Promoting the “Irishness” of craft beer

Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, has seriously stepped up its support for Irish craft beer. In the not so distant past, the agency was perceived to be more interested in promoting food rather than drink, save for a few token appearances of the likes of Jameson or Baileys. Of course this ignores the support for the occasional brewer like Carlow Brewing or Galway Hooker accessing export market data, making contacts or attending international events over the years. There has also been research reports and seminars conducted in the past. However, the inclusion of brewers in the Origin Green initiative and the focus in the Food Wise 2025 strategy underpin the renewed emphasis on Ireland’s drinks industry. Let’s not forget that newer breweries are now looking to really develop their export markets as part of their overall business strategy.

I have written on Bord Bia and the strategy of the government on various occasions on the blog. It is interesting to watch how craft beer is being promoted alongside our other food and drink offerings. There’s a trend to officially connect craft beer to other products. We have been doing so locally and independently for years but it’s great to see government channels exploiting the “Irishness” of craft beer. They’ve realises that these beers are interesting, new and have stories of their own.

Just a week ago Carlow Brewing, Boyne Brewing, Clever Man, Galway Hooker, The White Hag Brewery and Wicklow Wolf joined other drinks producers at the inaugural “Spirit of Sharing” event in London. The event was hosted in the Irish Embassy, which is a stones-throw from Buckingham Palace. It’s an impressive venue and no doubt would’ve helped attract potential customers the event. It was a somewhat regal trade event. The setting has been used effectively in the past to build export links for other industries so it’s positive that our alcoholic beverage producers can tap the same support. Let’s hope it can be replicated in other countries.

With St. Patrick’s Day upon us, initiatives ranging from greening monuments around the world to the traditional presentation of the bowl of Shamrock to the President of the USA show that we have unprecedented access for a country of our size in a ‘one week only’ sort of way. Bord Bia will of course use official events this week to promote food and drink. However, it went one step further this year by securing agreement to present both President Obama and Vice President Biden hampers fully-loaded with Irish produce. Taking pride of place in each hamper, was a bottle of O’Hara’s barrel-aged Leann Folláin. I’m sure POTUS, as a homebrewer, will appreciate this excellent beer. I have no doubt the VEEP will do so likewise and hopefully he’ll sip whilst reading one of his many collections of Yeats’ work.

Let’s see this trend continue. Enterprise Ireland is also stepping up to the mark by supporting a few craft brewers and having a new team looking at promoting food and drink exports. Even established investment funds are look at beer and whiskey as growth markets. Things are certainly on the up and I’ll drink to that.

 

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.

Craft beer’s part of new Government 10 year growth strategy

Food Wise 2025, the new national strategic report for the agri-food sector was published this week. Craft beer and whiskey are designated key areas of focus over the next decade. This is the latest acknowledgement by Government that efforts must be made to allow these producers to continue to grow and expand.

The overall objective for beer and whiskey is to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of the producers. A dedicated sectoral strategy is needed setting out “supports, targets and best practice for the entry, development and progression of these companies to 2025”. An increase in R&D and innovation across the sector is needed but for that to happen there needs to be a 10% increase in funding per annum. The need to develop skills in brewing and distilling is recognised, particularly in the areas of mentoring and training. I would like to see this progressed further into the development of a formal apprenticeship scheme for aspiring brewers. This would result in a blend of formal qualifications and on-the-job experience in a structured format.

Develop a sectoral strategy for food and drink SMEs, which sets out supports, targets and best practice for the entry, development and progression of these companies to 2025      Food Wise 2025

It is little surprise that a key focus is in boosting export sales. We’re a small island with a small but growing population. Yes, there’s plenty of room for breweries to expand at home but for those that want to, we need to help them gain access to international markets. One just needs to look at the approach that Carlow Brewing Co took all those years ago, a big effort in exporting because the market wasn’t really available in the country. That was when there were only a handful of craft breweries. We’ve over 70 now and the domestic market still has a long way to go in order to open fully to them. That is not to say that craft isn’t growing, it is and will continue to do so. I’m just saying a craft beer export strategy could really boost those already able to ship internationally. However, we also need to support those not yet ready but have aspirations to do so. Food Wise 2025 recognises the need to “continue to work directly with indigenous companies to identify new export market opportunities and develop services and supports for companies to facilitate export growth”. It also sees that specific market knowledge of the US market needs to be provided. This maybe more targeted at whiskey but there’s room for Irish craft beer too. The time has never been better for crafting an export strategy for beer.

Continue to work directly with indigenous companies to identify new export market opportunities and develop services and supports for companies to facilitate export growth   Food Wise 2025

The focus on beer in whiskey and beer in the report is hardly surprising. Minister for Agriculture and the Marine, Simon Coveney TD has been a more than a fair share of beer events during this time in the department. It’s a good news story, entrepreneurs starting up, producing products in the country and looking to export – what more could you need! However, there’s a growing trend that whiskey is getting more attention than craft beer. Yes, a distillery requires far more investment in capital than a brewery, not least with the three years needed for maturation alone. Also, whiskey has the snob factor and beer suffers unfairly for not been seen as civilised as other mainstream alcoholic drinks, with the possible exception of cider. The need to “develop an Irish Whiskey and food pairing trail as a major tourist attraction and to differentiate Irish food and drink produce” is singled out but we should also be pushing for a brewery tap licence to be introduced.

Beer, cider and whiskey makers must be equally respected, supported and championed. They all tell the same story. We can produce excellent, diverse and quality products on this small island of ours.