The O'Neill brothers, still crushing it
Saturday 12 March 2022
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Stashed away in the most murdery corner of a darkened industrial estate, O Brother brewery is as delightfully weird (and wonderful) as one might hope. We arrive a little late, having been led astray by the Wicklow Wolf lads, but all three of the O’Neill brothers are there to greet us, along with brewer Harry. The ancient, traditional wood-clad brewhouse is scrubbed to within an inch of its life, and the air is heavy with malt-sweet steam. It’s a warm welcome, complete with coffee.
For the uninitiated, O Brother has built its admirable reputation on the back of a no-shortcuts approach to hop-forward, US style craft, with very few concessions to the more traditional proclivities of Irish drinking culture. Its beer in this month’s box – a sweet, full-bodied US stout, as opposed to a traditional Irish dry stout – is an excellent example of this.
Like many Irish breweries, O Brother has succeeded in achieving an awful lot with very little brewing capacity or storage space, and has even held events in this room. There’s even a stack of empty barrels, waiting to go back to Powerscourt distillery, where they’ll be refilled with new make spirit, having been used here for barrel ageing.
The big news since we last spoke to the boys though is that a splashy new brewery is in the pipeline. While its precise nature and location must be kept from the record for now, it would be a very significant move, giving O Brother access to a much broader market of customers, in a drastically more salubrious setting. My promise to return as soon as it’s a done deal is not an empty one.
For now though, the brewery is in what Barry O’Neill describes as “a state of flux,” in which they’re trying not to buy anything new in, even though they’ve really outgrown their current setup. In need of a beer and somewhere to perch, we head back through the office and upstairs to a multi-purpose staff room/speakeasy/lock-up space, whose furthest corners are obscured by the gloom and what looks like decades of abandonment. I ask Barry and Brian how the quest to bring US-style craft to the Irish mass market has been going under lockdown.
“In some ways I think it’s been good, in that people’s tastes have become more sophisticated and adventurous, because they’ve been buying for home consumption,” says Brian. “So maybe they’re still buying their six-pack of Heineken, but they might also take a selection of other things. A good chunk of them then seems to be sticking with it too, which is great.”
Barry continues: “That’s true, but there’s still a lot to be done. Generally, it’s quite easy to shift a big, juicy IPA, but there’s still not much of a market for sours for example – it’s a niche within a niche here.”
Both agree though that there is an opportunity to capitalise on the interest in drinking local, and drinking a little different. With Scotland-style minimum unit pricing coming in, the supermarket ‘slabs’ of macro-brewed lager will be a thing of the past, allowing the country’s independents to play on a much more level playing field.
“I think Guinness has noticed a shift, because Diageo has been paying a lot more attention to its pub relationships lately,” says David. “They’ve still got that clout at the bar, but I think the genie is out of the bottle in terms of people looking to try other things. That’s all the opportunity we need.”
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