Slipping from adolescence into adulthood with new canning lines and barrel projects, O'Hara's takes the Covid years in its stride
Saturday 12 March 2022
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Last year marked the 25th birthday of the Carlow Brewing Company, more commonly known as O’Hara’s, making it a seasoned professional in a landscape of wide-eyed newcomers; it’s a uniquely positioned brewery within the Irish landscape, Irish history, and the contemporary Irish craft beer scene. Straddling the border of Carlow and Kilkenny, O’Hara’s is located between a wealth of vivacious local bars and the rich soils, perfect for growing malts, hops, and apples, that rendered Carlow a historical hub of brewing in the 1700s.
While hops are no longer grown there, local malts and apples more often than not make their way into O’Hara’s beer and cider, making this long-standing brand not only a friendly face in the Irish bar scene, but a product of uniquely Irish origin. But was this wealth of experience and resources any match for COVID, in a nation where sixty-odd percent of sales comes from on-trade?
Strangely enough, whether through serendipity or impressive foresight, O’Hara’s seems to have weathered the time since we last spoke to them, in January 2020, incredibly well. “As it happens we’d been working on a plan to bring in a canning line, so that was our project for 2020,” says CEO Seamus O’Hara. “The timing actually worked out great for us, as it dramatically increased our capacity to package beer into bottles or cans; it allowed us to roll with that side of the market and we’ve had great growth in our beers in cans”.
O’Hara’s also built the packaging of wiggeted, nitro-friendly cans into their distribution strategy; a forward thinking move, in hindsight, given that by the time O’Hara’s in-house canning line was up and running, the nation was crawling the walls for some reminder of times gone by, when beer came from a keg, not a can.
The other impressive aspect to O’Hara’s foresight, is its structured programme of barrel-ageing, an undertaking usually only approached in relatively small quantities, and on an if-and-when-there’s-time-and-barrels basis. O’Hara’s has been barrel ageing for eleven years already, a span that places them in their adolescence, when most other craft breweries in Ireland, are still in their infancy. Currently, O’Hara’s has anywhere between 30 and 60 barrels full at any one time, with each batch being aged for three to four months in anywhere between 15 and 30 barrels. For context, most other breweries we visited had between five and 20 barrels on the go.
Unlike a lot of breweries, Seamus has no qualms about disclosing where most of his barrels have come from; they’re mostly ex-bourbon and ex-Irish whiskey barrels, from the likes of Tullamore D.E.W. and Bushmills, but also from smaller distilleries like Clonakilty, Boann, Blackwater, and Walsh Whiskey. “If we source them locally, they’re still fresh, still wet with whiskey,” Seamus assures us. But with the wealth of new distilleries that have popped up around Ireland in recent years, he’s happy, even excited to work with the diverse range of barrels Irish distilleries are bringing in, as they become more adventurous.
But what strikes me most about Seamus is his attitude to the dreaded licensing situation in Ireland. I ask him about it specifically, given how challenging and urgent an issue it has been for younger craft breweries that we spoke to. Being a more established craft brewery, is O’Hara’s experience of on-trade competition with bigger brands different?
“A lot of our work goes into finding bars where our products are a good fit, and fit with their clientele; we’re not looking to make a hard sell, we’re looking for a right solution,” he responds, diplomatically. “You’ve to bear in mind, and it’s something we’ve worked hard at over the years, that there is a service level that’s expected and required in professional bars, and it’s a standard you have to meet from day one”.
O’Hara’s investment in meeting these service expectations, and then replicating the conditions of that service in beers that they’ve canned for consumption at home, makes me think that they’ve emerged from these difficult years, not only victorious but primed for the future.
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