In the early 1980s, consumers were not exactly spoiled for choice when it came to beer – requests for anything more exotic than Guinness, Harp, Tennent's or Smithwick's were invariably met with raised eyebrows and hard stares. Things couldn't be more different today, with some off-licences stocking more than 500 brands of beer catering for pockets deep and shallow.
Some people were ahead of the game. Long before it was profitable or popular, Pearse Lyons was Ireland's only postgraduate with both an MA and PhD in brewing. Such qualifications could not be obtained in Ireland, despite our long-established and far-reaching reputation in the drinks industry, so he had to travel to get them.
Coming from Dundalk, the home of Harp, and from a long line of coopers. Lyons found the drinks business a natural fit, first in the brewing industry and then with Irish Distillers.
In 1980 he went to the United States. Once bitten by the can-do spirit of his adopted country, he set up Alltech, an animal nutrition company.
It is not such a stretch, he says, from whiskey to supplements for cattle and pigs. They all involve nature’s great catalyst, enzymes. He has built Alltech into a successful multinational, but his first love was brewing.
In 1999 he bought the former Lexington Brewing Company in, Kentucky, where Alltech has its headquarters. "I felt like I was 26 again," he remembers. The brewery is now run by his son Mark.
He believes microbreweries have to be “small, have to be unique and they have to have a story”. In the case of Lexington, the uniqueness comes from the ageing of Kentucky Ale in bourbon barrels. Kentucky makes 95 per cent of all bourbon in the United States.
Alltech is the organiser of the second annual International Craft Brews and Food Fair in the Convention Centre Dublin. The first one last summer was evidently a success, given the relatively short turnaround for its follow-up. Lyons is expecting a crowd of 5,000-6,000 people through the doors of the Convention Centre this Friday and Saturday.
Craft beer fairs are proliferating because there are enough microbreweries to make it happen, and the public have become interested. This one will include 16 international distributors.
A highlight of next weekend will be the Dublin Cup, a competition for the best beer at the fair. It was won last year by Co Antrim's Hilden Brewing Company for its beer Twisted Hop.
"If you'd have asked me five years ago would craft beer have a future in Ireland, I would have said you were out of your mind," he says. "Guinness, Heineken, Budweiser – what chance did craft beers have?"
Change in the air
Change is happening incrementally but surely. Dr Lyons was struck by a comment made by a barmaid in Donegal two months ago when he asked what beers she had. "You can have the boring beers or you can have the interesting beers," came the response. The same sentiments were echoed by a barmaid in the Lough Eske Hotel where he was staying.
“I’m amazed and delighted,” he says.
The rise in popularity of Irish microbreweries has given consumers a choice they didn't even know existed 10 years ago. According to Beoir.org, the website for craft beer aficionados, 13 new microbreweries were set up in Ireland last year.
It is not just in Ireland where the rise of the microbrewery has occurred. Last year almost 400 microbreweries opened in the United States – the country that gave the world Budweiser, Coors and Miller.
An Bord Bia believes the craft beer sector in Ireland is entering a golden age. Sales rose by 42.5 per cent in 2012 and about 35 per cent last year. Part of the optimism is based on the relative smallness of the industry. Craft beers account for just 0.5 per cent of all beer sold in Ireland. There is plenty of room for expansion.
What does he think of Irish craft beers? “I’m surprised in a good way,” he says. “Some of them are very drinkable, but craft brewers tend to overdo the hops. Hops can cover a multitude.”
What could go wrong? Quite a lot, suggests Lyons.
“The craft beer sector has to be careful not to shoot itself in the foot. The craft beer industry needs education. It’s all fine and dandy if you are a home brewer, but they have to learn how to make beer consistently.
“They have to learn how to make beer with legs that will travel. Then you have to learn how to package and present that beer. You have to learn how to be an entrepreneur.”
With that in mind, Alltech is to set up a craft brewing academy among its facilities in Dunboyne by the end of the year. At the moment there are two formal brewing schools in the world, one outside Munich and the other, the British School of Malting and Brewing, in Scotland. Next week's craft beer fair will have classes in brewing.
The academy will be open to everybody, from those with a hankering for home brewing, and those who want to perfect their wares, to those who are established craft brewers but are in the market for new ideas, both in terms of product and marketing.
Alltech set up a microdistillery in the Carlow Brewing Company, which makes O'Hara's beers, two years ago, and is expected to announce a new distillery in a disused church on James's Street near the Guinness brewery in Dublin's Liberties this weekend. It will be part distillery, part tourism attraction, with tourists getting a chance to look at the process of making whiskey.
All this is part of a master plan for Alltech to become a major presence in the new-look Irish drinks industry.
“The point is that we have longevity, both financial and business-wise. We can go for the long haul. What we want to do with the craft brewers and craft distillers is help them get their products into the distributors I have in the United States.
“We are wedded to this thing for the future. If they win, we win. It’s very exciting.”
Alltech International Craft Brews and Food Fair takes place from 5pm to 10pm on Friday and from noon to 9pm on Saturday. Tickets are €15, which includes four beer tokens