Recently I had the pleasure to be invited to see how 3 companies in the Irish ‘craft’ beer industry are working together in the heart of Rural Ireland to create sustainable local jobs (and really good beer) in a space where just 10 years there were none. Cooperation like this shows the comradery in the independent beer industry which, according to Liam from Irish Craft Canning, makes this ‘a really nice industry to be part of’. The chief protagonists of this story are Irish Craft Canning, Dead Centre Brewing, and St. Mel’s Brewing.
Irish Craft Canning is a specialised process and packaging business established in Mullingar, by Ciarán Gorman and Darren Fenton, to serve the rapidly growing craft beverage industry. Irish Craft The business targets small to medium scale beverage manufacturers who produce beer, cider, mixed spirits, sparkling flavoured water, premium soft drinks, juices, energy drinks, chilled teas and chilled coffees. Up to half of the cost of beverage production can be spent on packaging and labelling and small producers cannot benefits from economies of scale. This is the market opportunity that Irish Craft Canning have identified, and now they provide the very attractive alternative for producers to outsource as much of their packaging process as possible. Irish Craft Canning provides a comprehensive solution whereby a customer who has a tank of between 1,000 and 7,500 litres (equivalent to between 3,000 and 22,500 cans) of a beverage product can have on the same day a fully packaged (canned, labelled, boxed) branded batch of product in a ready to ship shrink-wrapped pallet. The company also have their own in-house labelling line so they can ensure a turnkey packaging solution, and also offer contract labelling services.
Dead Centre Brewing Company was founded by Liam Tutty who has big plans for a Brewpub and Restaurant in Athlone on the banks of the River Shannon. After years of home brewing and after spending some time working with the Rye River Brewing Company in Kildare, Liam (who also has a background in Broadcasting and Digital Marketing) decided to set up on his own. Athlone town is literally in the Dead Centre of Ireland hence the name. From the 1700’s, Athlone was a bustling hub of distilleries and brewery’s, but unfortunately has not seen a commercial beer produced here in over 100 years. Liam’s Brewpub, which is at an advanced stage of planning, promises to become an important addition to the tourism product of Athlone, comprising of a 70m2 brewery, restaurant and local artisan producers stands. It is clear Liam believes strongly in supporting local business as much as possible, and this passion comes through in the Beers he has produced to date.
Liam recalls the support he received from the industry when he made his plans known. ‘The thing about craft beer’ he contends, ‘it’s not as cutthroat as any other industry… We are very lucky to be in the industry we are in, with the people that are in it.’ One of those early phone calls of support was from Liam Hanlon of St. Mel’s Brewery, in nearby Longford. While the physical ‘Dead Centre’ brewery is being realised, Liam’s beers, ‘Marooned’ and ‘Source Code’, are being contract brewed in St. Mel’s Brewery.
St. Mel’s Brewery was established in 2014 in Longford by two native Longford men, Liam Hanlon and Eoin Tynan. Both founders were living in Dublin and had just started families, and they both wanted to return to the area they were from. Liam has worked in the craft beer industry since 2003 and had a long held ambition to open his own brewery in his hometown. The timing was right and the market was growing so the two men took the chance. St Mel’s Brewing Company mission is to brew the highest quality beers from the best possible ingredients, combining innovation, passion, and tradition. Their beers are made from 100% natural ingredients, water, malted barley, hops and yeast. They are chemical free, and are preserved by the natural qualities of the hops and alcohol. Before St Mel’s Brewing Company opened, the last beer brewer in Longford closed his doors in the 1840s, 170 years ago.
Now that the introductions are made, down to the business of the day… Canning of Dead Centres flagship beer, Marooned IPA, described as ‘a fruity, juicy ale on a base of Pale Malt, Red X and exceptional quality Oatmeal from locally grown Kilbeggan Organic Oats (ref. Liam’s passion for local produce)’
Darren from Irish Craft canning talks me through the canning process. Firstly, great care must be paid to ensuring that everything that the beer touches is sanitised. Anyone who ever brewer beer will know this. Other parts of the set-up include purging the cans with CO2, ensuring the carbonation levels of the beer itself in the tank is at the right levels, and painstakingly working the finer details of the machine set up to ensure the correct head, and can fill levels. (Too much in the cans is spilled during capping, too little allows the possibility for oxygen to be trapped… Irish Craft Canning’s Liam tells me that they regularly achieve levels in the region of 60 Parts per Billion). While the set-up is being meticulously calibrated, every can coming off the line is weighed to ensure uniformity in volume. As well as the calibration of the equipment, the brewers also have their own exacting quality standards to be met, and so before any beer is allowed to pass through it must get the thumbs up from the brewers. It is this diligence of care and love that defines so-called ‘craft beer’. Once the set-up is complete empty cans enter the line where they are purged, filled with beer, capped, tapped and sealed before passing through a water wash and blow dry, then on to the conveyor to be boxed.
While this is taking place, St. Mel’s brewer Mark is busy labelling a fresh batch of St. Mel’s own IPA, and I had a chat with Dead Centre’s Liam about his experiences making the step-up from homebrewer to commercial brewer.
‘The thing about scaling up is everything is different, the process, the efficiencies, the pitch rate, everything, so you get the first beer out and it tastes different to your pilot. We are very lucky at the moment contract brewing with St. Mel’s because the guys here have so much experience. I trust their judgement completely, and if they have a suggestion to improve the process I am going to listen to them.’ Liam will soon have a new challenge, commissioning a new brewery… different kit, different set-up, different process, and he is acutely aware of the important of consistency in quality and taste of his beer. This is a challenge that I have no doubt Liam will meet.
Dead Centre’s Liam taste-testing his Product
The benefit of craft brewing on local economies is well researched. According to Scott Metzger, the founder of Freetail Brewing and an adjunct professor of economics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, ‘Craft brewers are incredibility inefficient when it comes to producing beer and that’s what makes them terrific job creators for cities and towns’. It is true that the economics of scale that the larger industrial brewery’s benefit from do not exist in smaller, independent breweries. An example of the ‘inefficiency’ Metzger refers to is evident in the setting up on the canning line. The set-up process, and the time required, is the same whether you are canning 1000 litres, or 100,000 litres. And no two beers are the same… especially in the craft industry, so for Irish Craft Canning, who are currently canning for about 40 different breweries, each with multiple beers, this process is well refined.
Metzger pointed out that ‘Anheuser-Busch employs 116,000 people worldwide to sell 335 million barrels of beer, that’s 2,888 barrels per employee. Craft Brewing employs 103,000 individuals to sell 11.5 million barrels of beer. That’s 112 barrels per employee… As the activity shifts away from large multinational producers, by default, more jobs will be created.’ This is certainly in evidence of that here in this part of Ireland.