INTERVIEW: Adrienne Heslin takes us through opening the first female-owned Irish brewery

By Katy Thornton

March 8, 2023 at 10:13am

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Lovin were in for a special treat on the eve of International Women's Day.

On a sunny, but cold, Tuesday in mid March, we headed down to Suesey Street on Fitzwilliam Place to ring in the Irish Food Writers' Guild Awards.

It just so happened to take place the day before International Women's Day, and what better person to chat to than a female business owner. Adrienne Heslin became the first woman to own a micro-brewery in Ireland, to start the first micro-brewery in Kerry at all.

Adrienne started West Kerry Brewery, or Beoir Chorcha Dhuibhne, in 2008, at a particularly difficult time in Ireland. After years of running Tig Bhric, or Bric's Pub as it's often called, she realised there was a gap in the beer they offered; there was no local craft beer, and as someone with a background in cooking and crafting, Adrienne went about changing that.

Adrienne was incredibly warm and generous with her time as she sat down to talk to me about her experience starting a micro-brewery in Ireland, and we can't thank her enough for her insight and sharing her story with us and the Lovin readers.

Image via West Kerry Brewery Instagram via Tarmo Tulit Photography

You’ve just won the drink award for Béal Bán, did you ever think when you first started out that your brewery would be award-winning?

(Shaking head) No, no, not in a million, thousand, gazillion years did I ever think. I'm very grateful, very, very grateful.

How would you describe your award-winning Béal Bán beer to someone who hasn't tried it? What makes your beers different from all the rest?

I'll start with the Béal Ban. It's named after a beach down the road, and béal bán (white mouth) is referring to the colour of the beer. It's a golden ale, made predominantly from Irish barley and its real appeal is a broad one, even to the non-craft beer drinkers. Using our own water, you're getting biscuit and caramel in there. We also use English and American hops; the English are low alphas, they're very earthy and there's some pine going on but the American are bringing more citrus, a new world hop, to bring a refreshment. I think the appeal is that combination; it's a fine balance between caramel, bark and barley, there's a lovely combination of flavours there.

There's a massive connection between [the different beers] because we use the same yeast and the same water, which are massive in terms of your mouth feel. Where it departs is it's simply quite caramel, it's got a sweetness, the cascade is finely balanced.

We do have another beer, an IPA, Blue Rose, which is just full of American hop, less malt, so it doesn't have the mouth feel. Béal Bán has plenty of mouth feel and a nice refreshing taste.

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Image via West Kerry Brewery Instagram

 

The brewing industry would be considered to be a male-dominated one, did being the first woman to open a micro-brewery in Ireland present any major difficulties when you were starting out? Was there anything you expected/didn't expect?

To be honest, I think primarily being female in business is very difficult, that's a given. I'd go back further and say being female is difficult anyway, in Ireland. I was born in the 60s and you can imagine it's not plain sailing. Coming to brewing, I actually found the opposite because it's such a small industry. When I started I was introduced very quickly to the bigger micro-breweries and to my amazement they were just nothing but cooperative.

A down-side on the female end of things - it's amazing, you give a man a job, and suddenly everybody think he's in charge, so I find that a lot. In particular, I have a gentleman now who's wonderful and in charge of production, but they refer to him as the brewer, whereas he came in as an intern. I taught him everything.

Now, I feel he's better than I am, and I can say that, but at the same time you're like, hang on a second. You're constantly slightly on the back-foot, if that makes sense. I'm not giving out, I'm really not, I don't like to wave flags about feminism, it's just a reality. I'm in my 60th year this year, and life is nothing but challenges to be overcome.

West Kerry Brewery is the first female-owned brewery in Ireland - have you seen this as an opportunity or as a challenge?

In many ways, personally and business wise, it's been the making of me. The camaraderie from my fellow micro-brewers, and I'm part of an organisation called the Independent Craft Brewers of Ireland (ICBI) with about 32 members and we have the likes of Porterhouse Brewing Company, O'Hara's, Whitefield, Kinnegar, Dungarvan Brew Co, there's a tremendous camaraderie, which is a positive.

The micro-brewing industry in Ireland has exploded in recent years, have you found it more competitive? Is there more of an expectation to push more boundaries?

Naturally we're in competition with each other. As a micro-brewery you're up against big corporations, Diageo and Heineken, and they have the entire dispense industry of beer in Ireland sewn up. So we stand together and lots of us are connected to our communities so that's our primary focus, and the bigger companies do export.

So there is definitely competition but it's not the same magnitude that we face from the corporations.

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Do you feel like you all have your space that you occupy?

That would be my feeling. I'm very fortunate in that I have a pub, and I'm 30 years in the pub, so I have a platform and an outlet immediately. Other micro-breweries just a few years ago weren't allowed to sell their own product in the brewery unless it was wholesale.

We're slightly behind on facilitating our beer producers in the way that they are about cheese producers or our bakers. Government owns a percentage of your product, there's duty, VAT, and because the government has a vested interest, you've obstacles like bonds, duty bonds, insurance, guarantee bonds and such. That's another obstacle you won't get in another industry.

Did owning Tig Bhric spear head you to making your own beer?

My daughter Maud's father drowned when we were in Italy. Maud was only five and literally I came back to running the bar. And I hadn't really worked in the bar, but in 2008 I was in the kitchen cooking, cooking for the pub, all from scratch, everything had to be just so by me, and it was the connection between that matching your customer to what you would give them, and the joy of being able to provide a meal.

Then I have my own water. I'm not a bad cook. I could see the connection between the kitchen and a brewhouse. It made absolute sense to me. I didn't think it would be an obstacle, and the main thing that I was doing was getting people to come and stay in the bar. We're very fortunately on the Wild Atlantic Way, literally on the side of the road. All those Americans coming in the early 2000s, were asking what's your local beer, and there'd be Guinness and that's it. So that was a massive push as well. It was customer driven demand, it wasn't that I thought I was going to be a famous brewer, or a first of anything, I didn't know I was the first woman.

I was simply matching what my customer wanted, and trying to stay in business. It's 2008, countries going down the swanny, so. I didn't know there was a gap in the market, but there was a gap in my business, and you have to put food on the table for your little girl, so it was all about trying to stay in business.

2008 would have been a difficult time to start up anything. At the moment hospitality is facing a lot of issues, a significant amount of issues, there's been a lot of closures. Have you any advice to someone starting out in the industry now? Can you see the parallels between when you started and now?

I certainly can see the parallels, I even relate it back to the 1980s, I left school in 1980 at 17. You would not want to have seen Ireland in 1980, it was awful, pure grey, everything was grey. Even at 17 I recognised that. The advice I would give is always start small. Keep your finance borrowing very understated. Don't go big.

I think unfortunately during the Celtic Tiger perhaps we misled our younger people thinking credit was available, that there was always more money available than there actually is, so I think, start small. You must really believe in what you're doing, there's no wishy-washiness, you're either all in or just not. I do think though, working for yourself, like I couldn't work for anyone else. I don't think I ever have really other than summer jobs but if you don't have that drive, get a job. I love to see people in 9-5s, they have their weekends, there's a lot to be said in enjoying life. You've only got one.

You’re originally a sculptor - are there elements of sculpting that you find lent itself to brewing when you first started? Have there been elements of brewing that in turn have lent themselves to sculpting?

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I'm kind of geeky in a way, I just love taking things apart, and putting them together. Brewing is all pipes and pumps, tanks and stuff like that, I love the physical element of it, I love physical work. Anything to do with mashing in, mashing out, physically putting in the barley, physically adding the hops.

From a sculptural thing I get excited looking at shapes, any brewhouse looks this way. I like the look of rusty metal and all that stuff. The other side of it, I feel you either are an artist or you're not, you don't become one, you just are one. And even if you have lulls in producing art, you're still the same person. You're not an artist because other people say it's very good, it's in here (points to chest).

I know you love to garden and use botanicals when brewing, is there anything surprising that works really well and are there any that don’t work at all?

I don't know if I'd say that we've used anything that hasn't worked. The purpose of using botanicals is to connect the beer more closely to the locality, the exact location, and that's just a joy in itself. I find tremendous pride in it going to the bar counter at Brics, and then being sold to the likes of yourself.

I have this thing about the connection to our ground that we live on, and I think people that live in the country who are more into gardening really connect with the plants that they grow. I would take a little leap and say in Ireland, the most famous coloured beer is black because it's really full of body and nutrition. That's also driven by our climate, which is damp, dark, and windy. We need the nutrition from this black beer and we add blackberries and blackcurrants; their roots grow superficially and not down. They're very good for your respiratory system, and if you think about capillaries, there's a connection to blackberries; you could go really deep there if you want.

What does using the same yeast for all your beers achieve over using different yeasts for different beers?

It's the locality. We are looking into developing another lager, a cold lager, and we may use a different style of yeast for that, but the reason for it is that it's the identity of the beer is more important than the style. We're not replicating style, we're fashion makers, not followers.

We'd just like to thank Adrienne Heslin once again for talking to us, particularly on the eve of International Women's Day and sharing her craft and wealth of experience. Special thanks for myself personally as she was very kind about my terrible pronunciation of anything as Gaeilge. You can purchase West Kerry Brewery or Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne HERE or if you're ever in Dingle, make sure to check it out Adrienne's pub Tig Bhric, where it's also sold. 

Header image via Instagram/westkerrybrewery

READ ON: 10 of the best ways to celebrate Paddy's Day in Dublin this year

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