Limerick start-up, the Irish Artisan Charcoal Company, is ambitious to expand beyond Ireland, writes Trish Dromey.
AT THE Ploughing Championships next week, the Irish Artisan Charcoal Company won’t just be exhibiting its products and cooking a few sausages, it will also be offering free information about barbecuing.
“When barbecues don’t light the fault is usually with the charcoal, not the barbecuer,” said Colin O’Loan who co-founded the Limerick-based start-up which he believes is the first company to produce charcoal in Ireland for sale to the retail market.
Since the launch last year he has discovered that most people here don’t know a lot about charcoal.
“When they can’t light the barbecue they just pour on fuel which covers the food with petrol fumes,” he said.
Two years ago, while working at Sheridans Cheesemongers it occurred to him that while Ireland had a wide range of good quality food products it didn’t have locally-produced charcoal.
“The bulk of the charcoal produced here is produced on a commercial scale in Africa. Because of the scale, the quality varies and some of it still contains moisture and is hard to light,” revealed Mr O’Loan. Reading up on the subject, he discovered that it was possible to produce more environmentally-friendly charcoal that burned bright, fast and clean.
Reading up on the subject, he discovered that it was possible to produce more environmentally-friendly charcoal that burned bright, fast and clean.
He shared this information with Seamus O’Loughlin, an ESB project manager and part-time forester, at a party, and together they cooked up a plan to get into the charcoal business using low-value hardwood thinnings.
Finding a company in Exeter which produced kilns, they loaded up a truck with half a tonne of ash thinnings and went over to try it out.
“We were blown away by the purity of the charcoal — there was no smell of fuel,” he said.
Next, they approached their Local Enterprise Office (LEO) in Limerick for support.
“We were told our idea sounded daft and hair-brained but possibly brilliant,” said Mr O’Loan, who persuaded the LEO to provide him with the €22,000 he needed to purchase the kiln, last March.
When it arrived they took it to a forest near Bruff, loaded it up and lit it.
“The process takes 36 hours — you let it burn for eight hours and shut it down and stay with it,” he said, explaining that a kiln load provides 40 bags each containing three kilos.
Mr O’Loan, previously a car salesman and now a stay-at-home dad, took on the task of selling the charcoal. He began looking for customers in the Limerick area.
“I started with romantic ideas of selling to fine food shops but realised I need to sell large quantities and went to petrol shops, supermarkets, as well as restaurants and pubs,” he said.
Aniar, a Michelin star restaurant in Galway, became a customer as did the Europe Hotel in Killarney.
“I lit up the barbecue to cook for 400 chefs at Food on the Edge symposium in Galway and I also cooked 800 sausages at Litfest in Ballymaloe,” he said.
By the end of last year the small part-time company had sold 3,000 bags containing a total of 10,000 kilos of charcoal.
The company had a set-back at the start of this year when it burned a hole in the kiln, which stopped production and forced the founders to raise their price to €12.50 a bag.
Recovering from this, the company got a sales boost by winning the John and Sally McKenna product of the year award, and has sold another 3,000 kg of charcoal.
“We are now selling in 32 counties and have online sales and have shipped small amounts to the US and the UK,” he said.
Mr O’Loan has now applied to take part in Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers programme.
His key target is barbecue restaurants.
“More and more of these are popping up around the country and they use huge quantities of charcoal all year round,” he said.
Immediate plans include adding wood chipping to create a smoky flavour and selling Big Poppa Smokers, which are barbecues made from recycled barrels.
“Ultimately we aim to have kilns all over Ireland making charcoal and to develop exports to the UK,” he said.
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