Michael Meade has something special to celebrate during Buffalo Beer Week.
The city native – who spent nearly three decades in the banking industry in New York City – was named this week as new CEO of Sullivan’s Brewing Co. USA.
“I’m very amped up about where Sullivan’s Brewing Company is heading,” said Meade, whose 1702 Irish Ales investment group in 2016 began to fuel growth of the Kilkenny, Ireland-based brewing company, particularly into the U.S. – starting with Buffalo.
Kilkenny has been known as the cradle of Celtic craft brewing since the 13th century, when Franciscan monks brought beer from Italy to the Emerald Isle. The Sullivan family started making beers in the southeastern Irish city in 1702, the Smithwick family in 1710.
Members of the two families became close friends, and in some cases even spouses. A controlling Sullivan family member wagered away the family brewery on a horse race in 1918 and the Smithwick family soon after came to the rescue by taking control of the Sullivan’s workforce and rights to the brewing company’s name.
In 1965, the Smithwick family sold its company – including its name and trademark – to Guinness, which kept open the Kilkenny brewery until 2014, when it consolidated its Irish operations to Dublin. The Smithwick family, however, kept control of the Sullivan’s brewery name and descendants Paul and Dan Smithwick jumped back into the family business two years later under the Sullivan name.
The company now owns a brewery, taproom, visitor center and retail outlet in Kilkenny. A Buffalo city flag is displayed in the taproom.
Meade pulled together a team of investors – including several fellow alums from Canisius High School in Buffalo – to help get the venture off the ground, and push Sullivan's into the U.S.
The brewery’s first export, Sullivan’s Maltings Red Ale, gained acclaim with a 2017 win in Great Britain as best ale in the world at the International Brewing Awards, known as the “Oscars of the Beer Industry.” The red ale initially was available only in pubs and restaurants in Kilkenny, Dublin and Western New York.
Sullivan’s added an Irish Gold ale to its repertoire last year. It has since expanded U.S. distribution to in the Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Cleveland and Erie, Pa., regions. The company at first shipped plastic kegs of its beers to U.S. markets but now also makes Irish Maltings Ale available in pint-sized cans.
Meade steps into his new role after 29 years on Wall Street, where he helped build and lead trading and financing businesses at Citibank, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank. He has spent much of the last two years building a team to expand Sullivan brands first into Buffalo and then into a growing number of U.S. markets.
The effort started with one employee, has grown to four, and is expected to ramp up quickly in coming months as part of a more aggressive expansion plan.
Sullivan's looks to grow next around the Great Lakes, in the New York City metro area, New England and the Southeastern states, said brewing company CEO Alan Quane, an Irishman who has worked for nearly three decades in the confections and brewery industries, including from 1991 to 2003 in Toronto.
Meade, talking by phone from his apartment in New York City Wednesday morning, said he will spend much of his efforts during the next few months in and around that metro region, then the emerging Sullivan's markets, before returning to Buffalo to make his home base a brownstone he owns on Delaware Avenue.
One way the Irish brewery will celebrate Meade’s new post: timing the U.S. release of its newest beer, Black Marble Stout, in his hometown during Buffalo Beer Week. The creamy, dry Irish stout became available this week on draft, nitro-style, at the Irishman in Williamsville and the Blackthorn in South Buffalo and will be poured starting Thursday evening at Forty Thieves in the Elmwood Village and Friday evening at Finnerty’s in Ellicottville. These are among 70 taverns and restaurants that serve Sullivan's in the region. Wegmans, Dash's and about a dozen Tops stores sell the brand in cans.
Sullivan's may one day open its own taproom in Buffalo but is almost certain to continue to brew all of its beer in Kilkenny, expanding operations there as demand dictates, Meade said.
"We want to be a premium craft Irish import," he said. "We really feel that we'd lose the authenticity of our story if we were going to begin to brew in America. We're really into the idea of bringing brewing to Kilkenny again.
"In our existing U.S. markets, we want to become more present," Meade added. "The first place in America where we launched a beer was Buffalo, so what we'll always do is launch any new beers first in Buffalo. We'll always keep that as our American home."