Meet The Makers: Rye River Reveals NPD Plans And Targets Growth
Rye River Brewing Company boasts an exceptional record of achievement in the World Beer Awards and an internationally recognised BRC accreditation. Its CEO and founder Tom Cronin talks to Maev Martin about double digit growth in retail, future investment plans, and bringing a new brand to market this year.
At the start of 2020, Rye River Brewing Company had an ambitious plan to grow its export business and target the on-trade in Ireland, but were stopped in their tracks on 12 March when the first lockdown got underway.
It soon became apparent that there would be further lockdowns and that Rye River would have to endure a stop-start year that would put paid to its ambitious plan.
“Fortunately, we are very retail-oriented in Ireland and that has been our strategy since we restructured the business in 2017,” says Cronin. “From March 2020 onwards, we witnessed the consumer movement towards drinking less and drinking better.
People were savouring the food and drink occasions and our range of beers, and craft beer in general, works well in so many food and drink pairings.
All of this helped us to grow our retail sales by over 50% last year, a level of growth that compensated somewhat for the fall off in exports and in our on-trade business. We grew overall volume in our brewery by 11%.”
Rye River Brewing Company has 57 employees and that number will rise to 61 in April.
“Our business, which includes 60,000 square feet of warehousing, is located on a five-acre site in Celbridge, Co Kildare, so we could facilitate a lot of pod operations and we have kept Covid-19 out of the business to date,” he says.
While 2020 was a rewarding year in terms of growth and bringing a lot more consumers into the craft beer category, Cronin points out that the pandemic brought a lot of challenges and increased costs, from the requirement for social distance markings in the brewery, to sanitisation facilities, PPE and stock write offs.
However, during the pandemic, Rye River took a decision to support the independent retailer. “When the government asked us to step up and find roles that would retain employment, we reassigned staff who had been working in on-trade, export, and brewery tour roles,” he says.
“They started working to incentivise a lot of independent retailers, including convenience stores and independent off-licences, to take our brands on board. I know that e-commerce is an important and growing element of business for so many companies, but we have strong retail relationships, from independent off- licences to national listings, and that is how we sell our beers.”
While Rye River didn’t realise its export ambitions for 2020, it was still a pretty successful year for them, as they are well established in a number of European markets. “Some of our brands and distributors managed to do well in the pandemic,” he says.
“For example, we have a listing in the Italian retail chain Esselunga and, as a result, the export plan for 2020 for Italy wasn’t as hard hit as other markets, such as Germany, where we were targeting more on-trade customers, so our level of success in any given market depended on the distributor strategy that was employed.”
The UK has never been a significant part of Rye River’s export strategy. “It is very difficult for ‘everyday craft beers’ to trade in the UK and most of our ranges – McGargles, Grafters, Solas, The Crafty Brewing Company – along with most craft beers in Ireland, are in that category. They find it hard to compete with ales on the price per litre and it is difficult for Irish craft brewers to make strong margins as a result.
“Also, because we have been growing in volume over the past few years, we are impacted on our duty threshold in the UK, so it is difficult for us to compete with other smaller Irish craft brewers in that market. Brewdog has changed the mindset of what craft beer is in the UK. It is a massive global entity and they have set the standard in terms of pricing in retail.”
However, there is nothing everyday about their Rye River Seasonal Range, which targets the more discerning craft consumer.
“With that type of premium beer we do small batches each year for the Irish market, and for select export markets, including the UK, when we have the volumes and opportunity to do so. We shipped that range to the UK over Christmas and it was very successful for us.”
COVID-19 hasn’t negatively impacted Rye River’s brewery operation when it comes to sourcing the ingredients required in the brewing process. “We have strong supply chains and we forward purchase hops and malts, so we have a lot of security in our supply chain that smaller breweries mightn’t have,” he says.
“With Brexit, we had some challenges in the first few weeks of 2021, but they seem to be easing. We ironed out the initial nervousness around lead times and border checks that arose without affecting our manufacturing plant or our supply chain.
I’m not confident that we won’t have further delays as a result of Brexit as the year progresses, but we are experiencing a period of grace at the moment.
“Kieran Rumley of Love Irish Food was a huge support to our business in the months prior to Brexit and kept us informed about what was happening. We also set up a steering committee last May to prepare for Brexit as best we could. We didn’t invest in massive systems – we just watched what was happening on a weekly basis and we got supply guarantees from our major suppliers.”
A lot of Rye River’s malt comes from the UK as they use a type of malt in some of their beers that isn’t produced in Ireland.
They also source a lot of hand turned malts – a traditional method of malting – in Britain. “Many of our beers have some element of these hand turned malts and we have worked with a traditional maltster in the UK who has been supplying us for the past few years,” he says. “These are the types of initiatives that we believe give our beers an edge and allow us to win so many awards internationally.”
World Beer Awards
Rye River Brewing Company has garnered an impressive haul of awards in recent years, both in Ireland and internationally, that now totals 170. In 2019 and 2020 they were the most successful independent craft brewery at the World Beer Awards (WBAs). In 2020 alone, they won 30 awards at the WBAs.
“The World Beer Awards are the internationally recognised symbol of quality, so to have 30 beers universally acclaimed as best in class, best in country and best in world is quite an achievement,” says Cronin.
“Our export stout won the best in world award at the WBAs last year, which we regard as one of our most impressive accolades to date. There are only six or seven categories for the world’s best and we won the one relating to stout.
“Stout is a popular brew choice for many craft breweries around the world, as it allows for massive creativity, so for us to brew a high ABV export stout and have it recognised as best in the world is a nice nod to an Irish craft brewer.”
Five Successful Brands
According to Tom, Rye River Brewing Company brew in excess of 30 unique recipes. “There is no shared recipe across any of our brands, the only sharing is in terms of the brewing process,” he says. “We are a respected and trusted brewery with household brand names and our quality and consistency has resonated well with consumers. Our brand identities are strong and appeal to different consumers.
“McGargles has become a household name in terms of craft beer in Ireland and is a very strong performer for us, but all of our ranges are performing exceptionally well.
The Crafty Brewing Company range is quirky and confident, Solas is an innovative, entry level craft beer, Grafters is a no nonsense, hard- working beer, as its name suggests, so we are good at developing successful brands. Not many breweries have five successful brands in their own right.”
The Crafty Brewing Company is a Lidl exclusive, both internationally and in the domestic market, and Cronin says it has become one of the most successful Irish craft beer brands over the past few years.
“It has won seven WBAs and I’m unaware of any private label brand that has won that many WBA awards,” he says. “We also have other retailer exclusive brands. Tesco have Solas and Dunnes have Grafters and they have won WBAs, so the 30 awards that we won in 2020 are across all of our beer ranges.”
Future Investment And NPD
Cronin is excited about their new brand that will be rolled out in 2021, a development that is the culmination of the growth they experienced in 2020, their investment plans, and the ramping up of their brewing operation.
“We implemented a three-year plan following the restructuring of the business in 2017 and we came through that successfully, hitting all of the markers that we set, and we set out on a new five-year strategy in 2020,” he says.
“While the pandemic threw us a massive curveball, our volume growth of 11% shows that we are on track with the plan, and in the next four years we will be investing in new packaging lines and new tank farm additions, and we will have to invest in a new brewhouse at some stage.
“We brew 32 brews a week and, starting in April, we will move to a 24/7 operation at our existing brewhouse. We are launching a new brewery-led brand under the Rye River brand name in the second half of 2021. We believe that this will provide the next surge of growth for the business.
“We have developed a successful story in craft brewing without having any of our brands carry the Rye River name, so we decided to bring a brand to life that recognises who we are. Apart from the Rye River Seasonal range, which is small batch, this will be the first of our everyday beers to have the Rye River name.”
The company has been developing this brand for the past 18 months, working closely with Zuilmah Wallace in The Thinkhouse in Bord Bia, and with Cork-based Greenhouse, who carry out all of Rye River’s brand work.
“The new beer, which will launch domestically, will be heavily export orientated when markets open up, and I think our reputation for being really good brewers will stand to us, as we will introduce Rye River to new markets with this new brand,” he says.
What will also stand to them, no doubt, is their BRC standard. “We have achieved a high quality mark that proves we are a world class brewery, and I believe that we are the only independent brewery in Ireland with this accreditation.
It took 18 months of investment to ensure that we achieved it, but the BRC standard is a massive door opener when you enter the international retail market.”
Room For Improvement
He acknowledges that the Irish craft beer sector is a very competitive market, making it difficult to secure retail space. “However, competition and choice is really important for the consumer and we have seen growth in the independent craft beer category in Ireland over the past five or six years,” he says.
“In 2014, 1.4% of all beer in Ireland was craft beer. In 2020, with the popularity of craft beer being accelerated as a result of the pandemic and the ‘drink less, drink better’ movement, it is probably about 2.8% of the beer market in Ireland, which is a doubling of the market since we started out.
“And there is room in export markets for the many Irish craft breweries that offer great branding and consistency to do well.”
Coole Swan cream liqueur has taken the Irish and global markets by storm since its launch in 2010. Maev Martin talks to Coole Swan CEO MARY SADLIER about a family business that is driven by a common goal – to be the best premium cream liqueur in the world and see the Coole Swan bottle
standing proud on every supermarket and off-licence shelf across the globe.
It sounds like a rather lofty ambition, but as so many of the companies in our Meet the Makers series have proven, it is an
ambition that is well on its way to becoming a reality. The business operates from a fifth-generation family farm in the Boyne Valley in Co Meath and has grown to the point where it sells over 250,000 bottles of its premium single malt Irish cream liqueur annually to countries all over the world, while continuing to operate from the family farm. “Studies show that 85% of family businesses are run by ethical standards and family values,”
she says. “This means that family businesses look at more than just revenues. Our business decisions are guided by our values and ethical practices,
rather than profit, so sometimes we may err a little more on quality, value and sustainability, but we think it is the right thing to do.”
The putting quality before profit approach defines how the company operates and Coole Swan’s brand identity. When I ask Mary why they have been so successful in competingagainst a global brand like Baileys, she tells me that they aren’t competing. “I think Baileys are a fabulous brand but we aren’t competing against them,” she says. “I don’t believe that consumers stand looking at a product on a store or supermarket shelf and wonder
whether they will buy Coole Swan or the category leader. They don’t browse in that way when they see us and other brands on the shelf. They buy according to the occasion, the feeling, or the moment.“However, we have found that our entry into the market has brought a bit more excitementinto the Irish cream liqueur category, while raising its profile again and ensuring that itcontinues to grow and innovate. Liqueurs are the third biggest category in the world after vodka and whiskey, and and they cover a wide range of products, so as a nation we should bevery proud of the fact that Irish cream liqueurs, which are in themselves a global category, constitute 20% of the global liqueurs category.”
An impressive CV
Mary cites a number of standout achievements for the Coole Swan brand over the past decade that she believes have put them in a strong position to achieve their ambitious growth targets for 2022. The first big milestone was winning double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2010. “No other Irish brand had done this, so it was a real endorsement of the Coole Swan brand,” she says. “In 2010, Wine Enthusiast, the US bible on spirits and wines, gave it a score of 96 out of 100 and described it as ‘sublime’ and voted it the number one liqueur in the world. Wine Enthusiast invited us back to enter in 2020and we achieved the same score. We are now,once again, the number one Irish cream liqueur in the global market, so this proves that we have maintained the quality of our product over the past decade.”
Another big milestone was securing a listing with Musgrave in 2013. This was followed by a distribution deal with Anzac for theNorthern Ireland market in 2014 and another significant distribution agreement with John Lewis in the UK in 2015. “On the back of these achievements, and the growth that they brought to our business, we could see scalecoming to our operation in 2018,” she says. “Up to that point, we had been a ‘mom and
pop’ structured business, so we bit the bullet in 2018 and restructured our business. That meant that when we were hit by the US tariffs and Brexit it really paid off. In fact, it was the best move we ever made. We were slammed by Brexit, Trump and Covid, but the restructuring helped us to navigate Covid better than we might have if we hadn’t acted.”
Coole Swan appointed a board to the company in late 2018 and its most recent board appointments were announced in the autumn of 2021. The seven board members are experienced industry professionals andinclude Cathal Deavy, customer director in Tesco Ireland, Oliver Thompson, sales directorwith Concha y Toro UK, David Hobbs, transformation director with Boots UK and executive director with Boots Ireland, and John
Beaudette, president and CEO of the leading US wine and spirits importer MHW Ltd.
Pandemic performance According to Mary, the Coole Swan brand has enjoyed ‘steady and solid’ growth over the past 18 months, both in the domestic and overseas markets. “There is a strong customer base for cream liqueurs here and abroad,” she says. “The off-trade compensated for the
absence of an on-trade and the hit to travel retail, while overseas, our best growth came from the US market,” she says. “In Ireland, we focused on increasing our distribution over the past 18 months and we rolled our product out to all Dunnes and Tesco stores in the country. During that rollout there was a tremendous sense of comradery between ourselves and the retailers, who have been extremely supportive of us as we strive to maximise our sales in-store.”
Key export markets
The US, UK, Germany and Canada are the key export markets for Coole Swan. “The UK and the US are our biggest markets, but Germany and Canada are also very strong,”she says. “Our export business to thosemarkets over the past 18 months was verysteady. Everyone that we work with was very collaborative as we were all in the same boat and I think that, over the next few years, we will reap the benefit of our performance over the past 18 months.”
Mary describes Coole Swan as a “steady as she goes, not a boom or bust, brand,” and it is one that took its first tentative steps into the Chinese market this year. “We recently received our first order and we are focusing on the premium market,” she says. “We are trialling with a six star hotel group called the Shangri La Group and we attended a huge trade show in Shanghai earlier this month, so it will be steady as we go in China. We have agood partner out there, so we believe it will be a big market for us in the coming years. Picking a partner that works well with you and is similar to you is the key to being successful in any market, for any business, but that goes double for the drinks business. You have to carefully pick your partner and we
have been very lucky in that regard, but we spent ten years getting it right.”
Coole Swan also recently appointed a new distributor in Ontario in Canada. “Dionysus Wines are huge distributors and great partners
for our business and would be well known as the distributors of Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin in that part of the world,” says Mary. “We will be embarking on a distribution expansion programme with Dionysus Wines in Ontario in 2022, which will involve expanding our retail and on-trade footprint, and will also cover marketing,brand awareness and customer recruitment.”
The premium proposition NielsenIQ research is predicting increasing polarisation between the ‘constrained’ and the ‘insulated’ consumer in 2022. “There will be a route to market where the ‘insulated’ consumer will find their product, and for everyone else
MARY SADLIER has nothing but praise for the work of the Love Irish Food organisation, and in
particular for the role that its executive director KIERAN RUMLEY has played in helping member
companies to grow their brands in the Irish market. “Kieran’s work for Irish food and drink
brands is phenomenal,” she says. “He is very open to new ideas and and to helping member
businesses with initiatives that they believe will benefit their business.
“Joining Love Irish Food in 2011 was a terrific opportunity for Coole Swan. One of the first things
that happened when we joined was the chance to meet renowned Irish chef Neven Maguire, so
that was wonderful for our business, and indeed any positive business connections we have made
have come out of our membership of Love Irish Food.
“Being present at the Bloom event every year in the Love Irish Food tent was an unbelievable
experience for us. We met all the big chefs and the proximity to other Irish brands that it gave us
was great, as were the learnings that we got from that experience. We also participated in a
podcast with Flahavans and I have to say that I’m pretty much in awe of a lot of the brands that
are members of Love Irish Food. These are all blue chip companies in the Irish market and many
of them are global as well as Irish brands.
“I also love the organisation’s recent collaboration with Tesco Ireland, which I believe will have a
big impact on the membership over the coming months and years, but the biggest benefit of Love
Irish Food membership is the use of their logo, which has had a great impact on our advertising
efforts and a positive knock-on impact on our sales in Ireland and overseas.”