Successful craft brewer Ryan McCracken met the formidable challenges of the coronavirus lockdown in hospitality by investing in a brand new brewery at his existing McCracken’s Real Ale base in Portadown.
While he had initially put ambitious expansion plans to grow the business, which had seen initial sales of his portfolio of beers in Britain, on hold at the start of the pandemic he soon came to realise that doing nothing wasn’t a sensible reaction for the small brewery.
Ryan gradually came to the see the prolonged lockdown periods as an opportunity “to take a long hard look at the overall business” and to invest in upgrading the small brewery for the brighter future he was confident lay ahead for his beers here and outside Northern Ireland
With 80% of the island’s craft beer and cider revenue streams shut off virtually overnight, Ryan and the entire industry were forced to switch from on-trade sales to targeting online sales and off-trade outlets.
“I had started reviewing my options for upgrading our brewery in response to a growing demand for our beers in December 2019 but decided to put everything on hold due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic,” he explains. “I decided instead to pivot our strategy to sustain the business by building up our online presence. This was the best way to keep some cash flowing while bars, restaurants and hotels, our biggest market sector, were shuttered. There was scope too to develop more contacts in retailing here and further afield especially in Great Britain.”
Ryan subsequently decided that sustaining the business would also require significant investment and opted to fund it himself.
“We picked things back up again in the summer of 2020 and decided to review the operations and experiences of brewhouses all over the world to enable us to weigh up our options for the future. I saw an opportunity, for example, to expand our retail sales and was encouraged to gain a listing last year on Ocado, the biggest online store in Britain.”
Ryan quickly recognised that the business would require a complete revamp, a new brewery with bigger tanks and associated systems. The review pinpointed a manufacturer of brewing kit in China’s Shandong province as the clear leader in terms of requirements set by Ryan. “But purchasing a brewery from afar was always going to be challenging,” he explains.
“With the world in various stages of lockdown we were, of course, unable to visit any of the factories and to see the equipment they were producing. Our concerns, however, were alleviated once we spoke with some breweries around the UK, including one in Northern Ireland, which already used brewing equipment from the same manufacturer,” he adds.
Several months were spent working with the manufacturer’s team of designers by phone, email and other digital communications to build the sophisticated brewing systems from the ground up. “Shaping a brewing system remotely was really quite a challenge. It’s certainly not an easy way to shape a brewery,” he says. “Our objective was to create a fully bespoke system that was a perfect fit for our aim of quadrupling capacity, increasing efficiencies whilst reducing comparable power and water consumption,” he adds.
A key element of the new brewery complex is the introduction of a high-speed canning line in response to pre-pandemic market research which showed that more people than ever were keen to taste craft beers in cans. This was reinforced by information that the trend had strengthened during the lockdowns.
“There are many advantages of craft beer in cans,” he continues. “They are lighter, better for the environment, easier to store, and ideal for exports. The increased label area has given us the opportunity to update our brand and base it on something that is intertwined with our rich heritage.”
The brewery is continuing to supply its range of beers in bottles and kegs as well as cans, giving customers a far greater choice. The increased capacity and versatility from the new brewery is also enabling the introduction of new beers and enhancing its overall focus on innovation in the months ahead.
McCracken’s Real Ale, launched by Ryan, an IT manager on the back of a home brewing hobby in 2014, is already benefiting from the investment in the new brewery.
It now offers a very broad range of pale ales, Irish pale ale and chocolate and vanilla Irish stout are all hand crafted in various formats in the brewery.
Ryan’s bold investment has positioned the brewery to seize opportunities predicted by marketing experts suggesting that the craft beer category is in line for large scale growth in the global marketplace. There’s now a growing recognition of the entrepreneurship of the brewers like Ryan McCracken and their success in brewing Irish beers that are unique, richly flavoured, local and creative.
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