JOE.ie STARTUP DIARY - WEEK 1

Each week here on JOE we’ll be bringing you the personal thoughts and tips from Irish entrepreneur Michael Cowan, founder & CEO of the Manor Brewing Company.

The first cut is the deepest…

Coming up with the idea of a craft microbrewery in the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland was probably the easiest part of starting up the Manor Brewing Company.

After all, I live just 15 minutes down the road from the head waters of the Liffey (so unlike a well known Irish stout, our pure granite filtered mountain water actually is ‘local)’, and my background in product marketing and brand development with Guinness, PepsiCo, and Red Bull over the years, made starting a drinks business a logical progression for someone on a ‘tractor beam’ towards creating my own consumer brands; particularly as Ireland had just gone nuts for craft beer and crafted drinks in general. My time had come!

The journey started last summer, while I was still working as Head of Marketing at Red Bull Ireland. The first step was researching the market, and building knowledge of the market place. I spent nearly every other weekend at craft beer festivals (Dublin Craft Beer Cup, Irish Craft & Cider Fest, London Craft Beer Festival, Manchester Beer Con, amongst others). I met several key industry people, brewers, visionaries, consumers, potential investors and interested parties, and even kissed a few frogs!

The biggest frustration we’ve experienced to date was assuming an invitation by Enterprise Ireland to attend a Start-Up Workshop last summer might lead to seed funding and support. Having attended a two-day process and presented our business plan, we were told to come back to them ‘when you have a product & customers’. In other words, when we were established.

Clearly one of us was confused as to what the term ‘start up’ really means! I did point out to the lovely lady at Enterprise Ireland (& their consultants) that when we have a successful product and domestic customers we wouldn’t need their limited support at that point. So we moved on.

However, we did heed their advice in a way, and from that point on we went about creating our range of craft beer (brews, packaging, branding) and focussed on getting to market as quickly as possible.

Our biggest break early on, was being introduced to Richard Hamilton, a passionate & knowledgeable craft brewer as well as a recent PhD in Philosophy from Trinity College. When I asked Richard what his doctorate was in, I was hoping he would say ‘The Philosophy of Beer’! Unfortunately it wasn’t, but nonetheless he’s a real talent with over 12 years brewing experience. So we teamed up, and to date we have developed 3 styles of beer – a Lager, an IPA, and a Dark Ale – which are currently being tweaked and market tested.

We also started developing our new branding and packaging back in January this year, using Dublin design agency Huguenot, which is nearly ready to reveal to the world, and we will give JOE readers an exclusive preview of our new Irish craft beer brand in our 2nd Start-Up Diary edition. So make sure to check that out next week.

The Manor Brewing Co is delighted to be working with AIB now, and thankful to JOE for allowing us to share our story and document or journey as a start-up craft brewery.

We hope you will join us for the journey over the coming weeks, months, and years.

See you back here next week…

Michael

JOE.ie STARTUP DIARY - WEEK 2

Each week here on JOE we’ll be bringing you the personal thoughts and tips from Irish entrepreneur Michael Cowan, founder & CEO of the Manor Brewing Company.

"Steady as she goes..."

It really feels like we've made big in-roads this week. The pace things develop as a start-up business in Ireland is extraordinary. The widespread entrepreneurial culture here in Ireland means you are not short of genuine people giving you genuine help, ideas, and contacts to help you move forward.

After many years of working for big marketing companies I've begun to realise many 'fast moving consumer goods' are made by 'slow moving stuffy corporations'. After nearly 12 months of jumping through all the hoops to get our idea of making a distinctive 'Irish Mountain Beer' off the ground, I'm pleased to report things are now moving at break-neck speed.

Although, while the speed of development and progress is not an entirely new experience personally, it's the freedom to make bold decisions that is the most exhilarating feeling of all.

So here's our biggest, boldest decision yet: we've named our beer, and it has a distinctive look and feel. So we can now reveal it to the world, and an EXCLUSIVE first for JOE readers:

 

Mont is a naturally brewed Irish Mountain Beer. The story of Mont will be revealed over the course of the Manor Brewing Company's Start-Up Diary here on JOE.

For now we can tell you our flagship product will be a Pilsner-inspired Lager at around 5.2% abv., with a range of other styles released over time.

We are pilot brewing at the moment, so follow us on Twitter @ManorBrewingCo to find out when you can trial it over the summer.

In the meantime, we will be beavering away inside The Bell Tower brewhouse (pictured below), and we hope you enjoy following our progress, ups and downs, as we bring Mont to market.

Yours in craft,

Michael Cowan...

 

JOE.ie STARTUP DIARY - WEEK 3

Each week here on JOE we’ll be bringing you the personal thoughts and tips from Irish entrepreneur Michael Cowan, founder & CEO of the Manor Brewing Company.

“If you build it they will come”

After revealing the name of our new beer Mont™ exclusively to JOE.ie readers last week, I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback, which is always appreciated in the pre-launch phase. Now that we have given our beer a name, designed primary packaging, created a product range, and started our pilot brews, next comes the hardest part in bringing our beer to market. Unlike Kevin Costner’s famous line in Field of Dreams, starting up a craft brewery isn’t simply a case of ‘if you build it they will come’. Unfortunately...

Our proposed brewhouse building, ‘The Bell Tower’ was built in the eighteen century, on the grounds of the Manor, in the granite village of Manor Kilbride in the Wicklow Mountains. Originally it was used for barley & wheat grain storage when The Manor was a working farm. At one point it was providing barley for the Guinness malt houses in the late 1800s. My wife’s family, the Cullys, bought the Manor in the 1960s, and The Manor has been my adopted home since 1998 (I’m an expat Kiwi, incidentally). So in 2014 it has come full circle and is now home to our new business, the Manor Brewing Company.

At this stage of our evolution, the single biggest challenge we now face is getting planning permission from the Wicklow County Council to brew for commercial production from the Bell Tower. It is a key element of our unique business model, and fundamental to creating an authentic Irish mountain beer. Waste water treatment, building renovations, traffic management, and health & safety are the main areas that need WCC approval before granting planning permission.

In order to understand how other craft breweries got through their early planning hurdles, and to seek advice from some of the pioneers of craft brewing, I’ve been out visiting a few craft breweries. During a visit to Sam Black’s Kinsale Brewery recently (www.blacksbrewery.com), Sam remarked that there seems to be a lot of ‘mountain beer’ popping up at the moment, and he was bemused by it given that Ireland's ‘mountains’ are hardly the Alps!

As a New Zealander myself, you’d think I’d be inclined to agree, but after living under the pristine Wicklow Mountains for many years (and even drove off the edge of the Sally Gap once, in snow & ice), I’ve learnt it’s not size that matters when it comes to mountains, it’s the purity!

See you back here next week for our 4th episode of our Start-Up Diary. In meantime, follow us on Twitter @ManorBrewingCo for more status updates.

Yours in craft,

Michael Cowan.

 

Bottled first pilot batch of our @MontBeerIE Bitter Blonde today. Seeking volunteers for candid feedback #devilment pic.twitter.com/4DabOA0GVz  - Manor Brewing Co. (@ManorBrewingCo) July 4, 2014

Here it is in a glass @MontBeerIE #bitterblonde #devilment pic.twitter.com/NKwwWKOIPy - Manor Brewing Co. (@ManorBrewingCo) July 4, 2014

JOE.ie STARTUP DIARY - WEEK 4

Each week here on JOE we’ll be bringing you the personal thoughts and tips from Irish entrepreneur Michael Cowan, founder & CEO of the Manor Brewing Company.

So the World Cup is over. However, Brazil is not far from my mind this week...

After all, it was a Brazilian who inspired me twenty years ago so start my own business, after a career with blue-chip food & drink multinationals. His name was Ricardo Semler, he was a true 'Maverick', and he ran the most unique & innovative company in his era by being true to his people, and to his vision.

As Semler once remarked, it's amazing how many people start a sentence with “the problem with that is”… and a focus on what can’t be done, believing they are giving sage advice. Why aren’t they focusing on the positives the plan or product? Why can’t they be more optimistic? The reason: as human beings, we are all pre-conditioned to spot weaknesses and flaws, and to avoid disaster.

So as the owner of an Irish startup as we recover from the (second) Great Recession, this aspect of human nature is actually quite a helpful thing. Although some critiques and nay-sayers aren’t often right (because their view of someone else’s business or product is often narrower than the owner’s), I’ve learnt to listen to them, because they force me to constantly calibrate what is good about my plan and more importantly, rethink what I need to do to make it better.

As a new brewery it is crucial for us to listen to feedback and criticism of our beer, especially in pilot test mode. Taste is indeed a powerful thing. Our future business success relies on observing people’s natural reactions and listening to their feedback, interpreting them, and rethinking our ingredients and brewing process to deliver a beer that will be enjoyed, even loved, by as many people as possible.

With that in mind, we bottled our first pilot brew in the Bell Tower last week. Richard & I bottled 100 bottles of beer on the Saturday, and are now looking for willing testers! I even tweeted an invitation on Saturday night, and within minutes (actually, possibly seconds) I had volunteers from all over the country throwing their willing hats in the ring!

Bottled first pilot batch of our @MontBeerIE Bitter Blonde today. Seeking volunteers for candid feedback #devilment pic.twitter.com/4DabOA0GVz

— Manor Brewing Co. (@ManorBrewingCo) July 4, 2014

A big shout out to The Headline (@57theheadline) craft beer pub in Dublin for even including their address to ensure our beer got to them. Hopefully by the time this diary entry goes ‘live’, we have arranged a tasting event with them. I'm really starting to appreciate how close-knit the Irish craft beer industry is.

The other lesson Semler taught me was honesty and integrity. So I can admit to our JOE readers (and our future customers, and even some competitors), we aren't 100% happy with our current brew right now. So we will brew away, tweaking and refining, until we get it right.

For me, I'd rather wait to launch a world class product than to rush to market with something that doesn't meet my vision, or satisfy Irish beer drinkers expectations.

See you back here next week for our 5th episode of our Start-Up Diary. In meantime, follow us on Twitter (@ManorBrewingCo) for more status updates.

Yours in craft,

Michael Cowan

 

JOE.IE START-UP DIARIES - WEEK 7

Each week here on JOE we’ll be bringing you the personal thoughts and tips from Irish entrepreneur Michael Cowan, founder & CEO of the Manor Brewing Company.

“No strangers here; just friends we haven’t met yet”

I’m writing this week’s diary looking out to the wild Atlantic Ocean, past the surfers fighting the summer storm swell crashing onto Bundoran beach in Co. Donegal. The head is a little vague this morning, thanks to the lingering effects of the Wild Atlantic Craft Beer Festival; the inaugural craft beer event hosted by the Donegal Brewing Company and Dicey Reilly’s in Ballyshannon over the August bank holiday weekend.

I was there as an invited guest brewer, an avid supporter of the craft beer industry, and as the owner of a start-up business wanting to soak up as much information, insight, and experiences as possible to improve our product. I was also there to see people’s reactions to tasting our Mont™ beer for the very first time in public.

The weekend started like every other day in the life of a start-up business; a mish-mash of multitasking that you don’t find in the job descriptions working inside big corporations. On Saturday morning, I found myself loading software on our sales reps new laptop (IT Dept.), printing out invoices for some customer orders (Finance Dept.), and loading the Jeep with beer and equipment for the journey north (Operations + Logistics).

 

After driving the N3 in atrocious weather for three hours, I finally arrived in Ballyshannon, and entered Dicey Reilly’s. I was immediately charmed by the relaxed nature of the Saturday afternoon crowd, the endearing rhythm of live Trad music in the corner, and the warm welcome extended by the owners, Brendan & Sinead O’Reilly, and festival organisers. I had arrived in a happy place...

After I settled in, met the bar staff, including head barman Patrick, and put our Mont™ Bitter Blonde in their fridges behind the bar, I introduced myself to the other guest brewers present. After about ten minutes talking to Barry Nugent from Pokertree Brewing Co., Gordon Fallis from Inishmacsaint Brewing Company, and Sean Monaghan from Tall Story Media, it dawned on me in this industry there are no strangers here; just friends we haven’t met yet.

We spent the evening chatting, sharing, tasting, comparing, and most of all laughing as they shared their individual stories, brewing anecdotes and experiences. Around midnight, seated in the middle of Diceys, I looked up from our table of brewers and noticed how large the crowd had got in the last few hours since I last sat down (Gordon & I were now seated on beer kegs, such was the demand for seating).

The public were all enjoying different versions of forty or so craft beers on offer. The quality of beers at the festival was impressive. The star of the show for me was the 8 Degrees ‘Full Irish’ IPA served through a Randall. In the midst of it all though, I kept catching myself glancing back at the fridge behind the bar. There on the bottom shelf, was a beer I had never seen in a bar in Ireland before. And for the very first time, I said to myself, staring at the Mont™ beer, ‘Hey! That’s mine!’

Ouch! A great night @Diceys #wildatlanticcraftbeerfest14 Our @MontBeerIE #bitterblonde went down very well. Pleasing! pic.twitter.com/FuyGy8PktI

— Manor Brewing Co. (@ManorBrewingCo) August 3, 2014