Bart Odons and Cillian Ó Móráin of Mescan Brewery are doing things their own unique way
What do you get when two vets meet up for a few drinks over Christmas to complain about the direction their lives have taken? You get a brewery specialising in Belgian beer, of course. “I always tell people it’s the result of a poorly executed midlife crisis. Myself and Bart Adons have been friends for over 25 years and at the time, we were both in veterinary practice in Westport. Mescan Brewery was born one night when Bart was lamenting the lack of sleep he’d had the previous evening due to another possibly unnecessary nightcall. We may have had a beverage or two during this conversation. Bart is very much a man of action and said at some point, we can complain about this all we want or we can do something different. We were both ready for a change; the next step was figuring out what we wanted to do,” said Cillian Ó Móráin, brewer at Mescan Brewery.
The idea of starting a brewery was, says Cillian, discussed in great depth and at length for about 30 seconds. In 2010, the notion of setting up a brewery was a novel one. “There were about 10 micro-breweries in the country at the time. Being Belgian, Bart came from a country where there were a couple of hundred microbreweries. Belgian beer is very much a mainstream interest in Belgium and I had been over there many times with Bart and become very fond of it. Both of us had homebrew experience from when we were teenagers, so we both had an interest, both socially and scientifically, in the process.” That night, Bart and Cillian decided that within five years, they would both have left their jobs and started a microbrewery.
That evening, Bart went home and welded up their first brewery. A course on old grain brewing followed and it wasn’t long before the pair began brewing themselves. “We did three years of weekly brews In my garage. In 2013, we converted a building on Bart’s farm to serve as our brew building and sold our first beer that year. We ended up beating our five-year deadline.” While the pair were having their epiphany about leaving their jobs and starting a brewery, several other people were having the same idea. “By the time we opened three years later, there were 30 micro-breweries in Ireland and now, there are well over 100.” The rapid proliferation of micro-breweries isn’t something that fazes either Bart or Cillian. “We’ve made our own niche, not as a strategy but just because Belgian beer is our thing. That’s what we’re interested in. We tend to plough our own furrow, so we’re not watching what other breweries are doing and we’re not worrying about what the public might be interested in next. We’re doing what we want to do and thankfully, there are enough people out there that like what we’re doing.” Mescan Brewery has never made an IPA and never will. “We also don’t release a new beer every month. We have a really slow, traditional process; it takes a minimum of three months between the beer being brewed and offered for sale and that’s because we believe it takes that time to do it right. We’re stubborn about that and although commercially, it doesn’t make much sense, we think that the quality of the product is reflected in the time that goes into making it.” A beer that doesn’t reach the criteria set by Cillian and Bart doesn’t get released. “It’s a rare event but it has happened in the past. If you’re not prepared when the need arises to say, that isn’t good enough, then you shouldn’t be doing this job. We stand or fall on the quality of our product.”
A move to a new premises may be on the cards in the near future. Mescan still brews on its original set of brewing equipment, a scaled up version of the first 50 litre brewery that Bart made that first weekend. “It’s made from converted milk tanks that we bought off our farm clients when we were still working as vets. We built a frame for it and welded it, the whole thing is completely homemade. It makes perfectly good beer but it’s a very manual process.” As the brewery grows, staff numbers will have to increase. “It’s difficult to train people up on that system, so we’ve ordered a new brew house, which will arrive in six months to a year. Ideally, we’d like to have moved before that arrives, possibly to a site closer to Westport.” The current brewing system can brew 1000 litres at a time; the new brewhouse will do 2,500 litres in two thirds of the time. “At the moment, we do double brews in one day. We’d start at 6am and wouldn’t get home until 11pm. With the new set-up, we’ll be able to brew four times the volume in less time than it takes us to do a double brew now. That’s a very exciting thought.”
One of the biggest changes for Mescan Brewery since it began operating was adding draught beer to its offering. “For the first five or six years, we were solely a bottle brewery. About three years ago, we started thinking about going into draft in a limited way. We wrote a recipe for a dry hopped lager, which was a departure for us. It’s very well matured; we lager it for four months before kegging. We initially brewed it as a as a one-off brew, but it was so popular that it became part of the stable. Once we started presenting is in keg form, it really took off.” Having recognised the opportunities in draft beer, the brewery is gearing up for growth in that area over the coming years.
For Mescan, Covid meant the cancellation of events and the shelving of its beer tours. It also meant a dip in sales traditionally made in restaurants and pubs. “Our beer isn’t really a skulling down type of beer. A lot of our beers are higher alcohol, with a strong flavour profile that are ideal for sipping or for enjoying with food. Quite a lot of our customers were in the restaurant and hotel sector so during lockdown, we lost that revenue stream. Like everybody else, we moved online as much as possible and thanks to the generosity and loyalty of the public, that kept us going.” A few false starts with different distribution models led to Mescan signing up with ABCD about three years ago. “That’s been a very successful partnership. For the first time, we’re properly available nationwide, although we still have a bit of work to do when it comes to letting the nation know we’re here.”
As the hospitality industry recovers, events resume and the new brew house arrives, Cillian and Bart will continue to do things their way. “Our beers aren’t cheap; we’re possibly the most expensive brewery in the country. But we produce excellent quality beer and we’re proud of what we produce.”