Turning us into a nation of beer sellers

The Government is stepping up its support for craft beer these days. On the back of the 50% increase in the excise rebate ceiling for brewers in Budget 2015, state agencies are looking to craft beer and cider to join the “usuals” food and whiskey to help sell Ireland. Earlier this year we had six breweries participating in Bord Bia’s Marketplace International 2015. Then in July, Tourism Ireland supported the participation of nine breweries and one cider maker in Toronto’s Festival of Beer. This week saw another high profile event where craft beer was showcased.

Blending beer, cider, music & food to sell Ireland
Blending beer, cider, music & food to sell Ireland

Sixteen Irish food producers were given the opportunity by Bord Bia to exhibit at the Speciality & Fine Food Fair in London. The event takes place in Olympia, well known in beer circles as the home of the Great British Beer Festival. In the weeks leading up to the fair, Ireland’s food marketing agency put in plenty of legwork drumming up interest amongst leading food and drink buyers from the speciality food industry.

Galway Hooker was the sole brewery representing Ireland and was given prominent space amongst the Irish exhibitors. From the looks of it there doesn’t seem to have been a lot beer at the fair – Crazy Mountain Brewery from Colorado; Delicias de Burgos and Pasion de Duero, S.L. from Spain; and a Scottish honey beer from Plan Bee. The lack of beer could be a sign that the work of winning over space on dining tables from wine is painstakingly slow. Regardless, the fair was a real opportunity for the Galway lads. Their beers are great for pairing with food. They’re not overpowering and are well-balanced. You only have to look at their eponymous pale ale and how versatile it can be thanks to its distinctive malt base. I can only hope that for Aidan and Ronan, the brewery’s first appearance at the fair proves to be a success in the long-term.

Can more be expected? We can only hope so. Food Wise 2025, the new national food strategy, has identified the need to develop a specific strategy to help craft breweries to go and views exports as key. Marketing support and attendance at international food events is a start but more can be done. We need to examine new ways of helping breweries to get products to foreign markets. Could brewers pool together to share space in containers? Are KeyKegs the best way of exporting draught or are there other ways that could be considered? Should canning be the choice for exporting packaged beers because they save on weight, more reliable for shipping and can more compact (i.e. more beer per pallet)? Given the desire of our enterprise agencies to prioritise exporting companies, they should examine areas like these and more in order to help Irish craft breweries grow.

Perfect timing for crafting an export strategy for beer

Back in January, I wrote about the effects the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing (QE) programme will have on beer. The Euro exchange rate has, for want of a better word, tanked. We’re on course for parity against the US dollar and sterling is strong and only getting stronger. This could bad news for imports of US and UK craft beer into the Eurozone but great news for Irish breweries exporting or looking to export.

Exports of Irish beers could be boosted further by positive indicators within the Eurozone. Consumer sentiment for March 2015 is at its highest levels since 2007. Confidence has been boosted by the QE programme combined with falling unemployment and low oil prices. What does this mean? Quite simply private consumption is expected to rise by 2% this year and 1.5% in 2016 (source: Capital Economics). People will socialise with confidence and in economic terms this could involve boosts to nondurable goods (e.g. off licences) and services (e.g. bars, restaurants etc). This would underpin economic recovery within the Eurozone but sadly it’s one that will not be felt equally across all countries/regions.

Global finance and trade

So Irish breweries can benefit from the weak Euro currency to export to the US, UK and further afield and they can take advantage of the recovering consumer demand in the Eurozone. Irish exports would not only match quality but they could also be competitive alongside US and UK products exported to these markets. The costs associated with small batch exports may be offset by the strong dollar and sterling.

It is timely then that two significant events took place last week that hopefully will result in Irish breweries delivering on their export potential. Bord Bia’s Marketplace International 2015 saw 150+ Irish food and drink companies having access to 400+ buyers from over 25 countries. They could showcase their offerings in a sort of speed-dating format (i.e. a series of 20 minute one-on-one meetings). It was great to see Brú Brewery, Jack Cody’s, Metalman, Rye River and Trouble Brewing involved. Franciscan Well was also there as Bord Bia promotes all food and beverage products produced in Ireland. By and large each of the breweries have limited exports to date (e.g. average 5% of total sales) with the exception of Rye River reporting 40% export sales.

The other event was IFE 2015, a biannual food and drink event held in London. It brings together approximately 27,000 buyers and suppliers of food & drink products and takes over the entire Excel Arena in London. I worked at this event in 2005 and the scale is simply staggering. Whilst there was no Irish brewery exhibiting this year, the event is extremely useful for networking in the trade and meeting potential buyers and distributors. It was great to see the likes of Cotton Ball in Cork making it over to the expo.

Breweries at Bord Bia's Marketplace 2015
Breweries at Bord Bia’s Marketplace 2015

Hopefully events such as these can help these breweries and the others in Ireland take advantage of the extremely favourable export conditions. Irish breweries should be confident that they can follow in the footsteps of Carlow, the Porterhouse, Eight Degrees, Rye River and White Hag in having a significant export strategy. They should also aim to build on one-off or limited exports if it’s in keeping with their own business strategies. Isn’t it great to see the likes of Kelly’s Mountain on sale in Russia?

Scale’s obviously going to be an issue but improved market access can help attract additional finance. They may need ongoing help from Government agencies and the sector could benefit from more hands-on support from Enterprise Ireland. If negotiations on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are concluded, Irish SMEs are expected to benefit most from the new EU-US trade deal. This is some time off however and while it would make it easier to do general business in the US, the peculiar post-prohibition regulatory regime will remain in place.

This is not to forget that the market is still growing at home and the weak Euro may have a positive knock-on effect on consumer demand for Irish produced beers over UK and US imports. So far their prices have been steady but for how long can Irish distributors keep them steady? It will be interesting to watch effect, if any, does the exchange rates have on Wetherspoons’ prices as well.

Supermarket sweep?

The sale of alcohol in supermarkets attracts a lot of attention facing accusations of promoting binge drinking through cut price booze, lowering prices to squeeze out independent retailers and generally not being open to small, local producers due to quantities needed. Also, the impact on publicans has been quite vocal over recent years. The focus could be on spirits but much of the reference in the media focuses on beer. They seem to ignore wine for some reason.

A lot of this is to do is rooted in the fundamental economic models of multiple-retailers, such as their need to satisfy and achieve certainty in their supply-chains etc. For example, it was reported that Walmart was selling macro beers at about cost price so they can be the largest single beer retailer in America (and possibly the world). The US market is perhaps unusual due to individual State restrictions on alcohol such as not being allowed to sell wine and beer together or others where selling high abv beer is banned. Supermarkets’ greatest strength is their convenience and this is where they can make a significant contribution to boosting the popularity of beer.

Some supermarket chains are doing some interesting things in the beer space. Sainsbury’s  operate the Great British Beer Hunt, which runs on a regional basis in the preliminary round where successful beers are stocked for 3 weeks (Barney’s Brew from Hilden was a regional winner in 2013) before two overall winners are selected for a six-month listing across the UK. US specialty chain Whole Foods Market only sells products that meet its self-created quality standards for being “natural” and thankfully beer can be right at home here. I came across one in Nashville that besides a well-stocked beer aisle, it has a growler station pushing local brews, but they also do meet-the-brewer events and pizza and beer evenings in-store while shopping. Whole Foods has also brought growler-fills to some of its UK stores and thankfully for people looking for off-sales in down-town London (distinct lack of off-licences), their Piccadilly store has some good bottle beers in stock.

Beer is clearly being championed in Whole Foods
Beer is clearly being championed in Whole Foods
The growler station in Whole Foods focussed on local beers on draft
The growler station in Whole Foods focussed on local beers on draft

In Ireland, we have seen offerings from English breweries becoming more commonly available on Irish supermarket shelves. Is this simply reflecting the sourcing operations being located in the UK? Perhaps this is similar to other food producers trying to get a listing. However, we’ve also seen a number of Irish producers (aside of course from the usual suspects) being available in the supermarkets here. O’Hara’s can be frequently spotted either under itsr own name or that of O’Shea’s in Aldi. Some of the Porterhouse beers came be spotted here and there as well. Of the newer breweries, Bo Bristle made a big push on the drink-at-home market through Marks & Spencers and SuperValu is pushing Brú Brewery and others as part of their Irish Craft Beer Sale.

O'Hara's is regularly seen in supermarkets around Ireland
O’Hara’s is regularly seen in supermarkets around Ireland

What inspired this piece is that Tesco is currently having an in-store beer and cider festival. Supermarkets used to push wine festivals and events but now they appear to trying to get into the beer scene in a big way. Of course they will be looking for session or gateway beers that some might call them, beers. The key to them is being accessible and honest so they attract the widest possible audience. Shelf space is at a premium and volume is of course key. Perhaps we’ll see a time where some Irish beers become more “mainstream” they’ll be sold principally in supermarkets and the more specialty items will continue to be found in specialty stores and pubs.

Franciscan Well being pushed out to large audiences due to Molson-Coors acquisition
Franciscan Well being pushed out to large audiences due to Molson-Coors acquisition

Some of the Irish beers might fall outside the “craft” definition due to not being independent, such as the Franciscan Well Red Ale & Friar Weisse that appeared in my local Tesco (situated beside their new half-cousin Blue Moon). Distribution channels are the hidden hand of the beer industry and tie-ups can mean better access. However, we cannot forget what increased choice could do for the industry: consumers trying new beers, liking them and searching out new and different types, a similar tale that most of us could relate to.

McGargles occupying prime shelf real-estate
McGargles occupying prime shelf real-estate

The McGargles range has also popped up in Tesco. Taking inspiration from the presentation of beers in US retailers, the McGargles beers are pre-packaged in four packs (it’s quite hard to buy individual bottles of beer in the States because they’re keen on the six-pack). Their branding is extremely visible and rather impressively occupies prime real-estate on the shelf too.

Pushing beer as an ingredient
Pushing beer as an ingredient

The other things that supermarkets can help push the positioning of beer alongside food. I’m not talking about the occasional pizza and six-pack deal they might offer. Tesco currently have a menu card (I only saw one, hopefully there’s more) for a traditional beef strew with O’Hara’s Leann Folláin. They’re clearly trying to up their game in terms of presenting beer to their customers, in that it not only pairs does well with food, it could also be a fantastic ingredient.

300ml of Leann Folláin called for in this Irish stew recipe
300ml of Leann Folláin called for in this Irish stew recipe

Of course the super market chains will continue to push the macros and this will continue to fuel negative press coverage. If minimum pricing is ever introduced, the focus will still be on the higher volume items. Nonetheless, newer breweries will continue to pop up because of their potential to grow their share of the beer market.

Musings on the best Irish beer fest yet

The All-Ireland Craft Beer and Cider Festival has attracted a lot of attention online and save from repeating a previous post, I have opted to provide a series of short observations on the festival. Oh and did I mention that I attended all four days because where else would I be!

Packed house on Festival Saturday

In no particular order:

  1. Biggest festival yet! Huge crowds over the four days (over 10,000 according to Ruben @TaleofAle). It was packed on the Friday and many had made their way up from the Aviva after the Ireland-Sweden march but Saturday was something else. The crowds simply kept on coming with a queue to get in and an even bigger one at the token stand.  if keeps growing like this, it’ll probably have to move into the main hall next door.
  2. Two collaboration brews can be best described as sweet. The O’Hara’s/JW Sweetman’s version containing honey. There’s a story to be told about it but can be best summed up as there’s a group of people out there nerdier than beer enthusiasts – honey people! Troubled Hooker from guess which two breweries (see my previous post if you can’t for the life of you work out who it is) was a mistake gone well. It was supposed to be a Double IPA but became almost a sweet Belgian Tripel, even sweeter than Kwak.
  3. Dry-hopped Irish reds, what’s the point? The malt sweetness is there for a reason. Leave the hops for the “Irish” pale ales & co.
  4. The Hop Randall festival goes to try the Kinsale Pale Ale with added Simcoe, Citra and Nelson Sauvin. The Hop Randall  has now been introduced by the Bull and Castle and the Bierhaus in Cork . Has it already been condemned to the realm of gimmick?
  5. Franciscan Well wasn’t picketed by members of the craft purist front and the casks ran dry fairly early on. Punters weren’t put off by this big beer-owned concern.
  6. In previous years Dungarvan trialled their seasonal beers for the following year (Comeragh Challenger and Mahon Falls). Cormac brought six variants with him, including a Saison, Amber Ale, Mild, session DIPA, Wit IPA and an IPA. I  still don’t know which or if any are scheduled for release  in 2014.
  7. Every time the show the All-Ireland Hurling Final On festival Sunday, it ends in a draw.
  8. In past years people flocked to the White Gypsy stand to imbibe on the stronger beers available. However, I don’t know what is happening down in Templemore as a string of very fine session beers turned up at this year’s festival.
  9. Did every band at the festival do a cover of The Lumineers’ Ho Hey? Don’t get me started about the Johnny Cash covers!
  10. Two barley wines at the festival and two were duly sampled. I know barley wines are known for their port/sherry like comparisons but I’m not going to go into how one was sweet (Porterhouse) and one was dry (O’Hara’s). That’s just going too far!
  11. Putting the newer breweries in one corner (although Brú was across the way) grouped in one corner was a great way of concentrating interest in them. One thing noticed is that the newer breweries have fantastic branding and T-shorts for sale (in the past this sort of behaviour was confined to Metalman and the Porterhouse).
  12. Beers to look out for include Eight Degrees’ Amber Ella (might give Howling Gale Ale a run for its money in the popularity stakes), Kinsale Pale Ale (a great beer to show to festival novices that Ireland can match Sierra Nevada et al), Mountain Man’s Hairy Goat (nice copper ale for the autumn) and hopefully Five Lamps will release the darker version of their Liberties Ale (they have a lager so why put out a golden ale?).
The fantastic branding from some of the newer breweries at the festival


Have a picnic at a beer festival instead

Forget the Electric Picnic, the festival to be at the end of the summer is the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival. Continuing in its early September slot in the RDS for the third year, this edition promises to be bigger and better.

The festival got a bump in attendees in 2012, thanks to the weather and benefitting from the first Leinster home match of the season (supporters could benefit from 50% reduction in admission on presentation of match ticket). Nonetheless the organisers are determined to give it a go. Tis year’s festival is now a four-day affair. Gone are the three-day passes but Beoir members can benefit from discounted entry. There is also greater equilibrium in the beer festival calendar as beer festival took place a couple of weeks before the inaugural festival in 2011 and last year it was the weekend immediately following last year’s one. I wasn’t particularly complaining because needless to say I attended both (gutted to have missed the Secret Beer Garden 2013 in its new May slot).

The festival had a quiet start in 2011 and as all regular festivals needed time to grow in its surroundings. Noticeable improvements in terms of general attendee experience could be seen last year. This includes TVs to watch the important matches of the weekend (i.e. Ireland v Sweden and the All Ireland final) as well as the main stage being in the centre of the room as opposed to be at the end of the hall this first year. However, the key reason for being there is to enjoy the range of beers and ciders on offer and thankfully the opening hours have been revisited (Thursday 5pm-11.30pm, Friday & Saturday 12pm-12.30am, and Sunday 12pm-8pm). The later closing times are fantastic, particularly those who might be combining it with the football match nearby on Friday.

The festival allows attendees to get up close and personal with the breweries themselves. Unlike the in the IFSC, breweries operate stalls offering their wares. There are a number of first time debutants such as Donegal Brewing Co., Kinnegar, Kinsale Craft Brewing, Mountain Man, Five Lamps and newly launched Brú Brewing from Meath. It’s great to see Galway Hooker back at the festival after missing last year’s, bringing with them a range of beers that are nigh on impossible to imbibe outside of city of the tribes. J.W. Sweetman will be there under their new name, ownership and brewing skills. In 2011, my beer of the festival was Barrelhead contract brewed by Fransican Well for the guys behind Sweetman’s today and I can’t wait to try it once more.

Besides the array of fantastic stouts and porters, there will be a number of golden, pale, brown and amber ales. I am particularly looking forward to trying the range from Kinnegar (they were excellent when tried in bottles last June), Mountain Man’s Hairy Goat and Kinsale’s Pale Ale complete with hop randall in tow. Hopheads wont be disappointed this year with the Eight Degrees “hop off” contenders Cyclone and Hurricane putting in appearance, as well as Amber Ella made with the with aussie hop of the same name (used to be called stella but for some reason had to be changed). It will be interesting to get the opportunity to try the Franciscan Well’s IPA as well as Whitewater’s Hoppelhammer IPA because I’ve heard good things about the cask version.

Like all beer festivals, there will be a range of “special” brews. It’s great getting the opportunity to have first tastes of brews that may or not be put into wider production or based on feedback relieved they might be altered in future brews. Dungarvan will be bringing brews that will offer an insight into Cormac’s thinking of forthcoming brews. In 2011, they brought what was to become Comeragh Challenger and last year we got to try Mahon Falls then under thr imaginative name of Rye-PA. Alternatively festival specials might be brewed with unique adjuncts because of either the growing popularity of these beers or simply for the craic. The Metalman crew have done this in the past. This year we’ll see O’Hara’s Curim with peach as well as with mango and honey. Whitewater will be bringing Bee’s Endeavour, an ale with honey and root ginger. Let’s not forget that Trouble Brewing will once more be providing a scaled up version of the brew that scooped overall prize at the 2013 All Ireland Homebrew Competition, an oatmeal stout called Ormeau Dark. There will be also two collaboration brews at the festival the first being Troubled Hooker (can you guess the breweries involved?) the second one will be a Belgian-dubbel style from JW Sweetmans and O’Hara’s. Hopefully White Gypsy will be bring theirs and a side-by-side test could be done. There will be a noticeable increase in abv of the beers and offer and the accolade for the strongest on offer goes to the Porterhouse’s Louder. O’Hara’s will also have a barley wine. That’s two Irish barley wines at the same festival. Two! There were none last year.

For lager drinkers (much maligned by beer aficionados), there will be more choice over previous years. No longer will Dingle’s Tom Creans, Carrig lager and a couple from the Porterhouse. Brú will bring both a German-style pilsner and a Dortmunder, and people can get their malty lager fix from the Five Lamps. O’Hara’s bar will feature their Helles interpretation. The festival will show that lagers are not solely pale yellow thirst-quenchers and there is quite some depth to the cold fermented brews. Look to the amber lagers on offer from Whitewater’s Bullrush (no Belfast Lager this year) and the excellent sorachi ace-infused Sahara from Metalman. For those attending the festival with lager drinkers, why not introduce them to the range of Kölsch and other golden ales as a transition beer?

Finally, a lot of discussion has taken place online about the presence of Franciscan Well at the “craft” beer festival following their takeover by Molson Coors. For example, its beers have already been removed from the Beoir Finder app. This is an issue that will run and run until there’s an agreed definition for “craft” beer in an Irish context (or do we need one?). Alex aka @TheBeermack has a good overview of the debate on the presence of the Cork brewery at the festival and suggests that the festival might look at future years branding itself as “The Great Irish Beer and Cider Festival”. This would be inline with both its counterparts in the UK and the US where independent and large breweries participate and leave it to attendees to make up their minds. Although in the case of the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) with its focus on real ale, you wont see the likes of Brewdog, Kernel or Magic Rock participating. People will “nit-pick” until this issue is sorted but others may equally take umbrage over the presence of international offerings from Kentucky and Sierra Nevada at an “Irish” festival. There were rumblings at the GBBF over the increased presence of international beers and that they were taking attention away from the indigenous offerings. I certainly think it would be great to have additional beers from overseas at the festival because it could help boost international visitors to the festival (CAMRA and other EBCU-affiliated members get discounted admissions). Perhaps one year we may see Irish brewer’s Fergus Fitzgerald (Adnams) and Evin O’Riordain (Kernel) bring their brews to the festival. Sadly it was a missed opportunity this year during “The Gathering”.

All in all it promises to be a fantastic weekend in store for attendees. Apparently there will be ciders and whiskey as well but they’re really not my thing (at the moment) and perhaps an education will be required so if any one out there has the patience to teach me about them, get in touch.