Brewing up a storm

January 06, 2020

Lady’s Well Brewery has survived world wars and outlived empires over its 163 years but it’s a place that is defined by continuity and shaped by the city in which it is based.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you could say that this is a brewery “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Based on the grounds of what used to be the Old Foundling Hospital in Cork City, where people once left unwanted or orphaned children, the brewery would go on to support generations of local families.

The Murphy’s Brewery business was established in 1856 by James J Murphy and his four brothers, who came from a prominent Cork business family with interests in everything from distilling to shipbuilding. James J Murphy famously bailed out Munster Bank when it was on the edge of ruin in 1885, staving off a potential economic disaster and saving thousands from bankruptcy.

By 1861, the brewery was producing 42,990 barrels per annum and going from strength to strength. It was expanded in the 1880s, with notable additions including its famous stone malt house.

Located just minutes away from Patrick Street, the city has literally grown up around the brewery which is now owned by Heineken Ireland.

“It’s obviously been a huge employer for the city over the years and still is today,” says Heineken Ireland Brewery Manager, PJ Tierney.

“It’s always been based in the heart of the city and the city itself has kind of grown up around the brewery.”

As one of the ‘Big Three’ in Irish brewing, Murphy’s Brewery became a major local employer in the city and some families have literally worked there since its establishment.

“Generations of people within Cork City and the surrounds have worked here,” says PJ.

“Actually, there are two fellows working in the brewery at the moment - Barry Hosford and Donie Hosford. Since the brewery began, there has always been a Hosford working in the brewery. They’ve a link to the brewery going right back to when it started.”

It’s not just direct employees who have benefited from having a brewing powerhouse in the city. Some of the contractors that work on site have been employed there for decades.

“If you’re bringing in a new piece of kit from Germany, it’s local electricians, local civil engineers and local mechanical engineers who are doing all the work at the installation,” explains PJ. “All the automation work that’s done here is all locally-sourced as well so all the contractors, plumbers or fitters are all local and we try to support them as much as we possibly can.”

A new era for the brewery

Murphy’s Brewery launched Heineken into the Irish market for the first time in 1978 in response to the growing demand for lager in Ireland. Heineken was an immediate success but its parent company would go on to play a much greater role in the brewery’s future.

“Unfortunately, it was a tough time for the brewery,” recalls PJ. “Sales were dropping, the bottling plant wasn’t performing so there was a lot of money going into it to try and rescue it. Then in the early eighties, the brewery went into receivership and Heineken came in and bought out Murphy’s Brewery in 1983.”

It was a much-needed boost for the business which would go from strength to strength in the coming decades under Heineken Ireland. It wouldn’t be the last major change to the local brewing landscape, with fellow Cork giant Beamish & Crawford being acquired by Heineken Ireland in 2008.

Heineken Ireland’s commitment to sustainability has helped to encourage innovation at Lady’s Well Brewery.

“You’re trying to keep yourself as efficient as you possibly can as well. You never know what’s down the road. All you can do is try to make the brewery as good as you possibly can. One thing we look at is how can we make sure that whatever we do here is setting the brewery up for success in the future.

“It’s like that sporting analogy. We’re only holding the jersey for a while. While we hold the jersey, we try to bring it along and when our time comes, we pass it on.”

Heineken Ireland’s ‘Brewing a Better World’ programme incorporates everything from community engagement with the Cork Simon Community to awareness initiatives around consumption to a commitment to sustainable development.

“As long as I’ve been with Heineken Ireland, sustainability has been top of mind. It mightn’t always have been called sustainability but the focus has always been on maximising water usage so you’re using as little water as possible, maximising your electricity and maximising your thermal.”

The brewery uses only renewable electricity and it gets 100pc of its electricity from windfarms. Another way that waste is reduced is that spent grains from brewing and surplus yeast from fermentation are reused as animal feed.

It has also supported sustainable community projects in Cork and other Irish cities.

“We’re working with Grow It Yourself, greening urban areas and even planting flower boxes around the brewery. We are currently building a little garden in the front of the brewery. We’d have gone out around Blackpool, where the brewery is situated, and supported some of the Grow It Yourself initiatives in the area as well.”

It’s just the latest chapter in the long history of Lady’s Well Brewery, which has been shaped by the city and which has also helped to shape the city.

The affection in which it is held is obvious when the brewery opens its doors as part of the annual Cork Heritage Open Day. Locals come in large numbers to take advantage of the rare chance to explore the site, with production shut down for the occasion.

The future looks bright, with two million kegs produced on site for the first time in its history last year. They are currently on track to repeat the feat this year and to continue building on a rich brewing heritage.

“The Murphy’s brand itself is a huge legacy,” says PJ. “The communities around here have grown up with the brewery and the brewery has grown up with the communities. It’s obviously been a prime employer for the city and as I said earlier, the Murphy family have a legacy going back well before the brewery was even here. It’s nice to say that the brewery itself is an iconic site in Cork.”