Celebrating the independence of US craft brewing

This year saw the passing of a true revolutionary, Jack Joyce, co-founder of Rogue Ales and patriarch of Rogue Nation. He was a firm believer in “freedom of expression, absence of bullshit, variety, and the pursuit of beer with taste” even challenges the conventional craft beer mantra of small, independent and traditional. A former lawyer for Nike and who had negotiated Michael Jordan’s early shoe deals, Joyce was committed to “doing things differently, a desire and a willingness to change the status quo” and be believed that being a “leader doesn’t mean you have to be the biggest”. He like Fritz Maytag, Ken Grossman and even Jim Koch and Steve Hindy (although he reportedly didn’t agree with contract brewing) left an indelible mark on the US craft brewing scene. So when he checked out on 27 May 2014 what shape was the US craft beer industry in?

Jack was toasted at a beer tasting I hosted at the beginning of June
Jack was toasted at a beer tasting I hosted at the beginning of June

There are now 2,768 craft breweries in the US out of 2,822 total breweries. This represents the continued upward trajectory of craft brewing. There was an increase of 15.3% in number of craft breweries n 2013 than the previous year. In keeping with year-on-year growth in market share and production output, there was a significant increase in the number of regional craft breweries in 2013.

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US Craft Brewing Facts:

  • There are 2,768 craft breweries in the US (overall 2,822)
  • Craft breweries increased by 15.3% in 2013; regional craft breweries (+22.6%), microbreweries (+22.8%) & brewpubs (+7.1%)
  • Slight decrease in total number of microbreweries opening in 2013 (304) to 2012 (340)
  • Sales up 17.2% in 2013 (overall beer sales down 1.8%)
  • Market share stands at 7.8%
  • 49% increase in US craft beer exports
  • 18% increase in craft beer volume production (overall beer down 2%)

This time last year, I posted a piece on Fritz Maytag in Revolution in Red, White & Brew because I wanted a US feature for July 4th. He was a pioneer not only in terms of what he did in saving and transforming Anchor Steam but more generally what he did for inspiring independence in US brewing. A group of us were only discussing his contributions to the revolution during the European Beer Bloggers Conference (EBBC 2014). This year, I’ve decided to focus on an Irish-American connection in Dundalk-native and now resident of Lexington, Kentucky Dr. Pearse Lyons.

Dr. Pearse Lyons addressing attendees at the International Craft Brews & Food Fair (source: Alltech)
Dr. Pearse Lyons addressing attendees at the International Craft Brews & Food Fair (source: Alltech)

At EBBC 2014 I had the opportunity to have a beer with Brian Yaeger and it was in his 2008 book Red, White and Brew that I first came across Pearse Lyons and what he was setting out to do in terms of brewing in Kentucky. The Southern US states, with a couple of exceptions (e.g. Texas, Florida etc), were fairly late to the craft beer revolution. Today the State of Kentucky is only 39th in number of breweries and 45th in terms of breweries per capita. On this side of the Atlantic, few had heard of the Lexington Brewing Company up until recently.

A familiar sight at Irish beer festivals
A familiar sight at Irish beer festivals

Over the past two years, the awareness of the Alltech, Dr. Lyons and the Kentucky brands both in terms of beer and whiskies has grown. He may have left for the US in the 1970s but he has always kept one foot on the island, just look at the Alltech investment in Dunboyne. He’s even building a distillery in Dublin. There’s a great team at Alltech and I’ve gotten to know a few of them over the past couple of years. However, one can see Dr. Lyons as the driving force behind all that they do and he describes himself as an “entrepreneur, salesman, marketer and scientist all rolled into one”.

The Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. produces a number of beers, all ales. Their flagship is Kentuck Bourbon Barrel Ale, which is the result of aging their 6% Kentucky Ale in bourbon barrels for six weeks. I’m not that much of a whiskey drinker and always found bourbon a unique prospect but I must say this beer has grown on me, especially when it’s served in a snifter. It tastes of good ol’ Kentucky bourbon. They have followed suit with a stout also aged in a bourbon barrel with the added addition of Haitian coffee (also owned by Alltech), which maries well with the bourbon smoke. They produce a good value IPA (although would love to see them bring the cans to Ireland) and a Kölsch-style beer, which when I first saw the beers on sale a couple of years ago in Nashville, was branded Kentucky Light. As a sign of encouraging new craft beer consumers, this name was thankfully dropped. They have produced three seasonals but only one of which has arrived in limited quantities in Ireland, the Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat. The others being two collaboration brews, a bourbon barrel maibock (with Blue Stallion Brewing Co.) and the other being a blend of barrel aged stout that has been specifically aged for two years and Country Boy Brewing’s Black Gold Porter, oh and of course the blend is then barrel aged for good measure.

Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. was asked to supply beers & whiskey for ths US Embassy's Fourth of July celebrations
Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. was asked to supply beers & whiskey for ths US Embassy’s Fourth of July celebrations

A year ago this July, Alltech held the first International Craft Beer and Brewing Convention in Dublin and a second edition was held earlier this year. The good news is that the event (rebranded as the International Craft Brews and Food Fair) will return in February 2015. The first focused on entrepreneurship (see Brewing up new businesses) and the second had growing the market for craft beers (targeting customers and publicans) as a theme. There’s even the Dublin Beer Cup and opportunities for brewers to introduce their wares directly to consumers. N17, Rascals, Stone Barrel Brewing and Independent Brewing made their beer festival debuts in Febuary 2014.

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The two Dublin editions afforded valuable opportunities for people in the trade to network and form new connections, some of which have resulted in new business for Irish breweriers. For example, Galway Bay Brewing has just done a collaboration brew with Chicago’s Begyle Brewing, a conference alumnus. Hardknott from Cumbria got added opportunities to visit Ireland and ahead of this year’s conference, brewed Yerba with Metalman. Alltech has rolled out this conference in Kentucky and I’m sure a number of Irish brewers are itching to be invited.

For what he has done in terms of brewing and for what he’s doing in terms of promoting the industry more widely through conferences and numerous events, this is the reason I chose to feature his contribution to the craft beer revolution.

Brewing up new business, the sequel

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With the publication of last week’s report of the Sean O’Sullivan-chaired Entrepreneurship Forum the second annual Alltech International Craft Brews & Food Fair (6-8 February in the Convention Centre Dublin) couldn’t come at a better time. Last July’s event featured an enterprise pillar because let’s face it Ireland needs to do more in terms of new business start-ups. Renewed attention is being put on getting growth back into the domestic economy and craft beer is clearly bucking the trend.

A key focus of this year’s event will be on supporting and expanding an essential part of the craft beer industry – the pub trade. A dedicated conference will be held over a day and half discussing measures at reinvigorating the sector, principally through craft beer and ultimately greater choice for the consumer. We have seen a lot of media attention given to the pub trade, which has not just focused on closures but also on those that are turning around distressed pubs, new high profile entrants to the market such as Wetherspoons and those hoping to redefine the distribution business to pubs through a dedicated craft beer focus. Given the importance of pubs to communities and the part they play in our overall tourist offering, it is heartening to see that approximately 300 pubs have registered to attend. Changing the model for the Irish pub through an expanded beer range, quality Irish food or for the more ambitious, prepared to brew onsite will further reinforce the overall Irish craft beer industry.

The mainstay of the event will be “Craft Brews and Food Fair” itself featuring over 50 breweries from around the world paired with 15 of Ireland’s finest artisan food producers. It will be open to the public on the Friday (5pm-9pm) and Saturday (12pm-9pm), as well as there being set trade sessions during the event. Tickets are €15, which include four free drinks and there will be lots of food to sample as well. They can be purchased on the door or in advance here.

There will be a number of sensory sessions throughout the fair in which participants will get the opportunity to learn about tasting beers, matching beer to food, whiskey and gin tastings, as well as of course learning more about Alltech’s very own Kentucky beers from head brewer Ken Lee. For those more enthusiastic, Tim O’Rourke will be back and along with a panel of beer experts will be running a separate day-long Alltech Academy Sensory Class on 6 February with the opportunity to take an exam to become an “Alltech Certified Beer Taster”. This course has to be booked separately here.

Small smaple of beers announced, including new entrants on the Irish beer scene

It will be interesting to see the beers that will be on offer during the fair. I’m looking forward to trying beers from new Irish breweries such as N17, Independent Brewing Co and Rascals Brewery. Also, the fair will feature a number of international breweries (such as Coisbo Beer from Denmark) that soon could be featuring on shelves of off licences or on draft around the country. Last year, attendees had the good fortune of encountering Hardknott’s Queboid and Beavertown’s Gamma Ray. Hardknott have an excellent array of beers on sale in Ireland and Beavertown thankfully are due here momentarily.

The Dublin Craft Beer Cup will be awarded for a second time, with the trophy making the short trip down the M1 from Lisburn, home of Hilden Brewery. The inaugural winner was of course Twisted Hop. The number of entries in the Dublin Beer Cup 2014 is expected to be 200 beers from at least 100 breweries in 16 countries, which goes to show that there’s prestige to being successful in such competitions and there’s a real opportunity to establish this as one of the premier competitions out there. The calibre of the beer entered last year was exceptional so it will be interesting to see the full list of entrants and the medal winners at the conference. Judging is expected to get underway on Tuesday 4 February with the winner being announced at lunchtime on Saturday.

Thinking back, it was at July’s event that I met Sam Black of Kinsale craft brewing fame and the lads from Brú brewery, as well as hearing about plans for a new brewery in Wicklow. I wonder by the time the third incarnation of this event comes around not only what the brewing landscape will look like but also what changes pubs will make on foot of what they will discover next week. All anyone will have to do is to heed Dr. Pearse Ryan’s three-day pep talk.