The Long road to Cork brewing success

The Franciscan Well Brewery, regarded as one of Cork’s greatest business stories, celebrated 20 years of trading. While founder Shane Long can look back now and see the roots of success in 1998, he says it was a long road with a lot of hard work and a little luck. Gráinne McGuinness reports.
The Long road to Cork brewing success

Noel Finn, gen. manager Franciscan Well Brewery and Shane Long, founder of Franciscan Well Brewery at the 20th anniversary of The Franciscan Well at the Brew Pub, North Mall. Pic: Gavin Browne

IT was not immediately obvious that the Franciscan Well was destined for greatness, or even destined to be a brewery.

Noel Finn, gen. manager Franciscan Well Brewery and Shane Long, founder of Franciscan Well Brewery at the 20th anniversary of The Franciscan Well at the Brew Pub, North Mall. Pic: Gavin Browne
Noel Finn, gen. manager Franciscan Well Brewery and Shane Long, founder of Franciscan Well Brewery at the 20th anniversary of The Franciscan Well at the Brew Pub, North Mall. Pic: Gavin Browne

“When I came back to Ireland 20 years ago the beer industry was very brand driven and we were viewed - some would say we are pioneers, others that we were delusional!” Shane Long laughed. 

“We were viewed as guys brewing out of pots and pans out the back and it took about 10 years to change that mindset.

“It was a global change, not just down to us. Craft beer is only a term that came to Ireland in the last six years, from America, before that it was just micro-brewed beer vs macro-brewed.” 

He is modest enough to reject the pioneer tag. The pub was the primary business, the brewery was born from necessity.

“I’d love to say I saw the craft beer explosion coming but absolutely not!” he said. “When we took over the pub on the North Mall, it was purely a process of elimination, trying to get something that would gain footfall there.

“We were looking at different businesses that you could put in there, there was a manufacturer's license there already, Waterman’s Printers were based there for decades. Because it had that we were looking at anything from a bakery to what we finally decided on.

There was very little change needed in planning to put that in, it wasn’t as stringent as it would be today, putting a microbrewery into what essentially is a residential area.” 

 The brewery was not an instant success.

“It was all about the pub in the beginning,” Shane said. “It was a hardfought first 10 years, If I wasn’t involved in pubs the business would be closed because I didn't even take a wage out of it for 10 years, it simply wasn’t viable.” 

 He credits a collaboration with another Cork drinks industry player as a major turning point.

“We did a beer with Jameson,” he explained. “I really didn’t think they were going to give me whiskey barrels to work with but they did and they thought the beer was so good they let us put Jameson on the label.

“That propelled my business from only people in Cork knowing about it to being a global entity, within the space of six months.

“It was those two guys who transformed my business, it wasn’t me. If Peter Morehead [of Irish Distillers] hadn't walked into my bar that day, I would still be struggling and I think now I would be back to where I was 10 years ago. There was an awful lot of hard work put into this but there was a ton of good luck.” 

 The success of the Jameson Caskmates collaboration bought suitors but, after all the years of hard work, Shane was choosy.

“We were very lucky in that we weren’t up for sale and we had several different companies looking to buy us,” he said. “In fact I turned down five times the money to go with Molson Coors [in 2013]. I viewed them as having many of the same values we did, they started as a family business and are still involved in it.

“There was an ego bit with me, I wanted something my kids would be proud of, after working so hard to get there. I knew they [Molson Coors] knew how to build a brand properly. I looked deep inside myself and said right, I know nothing about branding or marketing, I’m the logistics guy. I know how to fill a pub but didn’t know anything about big business, I was afraid of it. And that is why we hadn’t expanded up to that point. Having someone like Coors involved offered that safety net.” 

 Molson Coors had big plans for expansion but these were soon exceeded.

“They put in a five-year projection which they achieved within six months,” Shane said. “4500 kegs was my busiest year, in 2012, we are going to do 90,000 kegs this year, only six years later. I couldn’t have done it on my own, I wouldn’t have the foresight or the experience.” 

 Success in the local market means their foreign sales plan had to be delayed and Shane, who stayed on in the business as a consultant, believes the business will expand much further in the next few years.

“Absolutely, we had a global expansion plan that completely ground to a halt when the Irish market took off,” he said. “We expected 5% of our volume to go to Ireland and it is incredible the amount of beer that we are shifting now, outside of Ireland we are only in pockets of England. We are heavily represented in London, and we are in pockets of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool but that’s it.

“So we have just done a deal with a massive bar chain in England and that volume will kick in next year so we are only getting started. There is an ambition to get up to 700,000 kegs. That is the ambition, at the start I would have thought that wasn’t achievable but when I saw how quickly we gained traction in the right way, it wasn’t just put into places, there was the right support and training, glassware etc. Now that I see how quickly we have grown and the sustainable volume, I can’t see why we wouldn’t get up to that level.” 

He still works with Molson Coors as the face of the Franciscan Well brewery, particularly in London, but is primarily focused on the pub.

The Beer Garden of the Franciscan Well.
The Beer Garden of the Franciscan Well.

“I have no intention of moving on from the bar,” he said. “I hope to be still there in 20 years, maybe my son will be there!

“I am involved in another few bars, that is my background, I wouldn’t like to walk away from bars.” 

 For the second year they had a Christmas Market in the pub during the festive season and there are plans for numerous festivals throughout 2019. These will range from focusing on different beers to weekends devoted to female brewers and storytellers.

There is a continuous need to innovate (see panel) but Shane embraces it as part of running a thriving business.

“If we weren’t doing it we wouldn’t be up,” he said. “It is constantly evolving.”

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