Thursday 17 October 2019

Making our mountains famous for beer

He hails from New Zealand and used to coach Hungary's national rugby team. Now Michael Cowan tells reporter David Medcalf about plans to make Manor Kilbride famous for production of lager

Michael Cowan pours a glass of Mont while showing some of his awards
Michael Cowan pours a glass of Mont while showing some of his awards

The Manor Brewing Company. It sounds grand, certainly, but Michael Cowan admits that he has a long way to go before catching up with Guinness, not so very far away down along the valley of the Liffey.

The Manor, by the way, is Manor Kilbride, a short hop outside Blessington and one of County Wicklow's newest beverage producers is in its infancy. Only a relatively small number of Christmas revellers were privileged to enjoy the taste of Mont, billed as Irish Mountain Beer.

But New Zealand native Michael is determined that his brew will be a great deal more widely known and available by this time next year. The brewery is being set up under the bell tower beside the farm yard of the Kiwi's wife Amaya Cully in Kilbride.

A setting further removed from the industrial complexes of their principal rivals in the beer business is hard to imagine. The farm, complete with its quaint manor house, woodland walks and duck pond is popular with tourists who come to stay while on the Hidden Ireland trail. It is pretty as any picture but the couple have added modern touches, such as their own very up-to-date home in the grounds as well as the lager production line.

The Kiwi gives Uncle Arthur some of the credit for the venture, styled Ireland's highest micro-brewery. A marketing executive by profession, Michael spent time in Guinness's Park Royal brewery in London.

He hails from Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand, where they drink their beer cold and where they play rugby. He fits the stereotypes well enough, with his enthusiasm for brewing and the look of a man who could go 80 minutes on the pitch, though now in his mid-forties.

He also has pedigree as a cricketer, having left his native land after qualifying from Wellington University bound for England. He intended to play cricket with Shropshire but somehow ended up instead with Diageo, which owns Guinness, in 1997. His time with the firm included introducing the drinking public to Guinness stout draught in a bottle, so he has useful experience in developing brands of beer.

His travels later took him on in 1997 to Budapest, where he was destined to spend six years marketing Pepsi Cola. He headed off to Hungary, despite having fallen for his Irish bride-to-be in London. The move probably hastened the decision of Michael Cowan and Amaya Cully to become engaged, later marrying in 2001.

Budapest provided some memorable experiences besides promoting Miranda and Schweppes, not least on the rugby field. With a genuine New Zealander in their midst, the Hungarian national side decided to approach him to be their rugby coach.

He was not exactly a professional but he had recent playing experience in London, where he used to line out at Number 10 with the London French club. So he took on the role, preparing Hungary for their bid to reach the World Cup finals.

He may have been an expert in selling fizzy pop but there was no way he could transform his sporting charges into world beaters. They finished last in their pool and were left to wish their rivals from Portugal all the best in the next phase of the competition.

'Rugby was not going to be a career,' muses Michael with a hint of a smile. With Amaya pregnant, the couple had some big decisions to make as they pondered whether to stay in the Danube.

The conclusion was clear: 'We did not want to be expatriates for life. I had become European, so it was a no-brainer to come to Ireland.'

In their case, Ireland meant living in Manor Kilbride, at first taking over a cottage in the grounds and then building their own ultra-modern home.

The fabulous old house remains home to Margaret Cully, Amaya's mother, but father Charlie Cully died in 2000. He is best remembered as the man who stared Daffodil Day to raise funds for the Irish Cancer Society.

Once settled in, Michael established his own marketing firm called Black Sheep to keep himself busy. He put in a year as marketing director of Arnotts.

Then he had his own snack attack, so that one of his proudest boasts is: 'I was the Hoola Hoops man.' He helped to build the KP Nachos brand from scratch, while Black Sheep had a hand in Red Bull, the energy drink.

He was also taken on by McDonald's to 'bring the life back to the Big Mac'. For a man with a young family, it was hectic, it was demanding - and it was rewarding.

He now has the financial breathing space to take on his own mission, making Mont, Irish Mountain Beer and the Manor Brewing Company names that the general public recognise and admire.

'I enjoy marketing challenges,' he says simply. Mont - the name is a cryptic reference to his college days in New Zealand when a mythical gentleman called Errol Mont was leader of a group of merry making students - began to take shape in 2013.

At that stage, there was no brewery, no settled recipe and no list of customers. The marketing man looked at the state of Irish beer drinking and saw an explosion of micro-brewing. At the last count there were at least 50 beer producers around the country, most of them happy to have the 'craft' label hung around their necks.

Typically, they churn out dark beers - ales, porters or stouts. Typically, they are enjoyed by thirty- or forty-somethings, at home, out of a bottle. This is a model that Michael Cowan and Manor Brewing will not be following. No 'beardies'.

'What Ireland is missing is a premium lager,' the man from Christchurch declares, bringing his product, his concept, his drink into direct competition with the big brews.

He looks at the statistics showing that Ireland continues to be a nation of pub-goers who like their beer on tap, and Mont is following them into the pub.

'This is my beer for my tribe,' says the marketing man. 'It behaves like a big brand but it is a genuine craft beer.' Much of the craft is supplied by Fergal Murray, formerly of Guinness and a master brewer, who has agreed to act as consultant.

Also on board is Richard Hamilton, described by Michael as one of Ireland's foremost home brewers.

Richard has a PhD in the philosophy of languages, but his passion is beer.

The Manor team was boosted by the winning the lager prize at the Alltech brews and food festival last February, one of nine entries among a field of 450 to earn medals at the event in the Dublin Convention Centre.

What the Alltech adjudicators sampled was no more than a prototype as the brewery in Manor Kilbride was still far from being ready.

Prize winner though it was, Mont was not officially launched on to the commercial market until almost six months later at a festival the RDS.

Much of the brewing was being carried out in Tyrone rather than Wicklow, producing enough lager for just 10 customers.

This was a project which put the micro into micro brewing and they have been playing catch-up since.

The facility under the watch tower is still being finished off.

One of its chief assets is the artesian well, which has been providing soft water to the manor, perfect for lager, for centuries.

As a good marketing man, Michael Cowan makes the pitch for his Irish mountain beer coming from the highest brewery in the land.

He has a vision of visitors coming in future years to be given a tour of the place before sitting down to sip on a glass of Mont in pleasant Irish sunshine.

In the meantime, there is a great deal of practical stuff to be sorted out, like wiring the place for three-phase electricity and like putting the beer into kegs and delivering to a select list of outlets.

That list includes the local Ballymore Inn, Dublin's five-star boutique Dylan Hotel, Ashton's pub in Clonskeagh - and, of course, Blackrock rugby club's bar.

Bray People