The Franciscan Well Brewery celebrates a quarter of a century, amidst a rapidly-changing craft beer market
The Franciscan Well brewery turned 25 in September. It was one of the first craft breweries to open in Ireland, and now the number-one draft craft beer in the country.
The brewery was acquired in 2013 by Molson Coors, which owns Coors Light and Miller.
Laura Lee, Molson Coors’ Irish head, has been with the company for the best part of 15 years. Here she talks to Hospitality Ireland about market changes and challenges, as well as the high points for Franciscan Well.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2023 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in October of 2023.
Tell us about the origins of Franciscan Well.
The story of Franciscan Well really dates back to the early seventeenth century. The brewery’s name, in Cork, pays homage to its historical roots, as it was established next to the Franciscan monastery and well.
In 1998, the brewery was revived by Shane Long, who sought to rekindle the region’s brewing traditions. Shane modernised the facility while preserving its rich heritage, crafting a wide range of innovative and great-tasting beers, including Chieftain IPA and Rebel Red.
This year, Franciscan Well is the number-one draft craft beer in Ireland [CGA, July 2023]. The brand stands as a testament to the enduring appeal of craft beer, blending centuries-old brewing techniques with contemporary creativity, to produce some of Ireland’s most popular craft beers.
What have been the high – and low – points in the last 25 years?
The acquisition of Franciscan Well in 2013 was, obviously, a really exciting time for parties on all sides of the deal. For Franciscan Well, it was testament to the brilliant brand and business Shane and the team had built in a short space of time. It was also a significant endorsement of the emergence of an indigenous Irish craft beer industry.
For Molson Coors, Franciscan Well represented an exciting new category within our portfolio, growing our footprint in the Irish market.
In terms of low points, thankfully, there have been very few. Covid, obviously, presented challenges for our Irish business and many of our customers in the hospitality sector. It also prompted significant changes in relation to how consumers socialise and engage with our products.
These changing consumer behaviours forced us to re-evaluate our product offering and bring in some new brands to meet changing tastes – our Well Hazy launch is a great example.
What does it feel like to reach this stage of the company’s development?
The 25-year anniversary is a great reminder of the enduring appeal of Franciscan Well in shaping and contributing to Ireland’s vibrant craft beer culture.
The anniversary not only symbolises a journey of passion, dedication and creativity, but also showcases how Franciscan Well has evolved from its humble beginnings into a real institution amongst craft beer lovers – not only in Ireland, but around the world – so cheers to 25 years of excellence and many more birthdays to come!
How is the craft beer market in Ireland?
In the last 25 years, the Irish craft beer market has seen consistent growth. Whilst this growth is coming off an admittedly modest baseline, it is now five times bigger than it was in 2018 and is worth €75 million annually [CGA, July 2023].
Franciscan Well helped pave the way for the craft beer movement in Ireland, and today the category provides choice for every palate, whether it is traditional Irish stouts, red ales, session ales, or the more experimental fruity flavours.
Now is an exciting time for the Irish craft beer industry, and we anticipate it will continue to go from strength to strength.
Where do you see it going?
The Irish craft beer industry continues to see year-on-year growth. This can be attributed to the innovation and creativity within the sector and the relentless ambition of new craft breweries coming to the scene.
In addition, craft beer tourism has contributed significantly to the market’s continued growth and has become a core tourism offering in many parts of rural Ireland. Our Franciscan Well brewery is a brilliant example of this.
It is important that this new generation of Irish craft breweries continue to innovate and challenge themselves to stay ahead of changing consumer trends.
Broadly speaking, what are the challenges in the industry right now?
Consumer behaviour is constantly evolving, and it is important that we continue to innovate in parallel. What worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today, so there is an onus on us as market leaders to stay ahead of changing trends and to develop new products and experiences that innovate and excite.
Today’s consumers are much more willing to part with their money for a new experience – the occasion today can be much more than heading out for a drink with friends. Our recent Franciscan Well activation at the Big Grill Festival in Dublin was an example of creating a new and sharable experience for our customers, bringing drinks, food and music together. We are currently in planning mode for numerous other exciting brand events in the 12 months ahead, so watch this space.
What are the opportunities?
Research shows that younger adults are more influenced by sharing an experience with friends, and then sharing their experience on social media. In addition, people are looking to combine the experience of enjoying a drink with friends with other activities – eating, listening to music, going to a festival.
It is important that we, as an industry, embrace this new trend and look at how we can provide those sharable experiences that excite.
Tell us about yourself and your background – where you grew up, studied, etc.
I started working in the industry back in 2000, when I got an opportunity to work in marketing at Hall & Woodhouse, a Dorset regional brewer close to home.
After five years, I moved on to Diageo GB, looking after the south-coast and London on-trade. From there, I joined Molson Coors in 2008, first working in on-trade sales and service roles, as well as spending some time in our Central European business, before joining our leadership team in 2018. Twenty-three years on, I couldn’t imagine working in any other industry.
What first drew you to the drinks industry?
I grew up in the industry. My parents ran pubs and hotels across Lincolnshire and Leicestershire right through my childhood, so some of my earliest jobs were collecting glasses and waitressing for pocket money, so you could say a career in the industry was always meant to be!
What was your first big role?
I worked for some years as our UK customer experience director. During this time, I had the opportunity to reset our relationship with our customers. Working out what was really valuable to them meant we made some very different choices about how we worked, what we sold, how we partnered with customers, and what added value we brought to the table. This not only strengthened our brand, but also solidified our position as a trusted partner in the beverage industry.
More recently, I’ve loved leading our journey into categories beyond beer and cider, partnering with spirits and ready-to-drink cocktail and soft-drinks brands to expand our portfolio and allow us to meet the evolving tastes and preferences of our consumers.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I really enjoy developing and executing strategies that keep us at the forefront of the market. It’s exciting to anticipate consumer trends and work with our team to create new products and services that resonate with our customers. Knowing that our products are enjoyed at special occasions by so many consumers is a source of pride to all of us in our business.
I’m also fortunate to work with super teams in both Ireland and Spain that make work a great place to be.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Out of work, I love to run, and I’m learning to paddle board. I’ve also recently relocated to Dublin, so I am enjoying having more time to explore and get to know the city even more.
Any other plans on the horizon for the next year or so?
In recent years, there has been a shift in the types of alcoholic beverages consumed in Ireland. Traditional drinks like stout are still popular, but there has been an increase in the consumption of craft and world beers.
While Irish people are drinking less – they are drinking 30% less since peak consumption in 2001 – they are also becoming more discerning about what they drink. Molson Coors’ brand Madrí Excepcional reflects this changing consumer landscape, which has seen the world beer category triple in size in Ireland since 2019. Within this, Madrí Excepcional is now the fastest-growing world beer brand on trade in Ireland [CGA, July 2023], and we’re excited to continue building on its recent success.