WITH CRAFT BEERS becoming ubiquitous across the country, one of Ireland’s breweries is trying to push the envelope for fancy brews a bit further.
In recent months, Rye River – the firm behind the McGargles craft brand – has been developing a range of ‘super premium’ craft beers.
Tom Cronin, the founder and managing director of the Celbridge brewery, says that these represent a level beyond the now-routine craft products that drinkers have become accustomed to.
“Beers like Hop House 13 or Archways are gateways into craft, then consumers might move into regular craft beers – which is where McGargles plays,” he tells Fora.
“Now we want to create something that’s a step above. We want to attract craft-beer connoisseurs who are looking for something different again.”
Although he admits it may be a niche market, he says that beer lovers will seek out something a bit more special on occasion.
“During the week they’re happy enough to stay in accessible craft, but when it comes to a Friday night they might be looking for something that challenges them a little bit more.
“These are consumers who want to discover beers and want to taste new brews that nobody else has tried before.”
To date, Rye River has developed three limited-edition ‘super premium’ beers – Belgian Imperial Stout, Miami J IPA and Ól Orange lager.
Cronin says that the difference between these brews and the company’s other craft beers comes down to the quality of the ingredients included and the processes that are used.
“For Miami J it’s a New England-style IPA and we used five different hops, so it’s a very different brew process to what we would do with our existing McGargles’ IPAs. This is softer in taste but also more complex,” he says.
“Then for the orange lager we shipped in 20kg of freshly-zested orange rind from the UK. Within 24 hours of being zested it had been shipped and we had it in the brew, so we’re going out of our way to create something very different.”
With a super-premium beer comes a super-premium price tag, however.
While a standard 500ml bottle of McGargles would cost between €2.60 and €3.30 at an off-licence, a 440ml can of one of Rye River’s top-line brews typically costs €4.30 – approaching double the price per volume of the standard products.
But Cronin says that there is a market for a higher-priced offering as long as consumers know that they’re getting a higher-quality product.
“It’s like a fine wine or a good Champagne – you need to understand why you’re willing to pay a bit more for it.
“The consumer who is shopping in this super premium beer category understands that the quality of the ingredients and scarcity of hops that we use commands a higher price. And they’re absolutely willing to pay more for something that’s uniquely different.”
The other thing driving up the price of the new Rye River beers is the exclusivity. The beers are brewed in small batches and are only available for a limited time.
“It’s all small-batch because we’re really trying to create a different experience. That does allow us to put a premium on it,” Cronin says.
“There’s an air of supply and demand, and there’s a bit of hype about it because you’re creating a product that you know will sell out in a short space of time.
“We only launched the orange lager two weeks ago, but it’s likely to be sold out by this weekend.”
The beers are also not as widely available as some of the brewery’s other brands, only being sold in specialist retailers and a small number of craft-beer focused pubs.
Overall, Irish consumers are drinking less alcohol than they did in the past. According to the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI), average alcohol consumption per adult was down by 1.4% in 2017 compared to the previous year and by 23% compared to 2007.
However, the trends are also showing that more consumers are switching to premium options instead – with the growth of the more-expensive ‘craft’ gins and whiskies.
“We’re taking things from where whiskey and gin have gone in recent years,” Cronin says.
“Consumers are quite content to have one or two premium beers – or whiskies or gins – on a Friday night, as opposed to maybe having six or eight cheaper beers 10 years ago.
“So we’re drinking less but we’re savouring the experience now – so that’s what we’re trying to tap into. Less is more.”
The opening of craft breweries in Ireland has exploded in recent years. According to DIGI, the number has increased from 15 to 72 since 2012 and there is now a brewery in every single county in Ireland.
Rye River was founded in 2013 and now producers a wide range of brews under the McGargles, Crafty Brewing Company, Solas and Grafters brands.
But Cronin says that developing new beers that gain a bit of buzz will help his brewery to stand out from the crowd.
“It’s a very challenging environment, so what you’ve got to do is be consistent in your offering – whether we’re competing with a Hop House or an independent Irish craft brand.
“But we’re also starting to see a bigger emergence of the larger US and European breweries in Ireland, like Brewdog, Five Points, Camden Town.
“They’re all starting to filter into the Irish market and they’re world-class breweries, so we have to find a way to compete.”
With the super-premium releases, it’s the first time that Rye River has sold a beer under its own branding – which Cronin says is an important PR move to allow the brewery to become better known in its own right.
“We’ve become predominantly known for the McGargles range – it’s the biggest part of our business. But we also want to get recognition for our brewery and not just a particular brand,” he says.
There are plans to have a total of five super-premium releases this year, with the possibility of between six and eight next year.
The next experiment will be a spruce-tipped saison, made from ingredients foraged last March from a forest in Dundalk.
“With what we’ve gone through as a business in the last three years, it’s also a bit of a nod to the brew team here to thank them and allow them to get creative and experiment with our brews,” Cronin adds.
It’s been a turbulent few years for Rye River and Cronin doesn’t shy away from discussing the “tough times”. After a couple of years of significant losses and the departure of two of the founding members, the company was restructured early last year.
Rye River’s revenue fell from €8.4 million to €6.2 million in 2017 as a result of the shake-up, which involved the firm ditching ambitious expansion plans, however it stemmed the flow of red ink.
The company recorded a pre-tax loss of €522,000 last year, down from €3.5 million in 2016. Cronin says that investment from State-backed lender BlueBay has helped to secure the future of the business and its 43 staff.
“We spent over €100,000 last year on equipment, and another €800,000 this year. I’ve just signed a deal for three more tanks which will allow us to expand further.
“We’re on track this year to sell 28.5 hectolitres of beer, so we’re at the top end of volume production now and we plan to keep on growing.”
As well as developing the speciality premium brews, Cronin is also focused on expanding the company’s export base to keep business going.
“This year 51% of our trade is exports and we’re delighted with that. At the end of the day Ireland is a small country so we’re actively looking outwards.”