My name is Michaela Dillon and I work as a Software Tester for a telecommunications firm in Galway. After school, I studied dress design and worked as a costume designer, but I always had an interest in how IT was being used in the clothing industry, particularly in pattern making. As technology evolved, I studied Computer Science and then transitioned into IT as my primary career, as it allowed me to travel and work virtually anywhere. I am also co-founder of Black Donkey Brewing, a small independent craft brewery based in Roscommon. Our brewery was inspired by our experience of the variety and diversity of beers available overseas, and by the absolute lack of variety and choice available here at home at the time. We were keen home brewers and we decided that the time was right to turn our passion into a commercial venture.
I am originally from Roscommon, but I spent many years abroad working in the US. My husband Richard is from Drogheda, and we met when we worked in the same financial firm in New York. We saw the rise in craft brewing in the US during our time there and wondered why it wasn’t happening back home in Ireland. We were members of the New York City Homebrewers Guild and began home brewing there. New York City has had a vibrant craft beer scene for many years, with a huge variety of beers on offer in most bars. Being members of the Guild was a great social outlet, with likeminded individuals in a large and diverse city. We were lucky to be able to set up our brew kit in our garage in Queens, and we brewed whenever we wanted. With a lot of dry, warm weather in the summers, it was easy to step outside and brew every weekend. We have never been short of volunteer tasters!
We were home brewing for about 7 years before moving home to Ireland; we decided that the time was right to open a small independent brewery. It took about 18 months to get set up with premises, planning, equipment, licences, etc. Once those ducks were in a row, we set about testing recipes and scaling up from the homebrew kit, sourcing outlets, branding, and promotion. We are now 4 ½ years old, and we recently added the fourth member to the team.
Our brewery is called Black Donkey Brewing. We were originally going to call the brewery ‘Asal Dubh’ (‘Black Donkey’ in Irish) after our first homebrew, which in turn was named after the Padraic Ó Connaire story “M’Asal Beag Dubh”. However, this would not have worked well with our long-term goal to build an export as well as domestic market. So we switched it back into English and requested tenders from designers for the mascot. We are also surrounded by donkeys where we live further out in the countryside of Roscommon, so the name and mascot just worked well for our company vision and mission to create traditional and natural farmhouse style beers. My brother Andrew is a professional artist, and we collaborate with him to produce the bottle labels which he paints oil on canvas, the originals of which are hanging in the brewery.
Our first ever homebrew, ‘Asal Dubh’, was a stout. It was your typical first-time brewer attempt, using a malt extract kit in the kitchen — not the best, but a good place to start. Upscaling to a bigger homebrew kit (with a propane heated kettle and dedicated mash tun and hot liquor tanks), we experimented with all different types of beers and brewing techniques. This three vessel homebrew kit is essentially a smaller version of our commercial kit, and we still use it to test new recipes. Our brewhouse is 10HL, which, with our currently available fermenting and conditioning capacity, gives us an annual capacity of approximately 1,300HL. We own our own bottling line, so all of our packaging (whether in bottles or kegs) is done in-house.
Black Donkey Brewing’s first commercial beer was Sheep Stealer (which is a nod to the nickname given to Roscommon natives), brewed in July 2014. Richard and I both always loved Belgian style beers, particularly Saisons, a style brewed in the cooler months in farmhouses in Wallonia and provided to the seasonal workers ‘Saisonniers’ in the summer. When we opened in 2014, there were no domestic, and very few imported, Saisons available in Ireland. Rather than go head to head against the industrial brands and producing more of the same old stuff, we decided to produce Ireland’s first Saison, Sheep Stealer. We were advised that a Saison would never sell in Ireland, so we called it an Irish Farmhouse Ale. It is now our biggest selling bottled product and has been exported as far as Russia and the USA.
My favourite brew to date is ‘Underworld’. Not only because it is a delicious beer, but also because it is truly unique and local to Roscommon. Underworld was the result of our project called ‘Wild Yeast Chase’ and allowed us to get really inventive. In conjunction with IT Tallaght and Enterprise Ireland, we isolated strains of yeast from Oweynagat Cave, the Hellsmouth of Ireland and part of the Rathcroghan heritage site in east Roscommon. It is believed to be the site of the original Samhain festival, better known in modern times as Halloween. On Halloween 2017, we gathered yeast samples from the cave and its environs. These samples went to IT Tallaght where they were isolated, purified, and three yeast strains identified. The first viable yeast strain, which we call ‘Morrigan Strain #1’, is used in Underworld. We captured the entire project on video from a tongue-in-cheek Halloween skit, collecting the samples, the lab work, propagating the yeast in the brewery, the first pilot batch to the subsequent commercial batches. It was a lot of fun, and we now have several strains of yeast that we can use to create more unique recipes. We are looking to build on the success of Underworld by brewing a 100% native Irish beer using all local ingredients and by growing our own hops. Currently, we are working on a selection of barrel-aged beers using former Irish whiskey barrels, and our own wild yeast.
An important part of the business, which also takes up as much if not more time than production, is promotion and networking. We spend a large amount of time on the road working festivals and events which provides the opportunity to meet new customers. We have also had exports to Italy and the US, the Middle East, and Sweden. All these connections are built through constant networking and a lot of self-promotion. We are adding 330ml bottles to the range early in 2019 as a more export-friendly package format. We do intend to grow our EU export presence in 2019. However, our current focus is to build our presence in the west of the country. To this end, we have consciously reduced our presence outside Connaught, so that we can better focus on building our support base in our home community. We can develop closer relationships nearer to home and respond better to our customers’ needs. We want to be known primarily as a small, locally-focused producer of high-quality beer.
I believe you need to have another outlet with every career, whether it is a hobby, sport or even alternate career. It is important from both a professional and personal standpoint to be able to step away from your primary role. Starting a business has increased my skill set, adding managerial, financial, budgeting and promotional responsibilities, experiences that I would not necessarily have required in my IT roles to date. With a foot in two very different business realms, I can contribute and share a different perspective to both.
My advice to anyone who wants to take up craft brewing is to first realise that the brewing is the easy part, running a business is not so straightforward. It will require a lot of work and a sizeable investment for very little initial reward. The domestic craft beer market is very different from the one we entered only 4 ½ years ago. It is increasingly competitive and busy. Consumers now are often spoiled for choice; quality and originality are paramount. That being said, the independent brewing community in Ireland is fantastic, very supportive and interactive. While doing the seemingly endless rounds of beer festivals can be hard work, it’s also a great opportunity to catch up with colleagues. And at the end of the day, there’s always a couple of beers.
Be sure to check out the Black Donkey Brewing website through the following link: