Fresh from Fidelity, their inaugural craft beer festival, Whiplash is set to open its own brewery and has exciting plans for experimenting, collaborating and ensuring substance always pips scale in considerations. We speak to Alex Lawes, co-founder of Whiplash.
How and when did you get into the brewing game? What sparked the initial interest over another path?
I think like a lot of people in craft I came to brewing from a home-brewing obsession. I was working as a bartender at the time and wanted to teach myself more about what was going into beers I was serving so I took the leap when I was 21 and bought a basic brewing set-up and began cooking up beer in the kitchen. The internet is an amazing place and there was a wealth of knowledge online between publications and forums that you could understand what went into it and get the confidence together to do it yourself. About four years later, I was brewing a few times a week at home still trying to improve all my processes and made the decision that this is what I wanted to be working at full time.
What made you interested in making beer as your own business over just enjoying it or making it for others?
A lot of brewers dream of having their own operation I think in the same way that chefs want their own restaurant. If I lived in a city that had a great and diverse beer scene like Portland, San Diego, Copenhagen or even London I’d probably be happy working as a brewer for others. At a point, we felt that Dublin wasn’t going to become one of those places unless someone took the step and did it themselves, so we took the leap last year to try to make it happen.
How did Whiplash come about? Does the name have a particular meaning to you?
Myself and my business partner Alan met while we were both working at the same brewery called Rye River out in Celbridge. We were making great beer and doing our best to really open up good independent beer to people trying it for their first time. Most of what the shops and supermarkets wanted at the time was Stouts, Red Ales, Lagers and these hoppy Pale Ales that were all the rage that were mostly being imported at the time by some excellent beer distributors who’d been flying the flag a lot longer than us. We joked that we had a pain in our neck (hence the name) from moving so fast growing that business and making so much core beer, that we wanted to slow it down and produce some one-off beers to shake the market up a bit and introduce a bit more innovation into our work week. We agreed that we’d setup a small business separate from that brewery and rent tank space there to make small batches. We were doing them midweek if there was time in the schedule or at weekends on our own time if the brewery was too busy. The plan was to maybe do three or four brews a year and keep things interesting, but the response was through the roof and consumers really backed it.
What’s your vision for the brand and business, what sets you apart?
January of 2018 was our first month doing Whiplash full time and we haven’t looked back since. Consumers have voted us their favourite brewery in Ireland a few years running now and given that we’ve made all those beers on other people’s breweries we’re beyond excited to nearly have full control over all of our equipment and processes with our own custom designed kit coming this year. We’re looking forward to really pushing the boundaries of what beer can be and aim to be a world class craft brewery located right here in Dublin.
In terms of where we’re going, we’re always going to remain small. We’re building our facility in Ballyfermot at the moment and, once all the equipment is in, we’ll be a team of 10 people there designing, brewing, packaging and exporting our beers with brewed in Dublin written on every can. We’ve made the decision to set a maximum amount of beer we hope to produce there too and as a result will always remain a small independent brewery that, hopefully, Dubs can be proud of. In terms of what we do differently, we have lots of special processes and ways of producing our beers, but we’ll always simply look at what’s the best beer in the world and make sure we’re at that standard rather than just comparing our quality to what’s immediately around us. There’s no reason Dublin can’t have a beer culture to rival that of New York, London or Copenhagen and we hope to be able to get it there soon.
What have been the biggest successes so far?
There’s been loads really and we have to take a step back every now and again when things are tough and remind ourselves that things are going in the right direction. Last year, we began exporting to a few countries around Europe and consumers taking our beers seriously has been a massive encouragement and success for us. We’ve had the pleasure of attending loads of great beer festivals since then and made some incredible friends along the way from other breweries too. Hop City, Dark City, Indy Man and the London Craft Beer Festival were all absolutely massive achievements, to just be invited and be amongst that standard of international beer. We’d always dreamed of pouring at the Mikkeller Beer Celebration in Copenhagen one day and this year made that a reality – and had a few beer people cheering when they saw the Irish flag above our stand for the first time in the history of the festival. Our own festival, Fidelity, last month in the Mansion House was a massive culmination of all of those friendships, and bringing the first festival like that to Ireland was huge for the beer community here and abroad. Dublin felt like a fully fledged beer city in its own right that week and it’s what we’d always wanted to achieve with Whiplash. Next big one is owning our own brewery.
What have been the biggest challenges in getting Whiplash up and running and trading successfully?
Starting a beer operation with no money was a pretty hard challenge. Starting it without a brewery has been even harder. We’ve used lots of breweries both in Ireland and abroad for the past few years and it’s been really tough on us for both travel and general operations as it’s obviously more complicated when you’ve to coordinate raw materials or finished stock to five or six facilities across a few countries in the one month to just make enough beer to meet that month’s orders. Alan is an absolute wizard at all of that stuff and he deserves a massive amount of credit for how he manages these things. I just brew the beers and coordinate the labels and communications which seems like such a small part of what really goes on to maintain a business like this.
3 Irish brewers / beer companies you’re into and why?
Yellowbelly – For their constant innovation from their beers and design work and being absolute legends of people
Boundary – For their deep passion for all things geeky and modern in brewing along with their co-operative principles and drive
Trouble – For their great commitment to how to run a quality driven brewery that continues to innovate and bring consumers into drinking great beer.
3 international brewers / beer brands you’re into and why?
There’re way too many incredible breweries out there that we love and look up to. In the run up to Fidelity I wrote a couple of paragraphs about why we love every brewery that attended ranging from their beers to their design, their philosophy and our friendships. In terms of some international breweries who export a bit to Ireland here’s three to watch:
Wylam – For their constant re-invention over 20 years mastering everything from malt forward cask to the best hoppy beer you’ll find this side of the pond
Beerbliotek – For their absolute commitment to brewing everything and brewing it well. Their appreciation for all beer styles and successful dodging of being pigeonholed in any way is something we aspire to do with Whiplash.
Garage – Not only are these folks making some of the best hop forward beer in the world right now, we’re almost married to them as it’s rare to find people in the world who are just as mad as you.
A big trend across the independent brewing is their purchase by larger, mass market beer and alcohol businesses. Do you see this as a positive or negative for the industry? Does it mark a coming of age and necessary step to getting great beer to more people?
There’s a few ways to look at it but we’re an independent brewery and will always remain so. Our independence allows us to innovate, take care of our staff how we’d like and keep all our humour and personality in our beer. The issues with buyouts are pretty wide ranging though and one of the key places you see the negative side of things is in employment directly in brewing. A good place to look at is the USA and their explosion in craft breweries from the 1990’s onwards. The US went from almost all macro beer to having over 7000 independent breweries operating now. Between 2006 to 2016 the growth of craft breweries singlehandedly doubled the workforce of the beer industry there and I believe we’re now at a stage where although only 13% of the beer produced there is from craft, it employs over 50% of the workers in the sector. The problem with macro breweries buying smaller brands is the ultimate goal of consolidating the production of these beers into bigger factories where less people are required to produce it for the sole purpose of cost reduction. We had a situation here in Ireland from the 1920’s to the 1990’s where two big companies dominated the brewing market. Consumers had less choice and lost many aspects of their knowledge of beer styles, but what was really lost was that brewing culture of innovation and frankly how many people worked directly in the brewing of those beers. We don’t want to see a situation where we go back to this, but we don’t want to criticise people who just want out of the business and feel that that’s their only option, as at the end of the day it’s their business and they can do what they want with it. All we can ask is that people support good independent beer if they like it and the quality is there. There’s room for everyone and people should drink whatever they like. As I’ve said before, it’s our job to just make better beer and we’ve no doubt we’ll nail that every time.
Your brand is creatively interesting in every way. The name, branding, illustration, final production quality and more oozes care and effort. What drives you to pour so much energy into every aspect when you could choose an easier path?
Thanks! We’ve always lived by “If you’re going to do something, do it right” and that has to be applied to every part of what we do. We want to give people a good sense of what we’re about from our philosophy of using cans as an art space to being able to use a beer to start a conversation about a song or an album while you’re at it. Brewing is an art and like all good art it’s honest, so we wanted to lay out what the beer is about down to the ingredients on the front with a simple white canvas. When we started, I’d become jaded with beer branding in fridges and everything was about noisy primary colours and their only job was to sell sell sell. This was just a project for us at the beginning, so we had space to take more risks, opting to give consumer’s eyes a break and slow down that visual pollution in the fridge with something just white and straight forward. I’m a big fan of that film They Live too and have my own hangups about consumerism, so there’s definitely a bit of that in there too. We’ve been inspired by the beer design revolution that breweries like Milkkeller and To Øl brought about in Europe as well as how cans are really turned into works of art by breweries like Other Half and Finback too. I don’t really know if there’s an easier path really as it comes pretty natural when you get excited about how you’d like a can to look or feel, and had we gone a more traditional route I’m not sure we’d be doing what we set out to do either. Sophie De Vere does all of our can art and it’s amazing to see the response in the art world for her stuff, as well with invitations to do galleries and shows focusing on the work she puts in this year as well. It’s very heartwarming and she deserves full credit for her amazing designs.
Who do you work and collaborate with to ensure it matches what you have in your mind or is the brand the result of a more open collaborative approach?
We’re a pretty small company. There’s three of us who do the day-to-day and Sophie our designer simply has a list of what’s coming down the line and she and I just chat about what aesthetic we feel would work for the style of beer. Everything is done in-house so no real collaboration there as it’s all our own team. We sometimes put out three new beers a month so there has to be a flow so everyone has a little part and ownership of that delivery.
I’m a big fan of the brands that open up to collaboration with others. Is there a dream collaboration you would like to do with another brewer? What would make that so interesting to you?
Yes. Collaborations are incredible in this industry and I honestly can’t think of another industry like brewing that has that kind of sharing processes either. For us it’s a great way to improve and learn from your peers as the increase in good quality beer in everyone’s markets only serves to improve the culture and standards that drinkers expect. We’ve done lots of collabs with friends abroad and at home but unfortunately not having our own brewery has left us without somewhere to invite all our pals back to and brew in Ireland, but that’ll change once we’re up and running in September. We have a few dozen lined up and ready to go and it’s really exciting to think of all the knowledge we’ll be bringing to our little brewery to keep making it one of the best in the world. In terms of dream collaborations, I have to say most of them are all lined up, so Dublin will have to wait and see what we’ve got in store for shaking up beer over the next few years here. Outside of breweries we’re still waiting on Capri Sun to get back to us so if you’re reading this check your inbox.
You recently hosted Fidelity, a craft beer festival in Dublin’s Mansion House. What was the reason for putting this on? What makes it different from other beer events? How did it go down?
Yeah, Fidelity was absolutely incredible and it’s a bit emotional still, looking back at it. We decided to put it on to launch our brewery and celebrate us finally having a home. When we contacted our pals we didn’t have much hope beyond maybe a handful having the time to do it given everyone’s busy schedules but we were brought to tears when absolutely everyone came back with a big massive ‘Yes’ to throw a beer festival like that. It was the first beer festival of its kind in Ireland where your ticket covers your beers and you can sample at your leisure. The format was pretty much pioneered in the US and really perfected by Mikkeller with their Copenhagen Beer Celebration years back and we’ve always made the trip abroad as punters to these festivals from the sheer quality of beer on offer too.
What’s different too is that we’d air freight in beers from the US and Europe for their maximum freshness and most of what’s on offer has never been poured in Ireland before. Many of the breweries there deal with weekly lines of customers outside their doors to sample these beers at the weekend and they were happy to come over with the kegs and pour the beers for Irish consumers themselves, so you can meet the brewer at every stand. Between the amazing venue of the Round Room in the Mansion House, their great soundsystem and our partners at Hidden Agenda and The Big Romance playing tunes throughout all the sessions, it really became a big party atmosphere with loads of people dancing and singing throughout, which was definitely something unique in the world of these beer festivals. Fidelity was a roaring success and it was really amazing to have consumers coming up and just thanking us for doing something like that in Ireland. It was only meant to be a one-time thing to open our brewery, but given the response from brewers and customers we took a couple of days afterwards with some long discussions and have decided we’re going to do it again next year. Honestly, we can’t wait to do it again. Even the Lord Mayor came for a scoop, chain and all. What a party.
You’re on the verge of opening your own brewery. How long has that been in your brain and how long has it taken to get that idea from your mind into reality?
Having your own brewery is on the brain of every homebrewer in the world, the main question is how many of them are foolish enough to pursue that. It started with becoming a professional brewer and really understanding how it’s a business that’ll sink or swim almost entirely on the back of your discipline and commitment to deliver a consistent beer that deserves to be paid for. Consumers aren’t there to support your hobby, so focus on brewing to the best global standards out there and then keep pushing. I’ve commissioned a few breweries now, all working for others, but this is the first of my own and I’ve tried my best to make sure the lessons are learned from every one previous. Thankfully they’re mainly observations of what’s worked rather than thinking back at disasters, which is great. For this one, I’ve actually designed the whole brewery myself and had it fabricated abroad to our drawings. It’s been about a year since I sat down and started writing documents and planning everything from shift patterns, production capacities and down to where the cleaning equipment should go or where to put the drains and hoses. Equipment will arrive in early September and that’ll have made it over a year of my life of planning, but if it works it’ll bang out beer until we all retire. Everyone on the project has said the same thing in that they’ve never seen all of this in one brewhouse and this thing could break the mould. There’s some stuff in there that’s just straight-up never been done before so we’ll be breaking new ground from a research and development standpoint too. It’ll be worth the effort.
What will make your brewery different to the others out there? What can punters expect from it, products, experience, innovations?
I’ve been keeping a technical blog on the brewery build on our website for a few weeks now and lots of people are getting in contact excited at the possibilities of what this thing can do. What really messes with people’s minds is how small the thing is with a planned batch size of just between 500-800L, just 10 big kegs at a time. The beauty of it is how flexible it’ll be and how we can really use small volumes like that to really experiment and put out super small beer releases every week. We wanted all that technology in a brewery but realised there was no way we could afford a big kit with all those bells and whistles either. We’ll happily sacrifice volume if it gives us better quality any day and that’s what makes us a bit unique too. Having our own kit and small batches like that means we’ll be exploring styles more and taking more risks. If it doesn’t work then it doesn’t go out the door, but Dubs can look forward to new beers from us every week along with us reviving lots of brews from our back catalogue as well. In terms of innovations, we’re keeping that under wraps until we’re happy with the beer, but we have a few dozen projects we’re going to be piloting before we’re looking for more stuff to experiment with. Punters can expect to be able to buy some of these at the brewery at some stage in the future too. We haven’t begun planning for it yet, but we’ll make it happen in some way in the future once we’re brewing.
Your top 3 beers and why?
Schlenkerla Märzen – Smoked malty German Lager, always in my fridge and I’m an absolute fiend for smoked beer.
Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze – My favourite lambic, ages beautifully forever or great once it’s ready.
Hill Farmstead Harlan – The first hoppy beer the really blew my mind. The level of clarity and space afforded to all the sum of its parts is just masterful brewing.
For a young brand and business you’ve achieved an incredible amount already and caused huge positive impact in everything you’ve done. What’s the plan next, to open the brewery and slow down or is this just the ignition for lots more ideas and innovations? What can we expect next from you and Whiplash?
Thank you! It doesn’t feel like that and we’re really just in the mindset that we’re about to get started. The plan for now is to open the brewery and really focus on training and looking after our staff. Brewing the beers is the fun part, but putting together the team that we’ve got coming has been the most exciting part for us. So many of them are coming from other established breweries abroad with completely different skill-sets to myself and our brewer David, while others are joining more locally to start their journey and grow and learn in our family of brewers. Once everyone is comfortable working with all the kit, the fun begins of incorporating their recipes and talents. We’ll be implementing a barrel ageing and sour program with some of the team while others will be coming in to give us some scientific muscle as well – so our always-available beers can be the most consistent in the world which is real brewer talk. My focus when we start is to make sure we’re not growing too fast at the expense of the beer quality and making sure we’re ready to take the next step at the right time for us. There’ll be new beer releases near weekly and we’ll have more time to go on the road and meet our customers who’ve been sticking by us while we build this thing.
Alan deserves a holiday too. Cheers.
Words: Richard Seabrooke