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

Xconomy National — 

Seamus O’Hara made the career leap from life sciences venture capitalist to full-time craft beer brewer. A more lucrative industry? Perhaps.

O’Hara’s brewery is in County Carlow, about an hour south of Dublin. He started the Carlow Brewing Company with his brother in 1998, while working in the biotech sector. Back then, Ireland’s only other independent brewer was Porterhouse, which got started in 1996. Today you can find O’Hara’s and Porterhouse beers in many pubs and stores, including some in the U.S. (mostly on the East Coast).

If you care about innovation, the story of Irish craft beers is a familiar one of underdogs breaking into an entrenched industry—think Guinness—and disrupting business and culture along the way.

The past couple of years have seen an explosion in Irish microbrews, from a small handful to 40-odd brands now. That growth mirrors the rise of the local innovation community in Dublin, which is anchored by technology companies and startups. And the changes speak to a burgeoning creative class, as well as the broader economy of jobs and services that helps support it.

For his part, O’Hara studied biotech and molecular biology at Dublin City University in the mid-to-late ‘80s. Out of school, he worked in R&D and manufacturing at AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline. Then he spent 10 years at Enterprise Ireland, working in tech transfer and business development for Dublin-area universities and research centers.

In 2001, O’Hara co-founded Seroba BioVentures, a Dublin-based VC firm. He served as a partner—it was renamed Seroba Kernel Life Sciences—and is still a director there. The firm, which runs one of only two biotech venture funds in Dublin (the other being Fountain Healthcare Partners), has invested in companies such as Opsona Therapeutics, Covagen, and Xention. It has about 100 million euros under management.

O’Hara’s knowledge of yeast and bacteria from his biotech days came in handy as a brewer. “I know the process,” he says in his understated way. But Carlow Brewing’s early years were relatively slow going. When business picked up steam around 2011, O’Hara decided to go full-time on the beer front.

“The brewery had been making good progress for a number of years,” he says. “We could see the market developing very strongly. It needed hands-on attention, and we needed to increase our capacity.” Carlow Brewing had seen roughly 20 percent annual growth prior to 2010. Since then, O’Hara says, growth has been more like 50 percent year over year. Much of that has been fueled by overseas sales, as exports make up roughly half of O’Hara’s business.

Similar to the VC world, he says, “opportunities for companies come and go. There are windows of opportunity, and you need to strike—you need to move your business when the opportunity is there.”

Dublin’s growing tech industry has helped drive that opportunity. Multinational companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter—and fast-growing outposts of Airbnb, Dropbox, and others—are changing the consumer demographics of the city, in part by bringing in more young people who like to drink different kinds of beers. (I also heard about a couple who worked at Amazon and Microsoft in Dublin who recently opened their own brewery.)

Porterhouse microbrew pub, across the street from Trinity College Dublin. (Image: Gregory T. Huang)

Porterhouse microbrew pub, across the street from Trinity College Dublin. (Image: Gregory T. Huang)

“It’s hard to quantify,” O’Hara admits, but “the type of people who are typically working in [information technology] are adventurous and outgoing, go-ahead kind of people. It’s been helpful. The people and the culture they bring are becoming more influential in Dublin.” He adds, “Google is good for us.”

In short: techies like craft beers.

They also tend to be heavy users of social media. And social media “has been a leveler” for small breweries, O’Hara says, helping them compete with the marketing budgets of the big boys.

But more fundamentally, he sees a “revival of interest in flavors,” a “more adventurous spirit,” and a “less insular society.” “All those are positive changes for Ireland,” he says.

It all adds up to a new personality for the Irish capital—one in which an appreciation for different tastes 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.