The Western Herd Brewery at Kilmaley, outside Ennis, is located on a farm, in the family for eight generations
A hilltop farm in rural Co Clare might not be considered a suitable place to establish a craft brewery, but for brother and sister, Maeve Sheridan and Michael Eustace, it was the obvious choice. The Western Herd Brewery at Kilmaley, outside Ennis, is located on a 100 acre farm, which has been in the family for eight generations.
Originally from Ennis, Maeve was working in Luxembourg in finance, and wanted to move home, after she had her first child. “Dad inherited the place, and started farming when he retired. My grand-mother was born in the house next to the brewery. Dad spent every summer working on the farm, when he was younger. We used to come out here as children. We loved it and we’d say, ‘if you could only bottle it’.”
Her brother, Michael, is a civil engineer, who had an interest in home-brewing. When the recession hit, he managed a pub in Dublin. “He could see that craft beer was starting to take off. I was surrounded by Belgian and German beers in Luxembourg, and missed them when I came home,” says Maeve. “We said ‘why don’t we look into doing a brewery out here?’
There was no other commercial brewery in Clare when they established in 2015. Maeve put the business plan together, applied for planning permission, and went to the Local Enterprise Office, who, she says, have been hugely supportive. “We didn’t have the expertise, so we brought in a trained brewer, Adam Orrick, from Seattle. Liam Garry, who’s local, came on a job bridge scheme initially, and trained with Adam. He’s now our master brewer.”
Everything is done on site. Western Herd uses some speciality barley from Europe, but over 90% is Irish-grown in Wexford, Waterford and Kilkenny; and malted in Cork. The main ingredient in beer is water, which comes from their well. “World-famous wines talk about terroir; for us it’s the water,” says Maeve.
The cold storage unit and bottling machine are in the old milking parlour, which was re-floored after twenty years of disuse. It now opens up into the adjoining hayshed, which contains the brewing tanks.
“It was the first hayshed in the three local parishes of Inch, Connolly and Kilmaley. It was my granduncle’s pride and joy. It’s nearly one hundred years old.”
Maeve went back and retrained in marketing and online digital media, while Michael took care of the specifications. They visited a lot of breweries around Ireland, like White Hag in Sligo, who helped them through the process. Maeve was also a member of the original ACORNS group, which supports female entrepreneurs in rural areas.
As they were part of the SuperValu Food Academy, five stores were lined up to take their beer at its launch. At the same time, they opened a pub, McHugh’s, in Ennis, which also serves food. McHugh’s has been a great testing ground for new beers, where they can send in a sample keg, and get feedback from customers. They also run a homebrew competition.
Western Herd trades on being local, rather than craft. Most of their sales are Clare-based, although they have had shipments to Italy and Sweden.
“Duty on beer is so high in Ireland, that it’s cheaper to make and send it to the EU, rather than sell in the shop down the road. In the worldwide online ratings our wheat beer is in the top five, and our pale ale is in the top ten. Social media and modern technology levels the playing field. We authenticate what we’re doing and bring it back to the farm, posting pictures of cows with our beers.”
Maeve’s father and brother-in-law have a reserve herd on the farm – about forty head of whiteheads and a dozen sheep. “It’s like a maternity ward. They send out the cows and the bull, and let nature take its course. We did a little promotional video. Instead of the bull runs of Pamplona, we had the calves running in Kilmaley. It was like Fr Ted !” she laughs. The cows eat the spent grain, and any surplus is collected and distributed among local farmers.
There were many challenges setting up. Luckily, Liam’s background in mechanical engineering, and Michael’s expertise in civil engineering helped when equipment failed in the first few years.
“You don’t figure out until you get the stuff to the door. You can see the dent above the entrance where we were trying to fit the tanks in. We were ready to go, and realised we had no boxes for the beer. It took two weeks to get a supply. It’s all the little things. You have to love what you’re doing as you’re on call 24/7. You also have to watch the cash flow. When setting up no one would give us credit, but everyone expected credit.”
There are currently nine beers in the range. Their names have Clare connections like Cliff Road (Cliffs of Moher) and Siege (Siege of Ennis). There’s an Irish Whiskey stout, Dolmen, named after Poulnabrone Dolmen. Sections of the Clare coast are depicted on the labels. Back Beat beer was awarded a two gold star Great Taste Award in the UK in their first year. They have won several Blas na hÉireann awards.
With master brewer Liam, they are working on new beers and new markets. They’ve also just taken over Flanagan’s pub in Lahinch. In time, they would like to renovate the old farmhouse, and have a visitors’ centre and beer garden, looking out over the surrounding fields.
“People find us on Google Maps and come out here expecting a tour. Others think they are going to land in, and there’s going to be two big saucepans and something to stir it with !” Maeve laughs. “But it makes sense for us to be out here. People like the connection to the farm – they buy into our story.”
Cristíona Ní hIcí works alongside Western Herd at their Kilmaley farm, making her alcohol-free, fermented kombucha drink under the label Céile in a mobile unit.
“Their well water attracted me here first. I use tea, sugar and scoby [symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast] in the brew, adding water kefir (another fermented beverage).
“In summer, I forage for rose, elder, hawthorn and meadowsweet. In winter, it’s berries.”
Originally from a beef cattle and sheep farm in Meath, Cristíona liked the lifestyle, following her dad around when she was younger, and watching the seasons change. I like the wildness here, it’s similar to home, and the soil is acidic, like Meath.
“I’m driven by working outside. I did interior architecture and worked in an office, but realised it wasn’t for me.”
Cristíona studied horticulture, spending time in North America learning different techniques. She started selling her kombucha at farmers’ markets and then took it commercial three years ago, later moving to Clare. She’s part of New Frontiers, the Enterprise Ireland course for entrepreneur development, and she’s also on the current intake of ACORNS.
“It’s empowering to hear someone I consider to be a success to say it’s hard. You don’t feel like a failure if you’re having a bad day.”
The relationship between Western Herd and Céile is mutual. Cristíona has learned brewing techniques from them, and she works in the kitchen in their McHugh’s pub, which serves her kombucha.
Maeve hopes to grow supplies for their restaurants, using Cristíona’s background in horticulture. “She could also grow the ingredients for her kombucha. Maybe we could even grow our own hops. There’s a lot of overlap. She uses water from our well, and we jointly order bottles. It makes sense. We’re not competing. The name Céile means working together.”