IT’S A far cry from the world of European finance to the buzz of the brewery, but Maeve Sheridan has made the change with ease. She left behind her day job in banking in Luxembourg to go into business with her brother, Michael Eustace, a civil engineer by profession.
Today, along with Bridger Kelleher their brewer, the trio at Western Herd is brewing up a storm, with more craft beers than ever and a newly-refurbished and extended premises in Kilcloher.
Like hundreds of small family businesses the length and breath of Ireland, Western Herd came up against unprecedented obstacles during the pandemic. With most of their sales being through pubs and restaurants, prospects looked bleak until the natural drive to adapt and innovate kicked in.
The siblings are no strangers to innovation, both of them having changed careers radically to set up Western Herd. When the recession hit, Michael turned to managing a busy Dublin bar. Always a keen home brewer, he dived into the market research and spotted the potential in the craft beer sector.
Maeve, meanwhile, spent several years working in Luxembourg after her job in finance in Dublin was outsourced. With her expertise in European beers and business, she was ideally placed for a role in marketing and development.
Lockdown saw the company faced with stark choices and challenges they decided to embrace.
“In the first lockdown, we were facing the fact that 90% of our sales in Clare were on draft, and suddenly that was gone,” Maeve said. “We looked at our online sales, but all of our beers were in bottles and those don’t tend to travel that well. Then, we discovered a mobile canning company in Mullingar. They’re amazing and they’ve won a National Enterprise Award for what they do. The canning process has freed us up hugely.
“The mobile unit can empty three tanks in two days. When we were bottling, it would take three to do it. The mobile canning team just came down to us at the brewery and hooked up their equipment and so we had our beer in cans and could start developing our off-licence sales. Once we knew we could get our beer canned, we were able to get a national distributor for Western Herd and that has been a huge success.”
The company is also sending out “a strong sustainability message”, in Maeve’s view. “The beer lasts longer in cans because no light gets in.”
The spirit of innovation is also apparent in Western Herd’s range of new beers. As well as presenting challenges, the pandemic provided the breathing space to develop and explore. One of the new beers, Flora and Fauna, is already an award winner, being crowned Irish Beer of the Year for 2022. “It’s really popular,” Maeve said.
“As soon as it’s ready, it’s gone. Developing new beers was something we had wanted to do for a long time, but we just didn’t have it. We had 30 litres which we brought to McHugh’s Bar and we were soon struggling to keep up with demand. It’s a niche product and, in a way, it’s two beers in one. After we launched it, it just flew out the door. We said we would go for a West Coast US-style double IPA. The Burren was our inspiration and that now has a cult following.”
Another hugely popular beer is Western’s Herd’s Loop Head pilsner. “A pilsner takes twice as long to ferment as an ale,” Maeve said. “The lockdowns gave us the chance to develop this beer.” The can, with its image of the iconic lighthouse, won a design award.
“That was designed by Emmet Mullins, Michael’s sister-in-law’s husband,” she said. “He runs a design company, Brandish, in Dublin and he’s great at what he does.”
The wave of popularity of craft beers has given another boost to Western Herd. “Some of our beers have a bit of a cult following at this stage,” Maeve added.
“There are WhatsApp and Twitter groups talking about different beers. There’s rumours that people are even hoarding some of them. You can’t beat human nature.”
Western Herd has also inspired home brewers, particularly during lockdown.
“We ran a virtual home brewing event and it became very competitive,” Maeve said. “Some people were working on sourdough baking, but others were brewing their own beer. When you look back now, it’s just incredible to think you’d ever been involved in an online beer festival. I suppose that sense of creativity helped us developed more niche beers. One was with New Zealand hops that came from a place that is actually the antipode [geographical opposite] of Kilmaley. That was as real experiment and to be honest, that beer wasn’t great flavour-wise.
“When it comes to product development, we’ve seen that beer follows fashion and styles. There’s quite a bit of geeky stuff and we’ve really enjoyed collaborating with brands like JJ Corry Irish Whiskey in Cooraclare. We also did a collaboration with another whiskey makers, who seasoned their cases with Flora and Fauna.
“We worked together to put a beer finish on the whiskey and a whiskey finish on the beer. Craft beer drinkers appreciate something new. We loved making bespoke beers for the Hallowe’en and for the Ennis Food Festival.”
— Bridger Kelleher (@brjrklhr) November 22, 2022
Not only did the company survive the pandemic, Western Herd has recently expanded its operations, thanks to the support of the Local Enterprise Office (LEO). “We were knocking on the door of Padraic’s [McElwee] and his team and thanks to grant support, we’ve been been able to increase our output from 1,600 litres to 3,200 litres,” said Maeve.
“The challenge now is to maintain our sales. We are also working on our draft business. For some restaurant and smaller bars, we can supply bespoke kegs, but it’s safe to say that the lockdowns completely changed our business model.”
The refurbishment works were overseen by Michael, who was building a house at the same time. “He really set himself a challenge,” said Maeve. “We had all sorts of things to content with like the supply and coast of labour and materials. It’s all very high grade and we did a proper job.”
After reopening the brewery in September, the team has been rushed off their feet and a formal opening has not yet happened.
“We talked about doing something formal,” Maeve said. “But we’ve been so busy focusing on cash flow and we just had to get back into business. Bridger loves the new brewery. He has been freed up to focus more on the process of brewing. Up to now, we’d all be very involved in things like packing and of course, we could still get a call on a Saturday afternoon from someone looking to re-stock.”
While the outlook is very positive, Maeve still has an eye of the coming challenges and the need to keep upskilling. “Things have been so challenging for the pub trade and people still haven’t put all their taps back on, so there’s still a lot of uncertainty there,” she noted. “That end of our business has been slow to come back, but we haven’t pushed it. We have twice as much beer to sell now, so we’re starting from scratch in one sense.”
Thanks to LEO support, Western Herd has a new website. “I’m still learning about that,” said Maeve.
“It’s a great platform for our range of different beers, but there’s a learning curve. The LEO has Digital Clare and Lean production training, so that will be very beneficial. Social media is so important for us. Once details of a beer are posted, people are looking for it and they’re very on the ball. We have great customers. They’ve nearly become our friends at this stage.”
— CorkBeerTweets (@CorkBeer) November 20, 2022
When asked what her typical day involves, Maeve confessed that there isn’t one. “Every day is different and there’s a lot of variety,” she said.
“There’s long hours, but there’s a lot of flexibility too. We all have small kids and we could be working once they’re in bed until 10pm or later. On the other side of the coin, we can take time and be available for the kids when they need us. The variety keeps us entertained, I suppose.
“For so many people, the nine to five is kind of gone anyway. Our working lives has been all over the place during the pandemic and In all of this, Bridger has been amazing because during lockdown at those times when we weren’t brewing, he was here cleaning and painting. He’s on site at 6am when brewing is underway. Even though he’s from Montana, he’s really an adopted Clare man at this stage.”
Adaptability and innovation have served the company well and there is no sense that will change any time soon. “We have something of a challenge set for ourself in that we’re nearly starting again from scratch,” said Maeve, “but it’s all that variety that keeps us entertained.”
Fiona McGarry joined The Clare Champion as a reporter after a four-year stint as producer of Morning Focus on Clare FM. Prior to that she worked for various radio, print and online titles, including Newstalk, Maximum Media and The Tuam Herald.
Fiona’s media career began in her native Mayo when she joined Midwest Radio. She is the maker of a number of radio documentaries, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). She has also availed of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on development issues supported by Irish Aid in Haiti.
She won a Justice Media Award for a short radio series on the work of Bedford Row Project, which supports prisoners and families in the Mid-West. Fiona also teaches on the Journalism programmes at The University of Galway.
If you have a story and would like to get in touch with Fiona you can email her at [email protected] or telephone 065 6864146.