Think style, not fashion
Saturday 30 July 2022
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Stephen Clinch, founder of Trouble Brewing, is out walking his dog in Cabra, North Dublin, when I manage to catch him for a phone call. For him, festival season has unfortunately coincided with jury duty, a spanner in already chaotic works that makes him a tricky man to get hold of, and me all the more grateful for any portion of his time. Ferment and Trouble brewing have been ships in the night of our respective lifetimes to date, meaning this is the first time we’re profiling the brewery, and getting their story first hand.
Trouble Brewing’s story starts like that of many other breweries, but there’s something about my conversation with Stephen that strikes me as oldschool, as opposed to old, stylish as opposed to fashionable. I ask Stephen about a claim on Trouble’s website, that Seamas O’Hara of the Carlow Brewing Company once lovingly called him the most cynical man in craft brewing; he laughs and tells me that he’s known for seeming to have “a grumpy disposition before people get to know me”. The assertion strikes at a fondness I have for directness - I can only respect it.
After years of now retired co-founder, Tom Prior, insisting that friends Stephen Clinch and Paul O'Connor sample the fruits of his homebrewing endeavours, the three friends found themselves with a broad enough knowledge of craft trends and techniques to take seriously the idea of starting their own brewery. Finally, in 2010 the three co-founders took a leap of faith away from their jobs working for “the man”, and sunk €45K of savings on a second hand brew kit, and a site no bigger than two car garages, in neighbouring county Kildare.
Unfortunately circumstances dictated that Tom step back from the business early on in the brewery’s lifetime, leaving Stephen to drive the brand forward, and Paul to take over brewing. But by 2014, Trouble Brewing had found its feet in the market, and an increased demand meant it was time for migration to a larger premises, where they could fit a larger kit.
From there the business upped stakes, moved to its current home in Kill, Kildare, and hired a professional brewer who previously worked for Redchurch but was moving back to Dublin, and whose technical skills helped elevate beer quality and streamline production. Some further changes to the team have happened over the course of the brewery’s lifetime to date; Paul also quit the brewery in 2020, and was replaced by co-owner and head of sales, Brian Tracey, who came to Trouble Brewing after several years at Lagunitas.
All was going well until the pandemic struck, which Stephen says hurt Trouble Brewing particularly badly; “80% of our business was Dublin based pubs” he says, “with us not having the facilities to package our own products we kegged most of the beer. It was 9 or 10 months into the pandemic before we got set up with a canning line - once we had our hands on it we were fine, we have a great distributor here who was really able to push packaged products, but before that, it was an absolute disaster for us.”
Trouble managed to retain all six team members through the pandemic, and is happy to continue brewing up to its current capacity of 3000 hecs in spite of business being better than it’s ever been. “We’re working pretty close to our capacity at the moment, but for me, focusing on quality is the most important thing” says Stephen, “If we have a small capacity we want to be brewing at that capacity and making really high end beer. We’re not really driven for brewing massive quantities, we’d much rather reinvest in quality. We’re not trying to take over the world, we just want to keep up our own little patch.”
Trouble’s patch is among a spattering of Dublin City Centre bars, which Stephen says have been good to the brewery, and over the years have supported it in the fact of its being small and independent. Stephen says bars have been loyal to Trouble, and approached them with big deals for continuous orders that provide a vital source of income. “I don’t need eight taps” says Stephen, “just give me one or two good ones are we’re laughing”.
The mode of relationship building that Stephen speaks of extends into how Trouble Brewing came to know The White Hag. “We've had a pretty good relationship since they started” says Stephen. “Bob and Paul have pretty big personalities so would be out socialising and mixing with other people at the festival. Over a couple of these we got to know them. Paul [one of The White Hag’s three co-founders] used to live in Dublin, so we’d bump into him in different pubs and we kind of got to know each other from drinking in the same bars. He then moved to Sligo, and it was from there that we got to know Bob. We’ve done a fair few of the Hagstravaganza’s over the years, so we know The White Hag well”.
I ask Stephen if he thinks the tricky tap situation in Dublin has impacted what festivals mean for the craft beer scene in Ireland, and he takes some time to think about his answer. “For a long time it was the same group of people that went to beer festivals, but it seems craft beer is heading in the direction of becoming more mainstream now - there’s not a huge buzz about it, but it’s also fairly common” says Stephen. “When we first went into bars, 95% of people knew what they were drinking before they even went out that night, and I don’t think that that’s so much the case any more with this next generation of beer drinkers. Although it's hard to know what’s been going on the last few years, the scene seems to be spreading out a bit more now, so it’s not the same group of people you always see at beer festivals, which is always nice to see”.
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