How the Smithwick family is getting Kilkenny brewing again

Reviving an old rival beer in the Marble City...

It's a name almost as synonymous with good Irish gargle as Guinness but, as the craft revolution continues to gather pace here, it has seemed in recent years that the Smithwick family itself would never return to the centre of Ireland's brewing action.

The Smithwick's red ale itself was purchased by Guinness back in 1965 and is now under the ownership of Diageo, which opted to close the old Kilkenny brewery back in 2012, despite the fact it was still profitable.

They can't use their famous name commercially, but the family's passion for brewing hasn't diminished.

To get back in the business, they're turning to another name – one that offered them stiff competition for centuries.

Sullivan's Brewing Company will be arriving as a newcomer at the sixth annual Irish Craft Beer Festival in the RDS on September 8th, but it's merely been hibernating.

Dan Smithwick, the chief financial officer of Sullivan's, joined Vincent Wall on Breakfast Business to tell the tale.

"It was a direct competitor of Smithwicks for the guts of 300 years," Smithwick started. "The beer went out of business in 1918.

"The then-head of the family... he put the family farm on the poker table, as it were, on a horse bet. A very interesting past.

"The Sullivans and the Smithwicks were connected politically, socially and through marriage for many generations. When the Sullivans went out of business, the Smithwicks acquired the assets of the brewery and the trademark. So Sullivan's has been dormant for 100 years..."

"This is a brewing town, and brewing is back"

Bringing the story up-to-date, John explained the "burning desire" his family had to relaunch the beer and get back to brewing in Kilkenny.

"It's been a family mission for a long, long time," he admitted.

"[With] Guinness having shut the doors of Smithwick's and having consolidated their operations to Clondalkin... There's really been no better time.

"It's a great time to be in beer, with the need and market for independent craft beer in Ireland...

"There's been [brewing] in Kilkenny for 800 years. This is a brewing town, and brewing is back."

The big question, of course, is why drinkers should care about a brand that's been MIA for nearly a century. It will make marketing in an already crowded scene a tricky thing. 

 

Dan hopes his family ties and the heritage behind the brew see them through.

"The Sullivans and the Smithwicks were great brewing dynasties for sure," he said. "And I consider myself very lucky to be from the Smithwick family. My own cousin who's commercial director, Alan Smithwick, is a direct descendant of the Sullivans – the families are very closely tied.

"Now obviously we can't name the Smithwick family. We can't brand the Smithwick's logo, for sure.

"But we don't need to. This is the Sullivan's gig. This is Sullivan's brewing back in business.

"Sullivan's in its heyday was exporting to the US and across Europe in the 1800s."

Closer to home, the family is in the midst of raising funds to build a new brewery in the Marble City. They are currently in the middle of the first of three rounds of fundraising.

"A lot of headroom to grow in Ireland but the export market is what ultimately we hope to achieve, Dan concluded. 

"We have great investors behind us, who want to see this in years four, five and six as a great export. So we're middle of one of three fundraising slots... We have line of sight on 70% of what we need. We're raising just under €4 million, and we're EIIS approved."