Eight Degrees Acquired by Irish Distillers As Demand For Caskmates Jameson Brand Continues To Soar

It’s a blistering hot day in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, as I stand outside the home of Eight Degrees Brewing with Caroline Hennessy, broadcaster, author of Slainte – the complete guide to Irish Craft Beer and Cider and also head of marketing at the brewery.

We are stood where the grain silo used to be staring out across a patch of scrubby grass towards a monolith of a building, gleaming in the sun.

That’s B2, the new super-capacity brewery site where Eight Degrees Brewing will begin a whole new set of beer adventures. The new brewery is pretty close to being finished. It was, in fact, ready to go until Irish Distillers asked them to construct all of the six enormous fermentation tanks, so now it maybe September/October before the beer starts to flow. But more on that later.

The spot where I stand, bereft of its malt silo, is outside B1 – the original home of the brewery. Or not quite? “We have a B3,” says Caroline. “It’s at home,” referring to the home brew kit founders Scott Baigent and Cam Wallace no doubt first experimented with brewing, and maybe still do.

Inside the shiny B2 building is a giant mechano set. A spaghetti junction of pipes, towering forests of fermentation tanks and vertiginous platforms from which to peer into the cavernous brew tuns.

There’s Scott in overalls, frowning as he toils with another member of the team to figure out the new packaging conveyor that will eventually box the beer ready for distribution.

If you have been following their #mauritiustomitchelstown hashtag, then you will know that this complete brewery kit was purchased from a brewery in Mauritius. “The boys spotted it on the brewers equivalent of Done Deal,” says Caroline. “Before I knew it, Scott and Cam had booked flights to Mauritius to buy it.”

That was in 2014, just three years after Eight Degrees first went into commercial production. Quite the gamble. Around January 2015, the brewery arrived to Ireland, but without a building to put it in, the kit idled for the next two years in storage before finally arriving in its new home in Mitchelstown. When you know, you know, they say – and clearly Scott and Cam knew that their vision for Eight Degrees had substance.

Caroline is showing me around, first around B1 where I meet Dan and Derek, the two chief brewers busy starting a brew on a batch of Barefoot Bohemian Pilsner.  Brewing capacity is measured in hectolitres. The brewhouse in B1 can brew 15 hectolitres, the Kaspar Schulz brewhouse in B2 can brew 60 hectolitres.

The jump in capacity is staggering, but as Caroline says, the recipe is the recipe – it’s just a matter of scaling up. The relaxed response does have a feint swan-like whiff, but I accept that these are matters best not dwelled upon for too long.

B2 is a far cry from the days when friends and family would help out on bottling days, paying them in “wonkies” for their efforts. But at the same time, whether you’re in B1 or B2, the atmosphere is one of family. Everyone mucks in – owners, long timers or fresh in the door.

It feels amazingly ego-less, more like a co-operative, I suspect because of it. It is also the spirit of adventure that keeps driving everyone forward: “What will I try next” could almost be the mantra of Eight Degrees Brewing, and comes from a place of being naturally adventurous and naturally curious.

As my tour of the brewery ends, I get a chance to sit down with Scott Baigent whilst everyone heads back to B1 for the weekly pizza lunch delivery. I want to ask him about their recent acquisition by Irish Distillers, the group behind the Jameson brand (amongst others), and whether this wholly unexpected event will alter the way of Eight Degrees Brewing.

“It came as a surprise to us all. The reason why we decided to build B2 was because we thought it would insulate us from being taken over from one of the big brewing companies. What we didn’t foresee,” says Scott, “was an acquisition from the distillery industry!”

The surprise offer from IDL came off the back of an experiment, one that resulted in the Caskmates range of infused Jameson Irish Whiskey.

“The Caskmates Project started about two or three years ago. Shane Long of Franciscan Well brewery in Cork reached out to IDL looking for some whiskey barrels to age their beer in. Shane was seasoning some of his stout with the whiskey to produce a barrel-aged stout, then IDL decided to put some whiskey back into the beer-seasoned barrels. IDL got a really strong reaction to the whiskey produced from that process, and almost the rest is history.

“It was quite organic the way it came about – it wasn’t a strategic move by IDL from a marketing perspective, it was more a case of: this is a great concept, let’s do this and see what comes from it. But it’s grown massively for them to the point that Caskmates might be nudging up to 10% of all Jameson sales. It’s really struck a chord particularly in the US because they found that many Jameson drinkers are also craft beer consumers so there is a synergy there between Jameson and craft beer that really resonates with their consumers.”

Eventually, Scott says, it got to the stage where the sheer volume of beer that IDL needed was starting to stretch the FranWell’s own capacity. “They weren’t able to commit to what IDL was looking at for future years projected growth; that’s when IDL set about trying to secure supply of beer for the Caskmates brand.”

Continuing on Scott says, “They decided that acquiring a craft brewery was the best way to support the growth of Caskmates: it gives IDL a security of supply as well as rich provenance story, given that we’re a Cork brewery too.”

There’s no denying that both Scott and Cam could also see the massive potential to piggy back on the success of Jameson and Caskmates in the US with Eight Degrees Brewing own beers – a move that is set to open even more avenues.

“For us in Eight Degrees Brewing we see the massive benefit of the partnership. We will have unprecedented access to whiskey barrels that really the world has never seen before.” The craft beer industry in Ireland is still small in comparison to other craft beer nations, such as the US.

“So,” says Scott, “when we are exporting our beer we believe that the beer from Ireland should be distinctly different from other countries to achieve that difference. You have to be part of a process or get your hands on things that no one else can. The uniqueness of an Irish craft beer, made in Ireland by an Irish brewery aged in Irish whiskey barrels is a proposition that is exciting to the consumer. Our brewers are giddy with excitement because, from a creativity perspective, we are going to have things to work with that no-one else has.”

“We are aiming towards talking about Irish whiskey barrels, not in in the general sense, but how we connect with the story of each individual barrel: the oak that formed the barrels, the specific whiskey that seasoned it, how may fills did it have.”

“We will have a rich line up of barrel-aged beers where the provenance of what has gone into creating a beer has very seldom been seen because we’ve never before had this kind of access to the history of each individual barrel. IDL are trialling really interesting things with Irish oak at the moment too, so the deep dive that we’ll be able to do will be really amazing. That, in terms of product innovation, is where we are heading.”

IDL have acquired 100% of the Eight Degrees Brewery business, but they have retained Scott and Cam to manage the brewery, “and fairly autonomously too,” admits a surprised sounding Scott. Space to innovate – the best thing they can give to this duo and their team of happy beer makers.

Naturally adventurous they have always been, and, nestled under the wing of IDL and the Pernod Ricard group, it looks like they still will be. Cheers to that.

FEATURE BY KATE RYAN

Kate Ryan is an established food writer, blogger and founder of Flavour.ie, a website that is dedicated to promoting West Cork Food through writing, events and tours. Kate writes regularly for the Evening Echo and The Southern Star newspapers, The Opinion Magazine, TheTaste.ie, Headstuff.org and has been featured in the Irish Examiner and Irish Times. Kate was commissioned by A Taste of West Cork Food Festival to author an “Artisan Food Guide” published in June 2017.

Her blog, The Flavour Files, is recipe driven showcasing the best of West Cork produce and encouraging everyday cooking with it at home, as well as the best places to eat in the region.

Keep up with Kate’s food adventures on flavour.ie, and via her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Sign up to the Newsletter for previews of upcoming events, exclusive offers and news round-up.

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