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Craft Beer and Coffee: The Rise of Dublin’s Innovation Culture

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seems more embedded. “The multiculturalism is massive. It’s radically different than 15 years ago,” says Aisling Hassell, who leads Airbnb’s customer experience for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa from its Dublin office (which happens to have O’Hara’s on tap; see top image). Her office is contributing to the trend, as it has nearly 300 employees who collectively speak about a dozen languages.

When I spoke with O’Hara most recently, he was on his way to a meeting at Starbucks. That reminded me that the innovation culture story in Dublin includes not only beer, but other things like coffee.

“There’s definitely a connection between beer and coffee,” he says.

Ten years ago, the local coffee scene was very small, almost nonexistent. Today, you can’t walk two blocks in central Dublin without tripping over an espresso bar or café such as Insomnia, the Bald Barista, or 3FE (Third Floor Espresso). The latter establishment is often credited with putting Irish coffee culture on the world map, thanks to founder Colin Harmon’s placing as a finalist at the 2009 World Barista Championships. (He’s won the Irish Barista Championships four times.)

Whether it’s beer or coffee, these gathering spots are important for innovation clusters. They are where ideas get hashed out, friendships are formed, and deals get made. (See, for example, this map of the Seattle innovation scene’s cafes. And, while we’re at it, this list of “innovation beers” and app for finding watering holes.) Places like the Chop House, Slattery’s, Library Bar, and 3FE are all popular startup hangouts in Dublin, according to local VC firm Frontline Ventures.

Still, it’s worth throwing some cold water on all this cultural revival talk. Dublin hasn’t changed overnight. There may yet be a backlash against hipster techies. And craft beers are far from ubiquitous in Ireland. O’Hara says they make up less than 2 percent of the market, but could conceivably grow to 10 to 15 percent in the coming years.

Some street-level observations: The head bartender at Bruxelles, a popular spot off Grafton Street, told me he doesn’t care for the taste of craft beers, so he doesn’t carry them. His bar, on the ground floor, had Guinness, Kilkenny, and Smithwick’s on tap. A regrettably small survey of other Dublin pubs showed about half of them featured O’Hara’s or other microbrews prominently (hey, research).

Sampling the O'Hara's inventory. It was a long night. (Image: Gregory T. Huang)

Sampling the O’Hara’s inventory. It was a long night. (Image: Gregory T. Huang)

Nevertheless the craft beer industry, late arriving in Ireland, seems here to stay. Once people get a “taste for more interesting things, you can’t really go backwards,” O’Hara says. “It’s gaining momentum. The government has recognized it’s a vibrant sector. It’s a time of opportunity and a time of excitement.”

Back in September, I first met O’Hara at an Irish festival in Boston. He was attending a gathering of Irish pub owners—which included Porterhouse founder Oliver Hughes—and was also in town to meet with U.S. distributors and retailers. Promoting his own beer at the festival, though, turned out to be harder than expected.

I looked for the O’Hara’s beer stand, but could not find it. Apparently it had been pulled because Guinness was a sponsor of the festival. As with any startup, beware of openly challenging the powers that be.

No matter—I would just have to sample O’Hara’s pale ale and lager at the Stag’s Head pub in Dublin (and maybe a few other establishments). Everything tastes better there anyway.

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