About four years ago, the Irish beer market started to shift decisively towards craft beers.
They’d been around for longer than that but suddenly, craft started spilling into the mainstream with smaller beers getting shelf space in the likes of Spar and pubs offering dozens of craft beers in both bottles and on tap.
Gone where the days where you’d pretty much walk into a bar and choose between Guinness, Carlsberg, Bud and Heineken – or Bulmers if you preferred cider.
The big guys were suddenly caught flat footed as consumers welcomed the emergence of more choice and, crucially, quality in the beer market.
The biggest brewers in the world didn’t get to where they are without good reason though and fast forward to today and we see a very different landscape.
Walk into any bar around the country and you’ll see very different beer taps in front of you. The chances are that at least 50% of them will be what you would refer to as craft. The fact that it could be Five Lamps (owned by C&C) or Hophouse 13 (owned by Diageo) is probably lost on the regular punter on the street.
In short, what the craft revolution has done in Ireland is force brewers back into innovating and creating new products. Consumers no longer want a pint of beer just sold to them as “the coldest beer ever” or slapped on to the front of a football jersey.
Instead, they want a back story, some heritage and marketing that takes them on a “journey”.
The best exponent of this, in my opinion, has been Diageo and the way that they have positioned themselves.
Guinness is still their flagship product that dominates sales but the company has adopted a strategy that not only reacts to the emergence of craft beers but thrives in this new landscape. The main success is Hophouse, which has given them a second mainstream beer that consumers seem to absolutely love.
The success though, I reckon, has been in the marketing.
They delved deep into their heritage to tell the story of being the master brewers for hundreds of years. This has been done in a number of ways, from TV ads through to outdoor campaigns, and the message is very clear…. they are the real owners of “craft”.
That might annoy the hardcore craft afficionados but it is a message that has resonated with the general public.
The best example of that to date is The Open Gate Brewery down in St James’ Gate. It is a sort of baby sibling to the huge Guinness storehouse and it is effectively an experimental bar where you can taste the beers they’re developing.
It only opens on Thursday and Friday and for the very reasonable price of €6, you’ll get a tasting board of their beers. Ninety per cent of those beers will never hit the market but you get a wonderful insight into how the innovation and development phase works. Plus, there is something magical about sitting within the bowels of an ancient brewery drinking beers that could be the next big thing.
The menu gives you the impetus to try new things (including one beer at 8.5%) and pushes you out of your comfort zone. The message here is clear… ‘we try and test hundreds of beers to make sure you, the consumer, only get the very best one’.
The Open Gate Brewery is getting busier (you’ll have to book a couple of weeks in advance) and I do wish it was open more often and for longer hours. However, the fact that it is part of a working brewery limits the scope for that.
If anything, the experience here is even more exciting for a beer lover than the Storehouse next door. You feel like you are sipping the future and getting an exclusive look at the next Guinness.
For me, the craft journey of the last few years was complete. Rather than sitting on dusty couches in a ‘craft bar’, I was sitting tasting equally good beer but brewed right here in Ireland in what would be considered the Mecca of Irish beer production.
The really good news for consumers is there is a place for all craft beers. The big and the small.
The other big win is that I genuinely think the beers we now drink are way better than they were four or five years ago because of the huge investment and the attention the industry is now getting.
Check the OGB out if you love beer. You’ll fall in love with the place pretty quickly.