A few years back, Bart Adons noticed that the average age of his veterinary customers was getting older every year. Few young people opt to run a small farm these days, because they’re competing with big national or global agribusiness companies and they can’t make a profit from a small holding. Adons decided his days as a vet were numbered, and with a fellow local vet called Cillian O’Mórain, Adons decided to diversify and make his and O’Moráin’s brewing hobby into a business, Mescan Brewery.
The West of Ireland
Originally from Belgium, Adons has been living in the West of Ireland, on the lower slopes of Croagh Patrick on Clew Bay. When Shane Orr from Austin Brewery Tours comes to visit me in Westport, and on the off-chance that someone’s at work in the Mescan Brewery yard, we drive a few miles out of Westport along the south coast of Clew Bay and park up close to the brewery. In reality, the brewery is nothing more than a converted shed with a few steel shipping containers stacked in the yard. We walk towards the lane to see if there’s a brew on the go, pausing to read the sign at the top of the lane: No private tours except by appointment. We stroll down the laneway: we only want a photo. A car whizzes past us and swings into the yard, and a man bounds out with his wife. We’re standing sheepishly at the gate. “That’s a tour,” says Shane, and we move into the yard towards Adons, who is greeting his small tour and glaring at us. Five minutes later, after a bemused Bart Adons wonders aloud if we can’t read English, we have a glass of beer in our hands, and Adons is launching into the story of his brewery.
The Mescan Brewery
He’s brewing today, and his young co-worker Adam Meets takes over while Adons shows us around. The man getting the tour is a professor at Trinity College, and he’s full of questions. His wife is a vet who tells me later that she persuaded a reluctant Adons to give them a tour that day, though he’d tried to steer them towards the end of the week. Now Adons has the prof and his wife on his hands, along with us.
“So – what’s the most important thing that goes into the beer?” she asks. “Water!” says Adons, with a grin. In a shed off to the side of the brewing hall there’s an impressive-looking piece of machinery that draws water from the well below and filters out the manganese. The brewery is on the lower slopes of Croagh Patrick, an iconic cone-shaped mountain that anchors Clew Bay, and there was no way that the mountain wouldn’t figure in the brewery’s make-up.
“We were going to call it Holy Mountain Brewery at first,” says Adons. “I’m glad it didn’t work out, in a way.” A US company bought the rights to the name Holy Mountain Brewery, and left Adons looking for another name. A legend tells that St Patrick, Ireland’s national saint and the man who the mountain is named for, had a brewer among his supporters, whose name was Mescan. By now, Adons is in full flow, hauling out a bag of malted barley from Cork, where Jameson has plugged away as the last surviving distillery in Ireland since the 1920s.
Adons is Belgian, and Mescan is bottled into the squat Belgian bottles familiar to drinkers of Chimay and Duval. Adons partner Killian O’Morain is also a vet, and another fan of Belgian beers. So unlike most Irish craft breweries, the IPA is not the first offering. Instead it’s Mescan Blonde. While Adons goes off to find a bag of hops, we finish the Mescan Blonde. “That’s bottle conditioned,” says Adons as he arrives back. “So it takes us a bit longer to brew it.” Adons offers another round of beers, and this time it’s Mescan Saison. Mescan also brews a Red Tripel, a white beer and Westport Stout.
Craft brewers in Ireland take wildly different approaches to getting their product to market. For a lot of craft breweries, it’s about expansion, distribution and getting into overseas markets, particularly in Europe. Many of the west coast breweries – such as Kinnegar – are slowly establishing distribution in mainland Europe, the great market to the east.
Adons says that they sell 90 percent of their beer in a 20km radius from the brewery, with another few bottles go to Dublin or Galway. He does most of the distribution himself. The professor wants to know if the brewery is making money. Adons says he’s ticking along. He’s not ready to expand at a rate faster than his quality control can manage. It’s likely that the local market is already catered for. In the brewshed, there’s a short list of 5-star hotels around the country that look like they’ve requested delivery of Mescan. They’re careful where they let their beers get to.
Many a craft brewer is caught between continuing to drive a quality product, or selling to a bigger brewer who wants to get its hands not just on the craft beer quality but the discerning customer who will pay a bit extra to guarantee that small brewers stay in business and turn a profit. The small town of Westport earns a bit of kudos by dint of the fact that it’s the closest town to the Mescan brewery. It’s not hard to see why a bigger brewery would snap up a Mescan-type operation.
We finish our beers. Adons has been courteous but now he looks like he’s glad to see the back of us. When we turn to leave, he looks thrilled to be getting back into the brew room.
Article contributed by Dr. Ronan Lynch