In his decade long tenure at BNY Mellon in Dublin, Barry O’Neill remembers the nights out most fondly.
“It was the embodiment of work hard, play hard,” he said. “It was a great place to be in, no family, no commitments and good income.”
But after countless Friday evenings spent in Dublin pubs with his corporate comrades, there was one thing O’Neill couldn’t get past: the slim selection of Irish beer.
Sure, there was Guinness, Murphy’s, and Kilkenny, along with plenty of craft beers, but O’Neill had a taste for what he called “big, juicy, hoppy beers”, which he could only find when he travelled abroad, mainly to the US.
After some consideration, O’Neill, along with his two brothers, made a pact to leave their corporate jobs to launch a brewery that made Irish beer to their liking. That was in 2011, and in the decade since, O Brother Brewing has sprouted into one of the five highest-grossing local breweries in the country, with consumer footholds in ten countries.
Fortune favors the brave
O’Neil’s career pivot was not a classic case of leaving a highly touted corporate job out of spite. In fact, O’Neill looks back on his days in the office fondly.
“I spent 12 great years working in the [finance] industry working for an organisation of 50,000-plus people with high-quality talent and expertise,” he said. “I worked on the alternative investments side; it was a really exciting and vibrant scene at the time. A lot of new products were emerging and we were trying to keep up with traders. It was high pressure, but exciting.”
The Wicklow man knew all along, though, that there was life beyond the funds industry.
“It was always in my mind that I enjoyed the process of creating something for myself,” he said. “It was always worming around in there that one day I wanted to do something on my own – step out of this shield of 50,000 people around me to help me. I guess you could say fortune favours the brave.”
What that something for himself was, he didn’t know, until what he calls “one fateful night” in September 2011.
O’Neill, along with his two brothers, Brian and Paddy, attended the inaugural Irish craft beer festival in Dublin, an event that has since grown to host hundreds of brewers from around the world, but then featured just 12.
The three have had a textured taste for beer since they were boys when they spent their summers working at their uncle’s off licence. “We are fans of world beers,” O’Neill said. “My uncle would bring in beers from all over the world at a time when anything outside of Ireland was considered exotic. We had Belgian beers and imported American beers – we would take them home and try them, and it blew our minds for what the world of beer was really like.”
Walking around the festival, the O’Neill brothers noticed that not much had changed in the Irish beer market since their youth. “So much of these beers that we liked were imported, mainly from the United States, so we asked ourselves: why aren’t Irish breweries brewing these big, juicy, hoppy beers?” he said.
From there, the brothers made a pact to do it themselves.
The transition didn’t happen overnight, though. With the trio all holding steady jobs and a good income, they spent several years laying the groundwork before they jumped off the corporate ship for the seas of entrepreneurship.
“It wasn’t like we decided and then left our jobs the next week,” O’Neill said. “We had to make sure this was the right time and the right place to move into the industry. We started putting together our finances and talking to people.”
In December 2014, O Brother brewery finally rolled out its first beer. Still, Barry O’Neill didn’t leave BNY Mellon until almost a year later.
“At that point, we felt we had the research and the market growth projects to give us confidence that this could work,” he said. “There was uncertainty, but you’re always going to get that. At some point, either you’re going to go all in to make it work, or you’re just dabbling.”
Despite four years of preparation before cutting loose his safety line, O’Neill still felt the tumult of an early-stage start-up.
“I wouldn’t say it was comfortable,” he said. “Anybody setting up their own business would say they spend 99 per cent of the time outside of their comfort zone. Even after 20 years in business, I’m still growing. I’m still uncomfortable.”
One of the most challenging transitions O’Neill had to make from working at BNY to managing a craft brewery was the lack of a support system.
“It’s a huge change to go from a 50,000-plus person company to three people,” he said. “I went from a situation where I had an expert in every field, in the same building, essentially on call, to having to figure everything out myself.”
O’Neill owes a great deal of his early success to the brewery’s first non-O’Neill employee: the man sold them the company’s first brewhouse.
“We purchased our brewhouse from the UK, and the guy selling it was a revered master brewer,” O’Neill said. “When we bought it, he said, ‘I’ll pack it up, come over and help you put it together.’ Once we realised who he was, that this guy had 40 years of brewing experience, we retained him to help get us set up, dial in the recipes, and get all the processes and procedures in place.”
Hiring the industry veteran allowed the trio of brothers to sidestep years of growing pains, particularly when it came to running the business efficiently.
“He helped us avoid quality mistakes and maintain consistency,” O’Neill said. “With most breweries starting out, you get lots of cases of spoilage and wastage because you just dont know what you don’t know. We were able to hit the ground running and make a pretty big splash with our beers when we launched.”
“We were literally just sending our time learning, sweating, and talking to people”
That splash started with a gold medal at the Killarney beer festival in 2016, the first of four gold medals and two double gold medals the brewery has won for its products at various festivals. The company has taken home a total of 17 medals in its almost eight years in business.
O’Neill made the point, though, that the medals don’t show the challenges and pressures faced along the way.
“The first bit went by in a blur, it was hectic,” O’Neill said. “We were literally just spending our time learning, sweating, and talking to people. We were in and out of off-licenses as customers trying to get a sense of what people wanted. We had no idea about the commercial side of logistics.”
For the O’Neills, one of their salient early-stage challenges was pinning down how to deliver their product to their customers and what products to focus on.
“We had first intended to go to bottle pretty quickly, but the demand for kegs was so high during our first nine months that we didn’t have the capacity to put anything into bottles,” he said.
Once the company got its legs under it and honed in on the process for selling both direct to consumers and bars and restaurants, Covid hit, and the script flipped.
Overnight, O Brother’s supply of draft beer became useless, forcing the company to overhaul its business model.
“Covid was a major shock,” O’Neill said. “Fortunately, we discovered after a few days that people still wanted to drink.”
O Brother poured all of its beer destined for draft into cans, which it sold exclusively for two years.
Considering that half of the company’s customers disappeared almost instantly, O’Neill says it held up reasonably well.
“Package sales went up dramatically as people consumed beer at home,” he said. “We found that people in the absence of any other luxury were trading up their wine, spirits, and beers. People who would have spent €40 on a bottle of wine at a restaurant, and €15 for a night in, were spending the €40 in the off licence instead.”
With more people scanning the aisles of off licence’s looking to stock their refrigerators, the pandemic also helped the company’s exposure.
“It was actually a benefit for a lot of craft producers,” O’Neill said. “Sales went up a little bit. Generally speaking, we’re happy. We also had more time because we weren’t doing daily keg deliveries, it gave us breathing space.”
Now, O Brother Brewery is back to firing on all cylinders, selling kegs and cans. Its four brews, The Nightcrawler milk stout, The Sinner American-style IPA, The Dream Catcher New England IPA, and the Chancer pale ale, have thrust the company to an almost 30 per cent annual growth rate.
The core team of three brothers hasn’t changed since 2011, except for the edition of head brewer Rich Barrett, a Dublin native who spent time mastering the craft in California. The brothers brought him on in 2016 for his American influence on O Brother’s heavily American-inspired recipe.
While still operating out of a brewery in Kilcoole, O Brother has rolled out sales in nine European countries, including Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
The company also ships its beer international through Beer 52, an online beer delivery website with over 200,000 subscribers.
A new home
With demand growing, O’Neill has his sights set on a move to a new brewhouse elsewhere in Wicklow. As it is, O Brother’s Kilcoole base is reaching its capacity, and orders aren’t slowing down. The new brewhouse, which the company is scheduled to move into by the end of the year, will double the brewery’s capacity.
What O’Neill is most excited about, though, is his plans to open up the new brewhouse to the public as an attraction, not dissimilar to the Guinness storehouse, but more scenic.
“We feel there’s nothing like it on this side of Atlantic,” O’Neill said. “It combines the beauty of the Wicklow scenery with walking hiking trails, local business, and events. We’re really excited, it’s a big move, a big step up, but we’re ready for it.”
Transforming his place of work into a tourist attraction will also bring in some added cash to the company, but O’Neill says it’s a part of a bigger mission he set out to accomplish a decade ago when he started the company: bringing a better beer experience to Ireland.
“It’s really about, on one hand, allowing people to come from around Ireland and abroad and experience what we have to offer here, but also, it’s about developing [the new brewhouse] into something no one else can offer in Ireland.”
Along with a change of scenery, O’Neill is looking to add some new faces to the team to buttress its operations as they increase capacity.
“We’re looking to bring in 10 to 12 people over the next one to two years,” he said. “It’s not too far from where we are, but it will make a big difference, especially in the new location.”
A decade into into the game, O’Neill says there is still a lot to learn and a lot about the brewing craft that keeps him on his toes. “The thing about hops is they are subject to change from season to season, which is challenging when your business is predicated on consistency,” he said. “With hops, you might have one year where they might have a particular flavour profile, the next year, maybe it was a particularly dry or hot year, and you might get a different profile.”
That’s why O’Neill says he is constantly looking for ways to improve, hone, and perfect his recipe and his process, a goal that he can only approach but never achieve.
“New technology, new information, new ingredients and new raw materials are coming out all the time,” he said. “We are always looking for the next big thing to grow what we have and make our brand known as one of the best, most innovative and exciting on the market.”