There is a whole new sector brewing in Mayo.
Oileán Éadaigh West Mayo Brewery, run by Caroline and Iain Price from their farm in Islandeady, led the charge when they launched Mayo’s first microbrewery in July 2013, offering local consumers the first, natural craft beers brewed in the region since the 1820s.
Then it was Mescan Brewery, the brainchild of veterinarian duo Cillian O’Morain and Bart Adons, which launched near the foot of Croagh Patrick, in March 2014.
Last October, a third brewer tapped into the scene when Marcus Robinson, on the banks of the Deel in Crossmolina, launched his aptly named Reel Deel Brewery, and made it official - a craft drinks sector is on the rise in the county.
A fourth brewery, on Achill Island, is also understood to be under development while last summer, plans were unveiled for Mayo’s first craft whiskey distillery in Lahardaun.
The Mayo ventures seem to be entering the craft beer and drinks sector at the right time.
There is a rapidly growing trend towards craft offerings, according to industry experts.
A report published late last year, commissioned by the Independent Craft Brewers of Ireland group, outlined how employment in microbreweries has doubled over the last three years and output has tripled since 2011.
A smattering of new craft distillers are starting to crop up too with ventures launching in Mayo, Dublin, Wicklow and Kerry.
For Cillian O’Morain, who produces Belgian style beers with Bart Adons at Mescan Brewery, the growth in the sector is very welcome but was more of ‘a happy coincidence’ and not the main motivation behind the business idea.
Both veterinarians by profession, the pair had some experience as hobby brewers and enjoyed Belgian beer through their frequent visits to Bart’s native country.
“We ourselves were frustrated by the lack of choice before the whole craft beer thing really kicked off,” explained Mr O’Morain. “In an average pub in Belgium, there are 200 beers to choose from. In Ireland, 10 years ago, you might have had four or five.
“I don’t think we appreciated how general that feeling [of a lack of choice] was.”
The brewery, which was in the planning for five years, was named after a monk called Mescan who, legend has it, was the brewer and friend of St Patrick.
Business is going very well. Mescan Brewery’s Belgian style beers are stocked in more than 25 local bars, restaurants and hotels with a growing interest nationally in the beers as well.
“To be honest, we have more customers than beer,” said Mr O’Morain. “I do see huge potential for our business but our plan is to grow organically. We are not really a boardroom, marketing plan type of establishment but we are in the process of doubling our production, which we should achieve in the next few months.”
For Mark Quick, finance director at Nephin Whiskey Company, the business couldn’t be any more suited to its rural location in Mayo.
“This industry is sustainable, we are using local products, there is zero waste from the plant and it will employ local people, in jobs that will be there for generations,” said Mr Quick. “It integrates very nicely with the community.”
He believes there is significant potential to regenerate independent Irish whiskey production as most production in Ireland is currently owned and operated by foreign multi-national companies.
“There is loads of room in the market,” he pointed out. “If you look at Scotland, they have 138 operational distilleries. I would see maybe a dozen or so in the next year or two in Ireland. Some of them will be very small, niche micro distilling operations and some will be mid size, like us. I would love to see several more distilleries in Mayo, in particular.”
Nephin Whiskey, which is currently under construction, restoring a number of 19th century buildings in the heart of Lahardaun village, will employ 18 people and produce 1.5 million bottles of whiskey annually when it is fully operational.
There will be a master cooper on site and the whiskey will be produced using a traditional, peating method. The first batch will be ready for market by 2019 as a premium product, targeted mainly at four key areas within the US market.
“It is very much an authentic whiskey which stays true to our heritage but also incorporates global best practice standards in manufacturing,” added Mark.
Reel Deel brewer Marcus Robinson believes strong growth in the brewing and distilling industry in Mayo could generate some positive cross over benefits for local producers.
“If you look at Nephin Whiskey, for example. They will have their own malting facility which means there may be an opportunity there for me to buy my malt locally too,” he outlined.
“The more quality choice there is out there, the better it is for all of us,” he continued. “If someone is in Westport and tries a Mescan or a West Mayo Brewery beer and they enjoy it, they are much more likely try one of mine too.”
Reel Deel’s two beers, Irish Blonde and Jack the Lad are stocked in local bars and shops as well as in some outlets and bars in Dublin, Galway and Cork. They have also just recently gone on sale at Ireland West Airport Knock.
While the craft beer sector is growing at a fast pace, Mr Robinson advised that it isn’t something anyone can just jump into on a whim.
“It is complicated starting out,” he said. “Especially the planning process. The equipment is expensive and there are lots of standards and procedures to follow. It is not something to be rushed into.”
Tanya Whyte Stanaway, food officer with Mayo Local Enterprise Office, said that is where her agency can help.
LEO offers business supports to new and existing businesses in the county and appointed a food officer last April after noting that 40 per cent of the clients using the agency are in the food and drinks sector.
“We have found that alot of producers need support in mentoring and training rather than just financially,” said Ms Whyte Stanaway. “Many established businesses also need support to upscale.”
LEO runs regular workshops and networking events for food and drinks producers as well as a successful ‘Food Academy’, which gives local producers the opportunity to pitch their products to their local Supervalu stores.
The office also provides supports to eligible businesses in the area of tradeshow attendance, website development, and some capital supports.
This May sees a festival dedicated to craft beer, called Grainne Ale, taking place on Saturday and Sunday, May 30 and 31, at Gracey’s Bar, Westport House, Westport.
The event is part of the larger Pirate Queen Festival in west Mayo, celebrating Grace O’Malley, who surely swigged on a jug or two of brew out on the high seas.
Oileán Éadaigh West Mayo Brewery, visit www.westmayobrewery.ie; Mescan Brewery, find them on Facebook; Reel Deel Brewery, www.reeldeelbrewery.ie; Nephin Whiskey, www.nephindistillery.com; Grainne Ale beer festival, www.piratequeenfestival.ie; Mayo Local Enterprise Office, www.localenterprise.ie/mayo