Lyons’ Den: An Interview With Dr Pearse Lyons
Published on Feb 25 2014 5:33 PM in Features
Dr Pearse Lyons, the sixth-richest man in Ireland, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, may have amassed his fortune from animal nutrition, but it is his brewing and distilling past that has brought him back to Dublin for a major convention this month. As Stephen Wynne-Jones found out, he’s not afraid to put his money where his mouth is. This article first appeared in the July 2013 edition of Checkout.
Of all the things you can say about Dr Pearse Lyons, you can’t accuse him of being low-key. The founder of biochemistry and animal nutrition giant Alltech was in Ireland last month to launch the inaugural International Craft Brewing and Distilling Convention, taking place at the Convention Centre Dublin later this month (as well as accompanying the Kennedy clan on their visit to New Ross). The aim of the convention is to highlight and push for greater investment in the craft-brewing industry, and the ebullient Dr Lyons is quick to point out Ireland’s untapped potential.
“Is Ireland coming late to the party? Not at all,” he tells Checkout. “Ireland is coming in at an opportune time. Entrepreneurs don’t see a problem, they see an opportunity. If we can put the right people in place, Ireland has an opportunity to dominate in this field, at a global level.”
Talking to the 68-year-old Dublin boy done good, you get the feeling that he means every word.
Lyons, currently the sixth-richest person in Ireland, with an estimated fortune of €1.08 billion, has lived in the States since 1976, yet it is Ireland, specifically Irish Distillers, to which he owes a lot in terms of his career journey.
“I studied biochemistry at UCD, and went on to do a PhD in brewing at the British School of Malting and Brewing in Birmingham,” he explains. “I was fortunate to get a job working with Kevin McCourt, just as Irish Distillers was coming together. My job was to be the main process chemist as it were for what would ultimately become the Jameson Distillery down in Midleton.”
Following a spell in brewing in the UK, Lyons moved to Kentucky, where he would sow the seeds for what would become one of the world’s largest animal nutrition firms, applying the science that he garnered from his time in the drinks industry to developing natural feed supplements. Alltech was founded in 1980. Today, the company has offices in 128 countries around the world, employs around 2,800 people, and expects to hit $1 billion in sales revenue next year.
But Lyons has always retained a strong affinity to his past, operating a brewing and distilling school in Kentucky for the past 25 years. He acquired the Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company in 2000, one of few joint brewing and distilling facilities in the world, and has gone on to develop several award-winning products, such as Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, which is available in Ireland. “Our distillery is on what’s called the ‘Bourbon Trail’, a trail of seven or eight distilleries in the state that is ranked one of the top ten tourist destinations in the United States from a tourism point of view,” he explains.
By developing his own craft brewery, however, Lyons soon found himself part of a movement, the scale of which even amazed him.
“About four or five months ago, I happened to go to a craft brewers’ meeting up in Washington, and I was amazed at how many craft brewers there were – something like 2,700 craft brewers in the United States, with a further 1,200 planned to open in 2013,” he explains. “These guys represented about 7-8% of the total industry, but were the only part that was showing significant growth, 20%-30% per annum. It’s a really vibrant, growing industry. Plus, you had around 7,000 people there, each of which was paying about $700 for the privilege.
“I walked away from that amazed at: a) there were so many of them, and b) that they were so organised. I looked at what I had been doing over the past 25 years with the brewing and distilling school, and had already planned something for The Gathering, so I thought, why not host the first-ever European Craft Brewing and Distilling Convention in Ireland?” Lyons is hoping that the convention, taking place on 18-20 July, will pique the interest of larger, more established craft brewers, as well as those seeking expertise and funding advice, both in Ireland and overseas.
“This morning, a brewer from El Salvador signed up to attend. He has a small craft-brewing operation and wants to come to Ireland to gain some expert advice. At the same time, you have some brewers like the New Belgium Brewing Company, based on Colorado, which is putting in an investment of $170 million in its new craft brewery. A city like Denver, which is roughly the same size as Dublin, has 50 or 60 craft breweries. This isn’t Mickey Mouse any more.”
Lyons feels that the burgeoning craft-brewing industry in Ireland has massive potential, partly due to the fact that major brewers have dominated the space for so long. “The fact that Diageo has dominated the market in the way that it has done has really wiped the slate clean for smaller operators,” he explains. “We can create on that canvas what we’re really looking for. But there are always going to be people that question whether we can. For example, last night, the issue of cost and available capital came up. I said, ‘wait a second. If you really think that Ireland should have 37 or 40 craft breweries, I’ll put my money where my mouth is and create a venture capital fund if necessary, to jumpstart it’. “Beer is a whole other level of passion for me. When you bring that level of passion to something, it needs to mean something.”
Alltech has already made a significant investment here, opening a craft distillery at the Carlow Brewing Co. site in Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow, which, in three years, will produce the company’s first Irish whiskey. Lyons estimates that by having around 40 efficient craft breweries and distilleries in operation in Ireland, between 500 and 2,000 jobs could be created, and “each of these would be entrepreneurs, because this is what craft breweries are all about”. From an export point of view as well, the opportunity to create an international presence for Irish craft beer, to “piggyback on the success of Guinness”, is too good an opportunity to turn down.
“A range of Irish craft beers going overseas would tap into a channel that did not exist 10 or 15 years ago,” Lyons says. “At the same time, it would lift Ireland’s reputation as a destination for craft breweries, and the rising tide would raise the boats of Irish food producers and restaurants.” Fáilte Ireland’s The Gathering initiative, which is running all year, has been criticised in some circles as a short-lived dalliance with the diaspora in order to earn a few extra shekels for an ailing economy. Lyons, however, feels that it represents a real opportunity to connect Irish business with overseas markets, particularly in the States, in an area that unites us all – beer.
“The Irish-American is more Irish than you or I,” he explains. “You might belittle that fact, but it’s true. They love their Irish heritage. It’s the essence of what they are. They would love to have an Irish beer to call their own, a special brand of poitín, something unique to tell their friends about. Irish beer has legs. It has massive export potential. Some people say it can’t be done. I prefer to ask, ‘Why not?’”