How did Smithwick’s rise from relative obscurity to become the largest ale brewer in Ireland?
Origins and the Edmond Smithwick era
The Smithwicks were a well-established and highly-respected Catholic family in Kilkenny, Ireland.
John Smithwick (1763 – 1842) entered into business as a wholesale and general grocer with premises on Kilkenny High Street. From modest beginnings Smithwick grew wealthy, and he leased a distillery at St Francis Abbey, Kilkenny, on behalf of his eldest son, Edmond Smithwick (1801 – 1876), from 1827.
St Francis Abbey is a ruinous former Franciscan abbey built in the early 13th century.
An adjoining brewery was acquired on lease from 1833. Ireland had relatively few breweries, numbered at just 207 in 1831, against 5,419 in England. Kilkenny was to prove an advantageous location for the production of beer, given that it was situated in one of the most best barley growing regions in Ireland. The brewery soon overtook the distillery to become the predominant business.
Edmond Smithwick hosted Daniel O’Connell (1775 – 1847), the Catholic emancipation campaigner, in 1840. Amongst this fervour of nationalistic mood, there was a revival of a campaign for Irish consumers to purchase Irish-made goods. Smithwick himself argued that if the middle classes supported Irish industry, lower taxes would ensue, as there would be fewer unemployed to support.*
Highly-regarded by the community, Edmond Smithwick was elected Mayor of Kilkenny in 1844.
Edmond Smithwick greatly extended and modernised the brewery in 1851. He also hired a highly experienced brewer.
Edmond Smithwick funded an all-expenses paid trip for over 100 employees to the Great Exhibition of Dublin in 1853.
His brother, Daniel Smithwick (died 1869), established a bottling works.
Edmond Smithwick had commenced exports to the British Empire by 1855.
The business traded as E Smithwick & Sons by 1861.
Edmond Smithwick was re-elected Mayor of Kilkenny in 1864 and 1865.
Edmond Smithwick had spent thousands of pounds on improvements to his site by 1867. It was one of the foremost industrial concerns in the south of Ireland. The brewery employed hundreds of people. Smithwick had a reputation as a fair employer who paid a good wage.
Edmond Smithwick acquired the precinct of St Francis’s Abbey for £3,100 in 1867.
Edmond’s sons take over the business
Edmond Smithwick died in 1877, and the business was continued by his three sons, John William Smithwick (1835 – 1894), Edmond Smithwick (1839 – 1912) and Daniel Smithwick (1840 – 1883).
The business was incorporated as E Smithwick & Sons in 1890.
The brewery employed around 400 people in 1900.
The market consolidates
The success of the company in the beginning of the twentieth century was credited to its chairman, Michael Buggy (1855 – 1935), a solicitor.
E Smithwick & Sons was one of only 25 breweries remaining in Ireland by 1917, and one of only 15 to brew stout, porter and ale.
James Sullivan & Co, a rival Kilkenny brewery with a production capacity of 20,000 barrels a year, entered into receivership in 1917, and the assets were acquired by E Smithwick & Sons in 1919. The purchase left E Smithwick & Sons as the sole surviving brewery in Kilkenny.
Strong growth under W A Smithwick
Walter Aloysius Smithwick (1908 – 1993), the grandson of John William Smithwick, became a company director from 1931. He was responsible for introducing a large sales team to the business, which was to prove highly successful in increasing revenue. Smithwick’s products had national distribution by 1935. Over 400 licensed establishments in Dublin were supplied by 1937.
E Smithwick & Sons was the oldest and most important industrial concern in Kilkenny by 1937, and employed over 140 people in the city.
E Smithwick & Sons won first prize for best bottle conditioned beer in a British Commonwealth competition in 1937.** Shortly afterwards, the beer was rebranded as Smithwick’s No.1.
The Second World War hampered production, with output reduced to just 6,000 barrels in 1942.
Walter Smithwick became chairman and managing director from 1947. He determined to make Smithwick’s the leading ale brand in Ireland. Sales grew quickly under his dynamic leadership, and improved distribution saw annual production reach 50,000 barrels by 1952.
The Great Northern Brewery in Dundalk was purchased for £37,500 in order to supplement brewing capacity in 1954. The news was greeted positively, as it presented an opportunity for W A Smithwick to introduce his superior management skills to the acquired business.
Smithwick’s Brewery was registered as a public company with a capital of £500,000 in 1956. That year Guinness, the large Dublin-based brewery, took a stake in the business.
The Dundalk purchase was to prove problematic. Public taste increasingly favoured keg beer, and Smithwick’s lacked sufficient capital to convert the Dundalk brewery for this purpose. The Dundalk brewery was sold to Guinness, who invested to convert the plant towards the production of Harp lager.
E Smithwick & Sons held over 60 percent of the Irish ale market by 1960, a total of around 60,000 barrels a year. The four products were Smithwick’s No.1, a deep gold ale, Smithwick’s Export Ale, Smithwick’s SS Ale, and Smithwick’s Barley Wine.
Time, a pasteurised beer, was introduced from 1960.
Smithwick’s Barley Wine won the Olympic Gold Medal at the World Beer Olympics in 1963.
Takeover by Guinness and investment
Guinness acquired a 60 percent interest in Smithwick’s for £750,000 in 1964. The rest of the business was acquired the following year for £490,000.
Smithwick’s had been slow to anticipate the increased demand for draught beer. It introduced a lager brand, which failed, in part because it lacked the marketing power of Guinness and rival English brewers. Smithwick’s was also struggling with the capital demands of investing in draught beer.
Walter Smithwick did not regret his decision to sell the brewery. He knew the business needed large amounts of capital if it was to remain competitive, and to fail to take the business public would have seen it struggle to survive. Smithwick understood that a workforce of 250 were dependant on the brewery for their livelihood.
A new brewhouse was established from June 1965. The first keg beer from Smithwick’s was introduced that year. Brewed to be darker and sweeter, it probably drew influence from Watney’s Red Barrel, which was popular in Ireland at the time.
Some Smithwick’s bottling had been transferred to Dundalk by 1968.
The Smithwick’s brewery was expanded in 1969.
Walter Smithwick retired in 1973.
Hop varieties in use in the early 1970s included Irish-grown Fuggles, Goldings and Bullion. Hop pellets were in use by 1985.
Budweiser was produced under licence at the Kilkenny brewery from 1987. A £1 million investment was made to enable lager production at the brewery.
Growth as an export brand
Kilkenny Irish Beer (c.5% ABV) was introduced, originally as an export-only product, from 1987. The Kilkenny name was chosen as opposed to Smithwick’s as it was easier for non-native English speakers to pronounce. The initial market was Germany.
Draught Smithwick’s for the Northern Ireland market was brewed at Dundalk by 1988. Smithwicks Ale bottling was transferred to Dundalk as part of a rationalisation drive from 1989.
Export sales of Smithwick’s and Kilkenny increased by over one third in 1994, with a large market in Canada.
Domestic sales of Smithwick’s declined every year from the mid-1980s, and ale, excluding stout, comprised just ten percent of the Irish beer market by 1995.
A reduced-strength (4.3% ABV) version of Kilkenny Irish Beer was introduced to the Irish market from 1995. A Guinness executive explained that it was a different beer from Smithwick’s. It was a premium-priced product, and was intended to revitalise the declining ale category, and prevent the newly-launched Caffrey’s, a rival Irish ale from Bass, from taking market share.
Dundalk brewed all bottled and canned Smithwick’s, including the Barley Wine, by 1995.
Production of Smithwick’s beer for the domestic market had been transferred to the Guinness-owned Cherry’s Brewery in Waterford by 1997.
43,000 hectolitres (75 million pints) of Kilkenny Irish Beer had been sold across 53 different countries in 1999. The beer was sold in 1,860 domestic Irish pubs.
The Kilkenny Brewery employed 150 people in 2000. It was an efficient site, but was suffering from capacity constraints.
Smithwick’s Barley Wine was discontinued in 2001.
The Kilkenny and Dunalk breweries were closed in 2013, with production relocated to St James’s Gate, Dublin, the home of Guinness.
Smithwick’s remains a leading ale brand in Ireland, with estimated sales of around 58,000 barrels in 2020, according to data from Euromonitor.
* It remains unclear exactly which Mr Smithwick was speaking at this Kilkenny meeting, but Edmond Smithwick (1801 – 1877) is the most likely.
** The Brewing Trade Review Bottled Beer Exhibition was the awarding body