Black Donkey – Bottling passion in Ballinlough

Last Monday, I reluctantly left the excitement of the office behind and made my way to Black Donkey Brewery in Ballinlough with photographer, Andrew Fox. It’s a tough job but someone’s gotta do it!

  We were met at the brewery by owner, Richard Siberry, and brew expert, Glenn Reid.

  “This is the house that beer built,” chuckled Richard, before he explained how they had installed cold rooms and other equipment themselves in order to keep costs down.

  It’s certainly an impressive set-up with vats and fermenters neatly positioned alongside a cold room and bottling line. One of the vats is currently in use as Richard and Glenn brew a double batch in the run-up to Christmas. This ‘vat’ is actually called a kettle and is where the beer wort is boiled with hops. The kettle is situated beside another ‘vat’ known as a mash tun. This is where the sugar is extracted from the barley. The leftover barley is then given to a local farmer to feed his cattle, just one of the many recyclable elements to the Black Donkey brewing process.

  “From kettle to cattle,” I quip. The lads are too busy checking temperatures and other readings to laugh, I tell myself.

  Richard wasn’t always in the brewing game, he says: “I’ve been a photographer, filmmaker, a commercial fisherman, a tree surgeon. Home brewing started as a hobby in New York where I met a woman from Castlerea. When it was time to go home we came to Roscommon, which was fine with me!”

  Richard’s accent doesn’t give away the fact that he’s originally from Drogheda in Co. Louth. The ‘”woman from Castlerea” is his wife, Michaela Dillon, who runs the company alongside her husband.

  Richard had left Ireland in the late 1980s and could never believe the lack of variety when it came to beer on his frequent visits home.

  “I could never understand when I went back to the US, where breweries were popping up all over the place, why this wasn’t happening in Ireland,” he says.

  The couple opened their doors in 2014 and have since added Glenn and Jacob Mole to the mix. Dubliner Glenn doesn’t have much time to chat as he deftly moves from kettle to mash tun supervising the process.

  Meanwhile, Richard tells us about a typical brew day: “We start at 8 am and finish at about 4.20 pm. When we first started we would be here until about 8 in the evening, but we’ve streamlined the process,” he says. Starting out there was plenty of trial and error as the company fine-tuned their brew day routine. Nowadays Richard and his staff move from process to process like a team of beer-making ninjas.

  It’s enjoyable to watch the Black Donkey crew at work and they clearly have a deep passion for their craft. However, Ballinlough’s microbrewery faces stiff international competition, as Richard explains.

  “What it takes us a year to do, it takes Guinness four hours! We see the likes of Heineken and Diageo as our biggest rivals,” he says, before highlighting a potential opportunity for breweries like his own: “There is a Bill, which Alan Kelly introduced, being introduced hopefully (in the Dáil) to create a license for microbreweries to sell their own beer on their premises to visitors or tour groups.”

  Frustratingly, Black Donkey can’t even sell their own product in their own building as it stands, which is obviously a major disadvantage.

  Richard also feels that Ireland is missing out on potential tourism by not promoting ‘Beercations’ like those which are on offer in the United States and other countries.

  However, he did seem more upbeat when discussing the potential of his own business.

  “We didn’t reach lofty targets we had set for ourselves this year but we still grew,” he says. Later on in the conversation, he offers even more positive news: “By the end of 2017 we are hoping to have six full-time staff here.” It’s that kind of positive forward thinking that has Black Donkey thriving in Ballinlough in the first place.

  It comes time to leave as Richard and Glenn joke about having their picture taken with some of their products. Truthfully, we could have stayed there all day observing the fascinating process, which takes five to six weeks in all. There’s a pureness about it that can’t be found in the bigger breweries. These guys are passionate about what they do…and it’s a passion that can be bottled.