Massachusetts Beverage Business


Article By: LEW BRYSON

“We had a limited range of beers in Ireland,” Seamus told me. “We went from a lot of local breweries in the 18OOs to . . . well, to Guinness. They began to die off in the late 18OOs, and the process continued. The canals and the railways had an effect, making it possible to easily ship beer from one brewery all over the country.”

Seamus took a drink of dark, black stout, smiled, and continued. “We weren’t happy with the beers we could get in the pubs,” he said. Unlike most people, he and his brother Eamon decided that this was not a problem, but an opportunity, and in 1998, they opened the Carlow Brewery, about 4O miles southwest of Dublin.

It was not an overnight success. “We didn’t think it would be as tough as it was,” he admitted. “The pub owners were not really receptive to upscale beers. We first made a wheat beer, like a wheat ale, and called it Curim. It was a historic Irish type of beer. Then we tried a red ale, called Molings Traditional. Finally, folks asked us, ‘Why aren’t you making a stout?’ So we did, and that went a long way to changing the pub owners’ minds.”

We were drinking that stout, his stout, O’Hara’s Stout. It is part of a new face on Irish beers. Carlow is essentially a microbrewery, operating in Ireland, making craft-type beer: a bit bigger, a bit bolder than mainstream Guinness Stout and Smithwick’s. Brewers as far apart as Anheuser-Busch and Boston Beer are getting into the Irish beer market, a trend that is both good and bad for the established Irish brands: good, because it means they see strength and opportunity for bigger sales there; bad, because it means more competition in what had been a safe market.

The Irish brands have had it all their own way for a long time. I remember David Geary of Portland, Maine’s D.L. Geary Brewing, telling me why he chose to brew a porter instead of a stout. The history of craft brewing, he said, was littered with dead brands that tried to go up against Guinness.

There was the holy black trinity of Guinness, Murphy’s and Beamish. There was Harp for the less courageous drinker who still wanted to wear the Irish badge. More recently, we finally saw Smithwick’s in America after a long wait thanks to competitive fears over the impact on sales of Bass. And that was it: no other Irish need apply to this solid year ’round franchise that goes huge every year in mid-March.

But now the Irish stranglehold is under assault from the same trends that have been breaking up monopolies in other categories. Heineken Premium Light is creating a high-end niche in light beer. Coors’ Blue Moon is ripping a huge tear in what had been a craft brewing preserve. Tecate is coming on strong while Corona goes flat.

What’s driving that? There is still a strong desire for an up-sell option among consumers, conversely coupled with a desire for a value alternative to increasingly expensive imports. There’s also the continuing, seemingly universal wish for variety of choice, for innovation, for newness. Coming from the other side, of course, there’s a natural desire to invade a lucrative category that has broken out of the St. Patrick’s Day prison, and make a little money.

Put that all together, and it means a growing, broader Irish category. It may mean more competition for the established brands, but it ultimately means more choices for you and your customers.

Jim Koch and the Boston Beer Company laid it right open with the newest addition to the Samuel Adams brand, Samuel Adams Irish Red Ale. Is shipping the first cases of a beer called “Irish Red” in mid-February a shot at the St. Patrick’s Day market? “It is just being introduced in March,” Koch admitted, “so the timing is perfect. It’s probably the only new beer for St. Patrick’s Day, and it has the introduction and the Irish theme going for it.”

It’s going to be a low-key intro, they won’t be draping shamrocks over it. Koch said, “We’re at a different level than that. We don’t do green beer.”

Boston Beer definitely doesn’t do green beer, and Irish Red is definitely at a different level, a level that allowed a truly red beer, not an artificially colored one. Koch told me that it was the result of a long-term project, the kind that only a craft brewer with the size and resources of a Boston Beer could contemplate.

“Over the last 1O years we’ve worked on developing a proprietary malt,” he said. “We worked with Ladish, in Minnestota, which was acquired by Cargill. We have a proprietary roasting/kilning method for our 2-row pale base malt and the Caramel 6O, the malt that gives Irish Red its beautiful red color. It has the same malts in it that Samuel Adams Boston Lager does, but it’s a different balance. It showcases a genuine red color, which is tough to get. You can get brown and amber pretty easily.”

Koch’s passion came out as he talked about the malt program. “As we’ve grown, we’ve tried to use our growth to improve the quality of everything we do,” he explained. “As you get bigger, it’s your responsibility to use that to improve everything you do rather than dumb it down. Our brewing philosophy is about bringing out the flavor of the ingredients.”

In the case of the malt, it wasn’t the actual grain, it was the processing. “Barley is a commodity,” Koch said, “you buy it by variety, the strain, not by the area or the field. You don’t have the nano-climate issues you have with hops, where being on one side of a hill or the other can make a difference. But what you do with roasting and kilning the malt makes a big difference.

“We’re very proud with what we’ve done with the malt,” he continued, “and this was a good way to showcase the characteristics. They’re kilned to be very smooth, and flavorful. We’re not trying to take flavor out, and this beer demands a lot from the malt.”

This is variety with a reason, not just another label; it’s a distinction with a difference, the kind of thing craft beers, and particularly Samuel Adams, have thrived on. Koch and his brewers looked at the Irish reds on the market, and saw a niche that was not well-defined. “What’s out there is quite diverse,” he said. “You’ve got Killian’s, which is a lager. Smithwick’s is about 1O [degrees Plato: a lower strength, lower body beer]. We went back to the roots of the style in the early 18th century.”

That’s where they found that Irish red was originally brewed in Ireland in 171O in Kilkenny. They were brewed with pale malt and roasted barley. “The earliest measurements you have are in the brewer’s notebooks from the late 19th century,” says Koch. You’ll see 13.5, 14P. We think the classic Irish reds were bigger, 5 or 6% ABV. A 1OP beer would have been considered small beer. We wanted to go back to that classic Irish red, back to its origins.”

It’s not just about being bigger. “To me,” Koch said, “Irish red ale is about balance, and smoothness. It should have a really smooth, rich malt taste, it might even have a little bit of almost buttery character: not a diacetyl butteriness, but the smoothness of butter. Irish Red is a great showcase for how flavorful and smooth our malt is, at least to my palate.”

Other palates agreed. Irish Red Ale came to the Samuel Adams line-up after a national taste-off with another candidate, a dunkelweizen. Over 42,OOO beer enthusiasts sampled and voted, and the Irish Red garnered 55% of the vote. That’s what put it on the way to your shelf.

Once it gets there, how do you sell it? “I would just put it with the other Samuel Adams beers,” said Koch. “We have a lot of drinkers in Massachusetts who know that if it’s a Samuel Adams beer, it’s going to be a great example of the style and taste good, and they’re willing to give it a try. If it were “Uncle Henry’s Irish Red” they might not, but Samuel Adams is respected all over the world: we’re going to get trial.”

He noted that the Samuel Adams Cream Stout does better in March, too: “We don’t do anything to emphasize St. Patrick’s Day with the stout. Some retailers will do that, but it’s their choice.”

He did have one tip for flavor hounds. “It’s a great beer with all kinds of cheeses,” he said. “That creamy, buttery taste complements all kinds of cheeses. I have no fear stepping up to the cheese counter and saying, ‘What’s the biggest, most flavorful cheese you’ve got?’ They’re great pairings with a big flavorful beer. A big malty beer with a nice hop finish is a wonderful experience with cheese.”

Let’s get back to that glass of O’Hara’s I was having with Seamus O’Hara. It was at a promotional event put on by the brewery’s US importer, Distinguished Brands. I asked DB owner Jeff Coleman how he found the O’Hara brothers and their beers. He hadn’t; their wholesalers on the east coast recommended them to him.

“The importer they had wasn’t making it,” he said, “and they were afraid of losing the beer. It was doing well, but not with enough volume for them to swing a deal to bring it in themselves.”

The volume would turn out to be a problem for Coleman as well, but in the opposite direction. He was selling these great beers – the stout and the red only; Distinguished Brands’ contract with German brewer Erdinger prohibits them from selling other wheat beers – really selling them, but the brewery had a hard time keeping up. They tried contract brewing at the then under-utilized Beamish brewery in Cork to

meet the schedule, but got bumped out when the plant started cranking out Miller Lite for Europe, six days a week on three shifts.

“Seamus beefed up his production capability,” said Coleman, but the O’Haras couldn’t afford to add more packaging capability. “He was shipping in bulk, 5OO liter tanks, to breweries in France and Belgium for packaging. You can imagine what that did to the price, and delivery was still inconsistent. Now he’s packaging in England, and we get a steady supply. He still brews in Carlow, about 4O miles southwest of Dublin, in an old railroad station, a beautiful old cut limestone building.”

Coleman makes a point of noting that O’Hara’s is Irish-owned and operated, an independent brewery. What’s that mean to the American customer? It’s about authenticity, he says. “The American beer drinker is cheated a little bit,” Coleman insists. “Brands like Murphy’s, like Guinness, have flip-flopped on where they brew their beer. Guinness was brewing canned and bottled beer in the UK, and the kegs in Ireland. Seamus may be packaging elsewhere, but he’s always brewed 1OO% in Ireland.”

What’s the beer itself like? I had several pints that night – I’ve had it before and since, as well – and must confess to being impressed. O’Hara’s Stout is, like Koch’s Irish Red Ale, beefier than other versions of the type. It has a deeper, richer flavor than the other Irish stouts, a flavor and mouthfeel that gives you real difference in your choice.

Coleman realizes that he’s competing directly with the world’s largest stout brand, backed by the world’s largest drinks company, Diageo. It doesn’t faze him. “We avoid ’em,” he said, when I asked him what his strategy was. “We don’t target Irish pubs, we target more upscale fine dining restaurants. They want all the high-profile, big volume accounts. Okay, we target what I call the second tier. Then we target by geography: we get one account pouring to encourage the next. And we target slightly older clientele; instead of 21 to 35, we’re more 29 to 44.

“As far as my salespeople visits, it’s probably 7O to 85% on-premise,” he said. “That will go to off-premise naturally. If it’s selling on-premise, the wholesaler will champion the off-premise for us.”

Once it’s been driven to your store, how do you handle it? “We put it anywhere we can get it in. Look, it’s expensive,” Coleman admits. “It’s because of the involvement in getting it bottled, and the brewery’s in the middle of Ireland, you’ve got to pay overland freight. The price is the biggest hiccup getting people to try it. Once they try it, they want it, and they’ll pay for it.”

The brewery’s celebrating their 1Oth anniversary this year with a big bottle Celebration Stout, a 75Oml flip-top bottle that holds a “double-malted” version of the stout at 6% ABV. The regular O’Hara’s is 4.3%. They’ll be here in time for St. Patrick’s Day, Coleman promised.

No one’s suggesting that Guinness or any of the other established Irish beers are going away. But your best customers are probably looking for variety, and there are some new options for St. Patrick’s Day, and on into the year. It never hurts to have an up-sell path in a category, especially one with a good story to go with it. Spend some time with a bottle of O’Hara’s or a six-pack of the new Samuel Adams Irish Red: make some new friends. You may find your passion again for a category that’s been narrow and consistent for many years.

No one’s suggesting that Guinness or any of the other established Irish beers are going away. But your best customers are probably looking for variety, and there are some new options for St. Patrick’s Day, and on into the year. It never hurts to have an up-sell path in a category, especially one with a good story to go with it. Spend some time with a bottle of O’Hara’s or a six-pack of the new Samuel Adams Irish Red: make some new friends. You may find your passion again for a category that’s been narrow and consistent for many years.

You know a category is solid when Anheuser-Busch decides to invade it. They’re taking a shot at the Irish niche with an on-premise draft product, Bare Knuckle Stout. Bare Knuckle’s been around for a few years – I’ve seen it on draft a couple places – but there’s some push behind it now.

“The smell and style of stout beers is unique and well known among beer lovers,” said George Reisch, an A-B brewmaster. “Bare Knuckle Stout has generated a lot of excitement among beer drinkers who are on the lookout for what’s new and different on tap. Those who enjoy a great stout will appreciate the smooth Irish character and strong American spirit of Bare Knuckle Stout.”

It comes in at a price substantially below that of imported stouts, and as the currency-driven price of them continues to rise, Bare Knuckle becomes more and more attractive. Don’t expect A-B to license the technology to bottle or can it anytime soon, but it is just one more indicator that the Irish category has grown enough to attract attention in a market that’s looking for more growth opportunities.

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