, with 50,000 bottles of cider pressed.

McNeese is looking to scale up next year and put "significant" growth on sales, which are set to amount to several hundred thousand euros by the end of the year.

"The apple market is a declining market given that our principal variety is bramley, a cooking apple, and the age profile of people who are cooking apple tart is getting older, it's probably a declining market in that regard," he said.

"I think the craft beer guys are streets ahead at the moment, I think we're five years behind [but] it's the growth phase of the cider business, it's an accepting market, you should be doing... significant growth."

McNeese, who is married with two children, says that he would like to build the business up into something viable for his children to inherit, but only if that is what they would like to do.

At the very least, like his father he is keen for his kids to work elsewhere first and make their own way in the world.

"They're so into sport at this stage I have them coached that they can drink if they want when they're older, but if you want to be good at sports you won't," he laughs.

"I'll stay as long as I'm enjoying it. The kids are unlikely to come into it if they take experience outside of the business for another 20 years and you would like to be there if they wanted help [but] that's if that's what they want and if the business is still there then that's what you would like to do."

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