Sunday 24 February 2019

Showing bottle: one man's vision crafted a revolution

When Oliver Hughes first championed micro-breweries in this country, many predicted only failure - but the savvy businessman understood the power of local.

Tapping into trend: Quincey Fleming and Simon Lynch, who co-founded the Wicklow Wolf Brewing Company
Tapping into trend: Quincey Fleming and Simon Lynch, who co-founded the Wicklow Wolf Brewing Company
Local focus: Oliver Hughes

Graham Clifford

There was no time for 'one for the road'. The sudden and untimely death last weekend of Oliver Hughes, publican and co-owner of Lillie's Bordello and the Porterhouse Group, shocked the nation.

The 57-year-old Glasnevin native and father-of-two was one of the first publicans to pioneer craft beers.

"We're craft, not crafty," he once said.

For Hughes, the beauty was that craft beers are carefully made in the locality rather than mass-produced elsewhere.

Oliver recently opened the Dingle Whiskey Distillery - the first purpose-built distillery for whiskey in Ireland for over 200 years. His vision knew no bounds.

For those in the micro-brewing industry here, his passing was a blow.

"He was such an inspiration to others in the industry and always had the few words of advice and encouragement," explains Quincey Fleming, who co-founded the Wicklow Wolf Brewing Company with Simon Lynch. "Oliver saw the bigger picture and helped the rest of us to see it, too."

As with so many involved in the burgeoning Irish craft-beer industry, the roots of Wicklow Wolf can be found across the Atlantic.

"Both Simon and I spent time in San Francisco and could see how fast the craft-beer industry was growing there. We thought, 'why can't we do this in Ireland'… and so we have."

They sold their first beer in 2014 and, since trading, have generated more than €1m in revenue.

So rapid has the brewery's growth been that already they're planning to move to a new larger premises in Bray.

"We're up to 15 different beer products. It's clear that beer drinkers in Ireland have become more discerning and willing to try out new options, to upscale their choice," explains Quincey.

They grow their own hops on a 10-acre piece of land owned by Simon in Roundwood, Co Wicklow.

"As Simon is a horticulturist, it's a huge advantage for us and we plan to use more land to grow more hops in the future," says Quincey.

Of course, part of the allure of craft beers in Ireland today is that they've become somewhat trendy. Beer drinkers around Bray like to be seen with a bottle of 'Locavore' in hand, in Galway the award-winning Indian Pale Ale 'Of Foam and Fury' is a common thirst-quencher and in Waterford the aptly named 'Copper Coast' Irish Red Ale sells well.

Marketing, therefore, is key, as Quincey explains.

"You're always trying to catch the consumer's eye. Earlier this year we produced a beer called 'Children of the Revolution' to mark the centenary of 1916. The name was a historical reference. We ended up on the Joe Duffy show on RTÉ and sold three months' worth of beer in two weeks."

But are enough Irish consumers turning to craft beers to make sure the industry's foundations here are secure?

"Undoubtedly," according to John Duffy of the Craft Beer Advocacy Group Beoir.

"The expansion of the beer scene in Ireland has been dramatic over the last three years. We're well on the way to having 100 operational breweries on the island. The diversity of beer styles has never been greater and, as well as the traditional Irish beer styles, we're now seeing Irish interpretations of classic styles from around the world. Five years ago, the release of a new Irish beer was a relatively rare occurrence. Now it seems that there's something new to the market at least every week."

And he says while craft beers can cost more, there is exceptional value for money to be found. Irish craft beer sales account for 2pc of total beer sales in Ireland today but that percentage is steadily nudging up. In the US, 12pc of all beer sales are for craft beers.

"In Portland, Oregon, 40pc of beer sold there is actually brewed there, too," explains Sligo native James Ward.

"I was first introduced to the craft beer scene about 15 years ago when I worked in the drinks industry in upstate New York. In many ways, what we have in Ireland now is a replica of the scene in the US back then."

James returned to Ireland and founded the White Hag brewery in Ballymote in 2013, which he later sold. Now he's working towards launching a new Sligo-based brewery in the coming months with a view to producing craft beer for the Irish and international market.

"I think education is key. If we can teach people about how the beer they're drinking is made, explain that it's using local ingredients, local water and is unique to their area, I think that encourages them to keep drinking it," he says.

"Not so long ago you could walk into any bar in Ireland and find the exact same taps, it was like McDonald's. But now that's changing as consumers are more adventurous. They've travelled more, have been exposed to different flavours and are not satisfied with the same product time after time," adds James.

And in Ireland's busiest regional tourist town, local craft beers are flourishing.

Barry Spellman, the general manager of the Killarney Brewing Company, explains that so much of their beer is served in draught in bars throughout the town.

"I'd say 70pc of our sales are from draught. The pubs in Killarney have embraced our products because they add to the branding of the town and the experience for visitors."

Around €1m has been spent on state-of-the-art German equipment. "Our head brewer is from Portland, our equipment is the very best and despite only opening 18 months ago, we've had over 5,000 visitors to our brewery in Killarney already."

And Barry has no qualms with drinks giants - such as Guinness, with their 'Hop House 13' double-hopped larger, and Heineken, with its 'Cute hoor' IPA - expanding their product range to include such beers.

"If it encourages people to try alternative beers, then we know that ultimately we, and other craft beer providers in Ireland, will benefit."

And if Oliver Hughes believed the Irish craft-beer sector was one that would thrive into the future… chances are it probably will.

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