I ask Séamus: “What’s your view on the peak milk debacle?”
Best clear the air, I think.
“Ahem – Séamus – I was one of those suits!”
To which I get the customary dig: “Agh, another one costing me cents on my milk cheque!”
We laugh, but there is a serious undertone nonetheless. Farming alone is increasingly less able to support a family. Some farmers diversify because they want to, but some because they have to.
For Séamus, it’s telling the story of who they are: a 100% independent, family-run farm and brewery, just over the Louth border in Co Monaghan – that is what differentiates them.
The couple have four daughters (also one of their brands): Ellen is a doctor, Ruth a physiotherapist, Cáit a teacher and Bella:
“She is above in bed,” Séamus laughs. “She’s just finished college, but I think she’s going to do a doctorate or something. Siobhan would tell you our biggest fear was if we could afford to put them through college.”
Siobhan herself is special needs assistant. She took a couple of years out when they started the brewery, but when they took on expertise in sales she said: “Right. I’ll go back to school.”
“The milk price did stabilise, but it went to 20-21c at one stage, which is very close to the price of production. I’m milking 120 and happy at this number. If I were to go up to 200 – did I mention the suits before? – I’d have to be answering to them.”
With that, I sense a theme of good banter will be the order of this interview, and so it was.
First up is the history lesson – well, the history according to Séamus and a large number of tourists that have visited the brewhouse, or heard Séamus tell his stories in the US.
“After the Brehon Laws, every county in Ireland had a chieftain. We’re McMahons, chieftains of Monaghan, you had O’Reillys of Cavan, McGuires of Fermanagh, O’Neills of Tyrone and O’Donnells of Donegal,” he explains.
“Under Brehon Law, every chieftain- (or Brehon-) controlled area would’ve had a brewery or distillery open 24 hours. It was dispensed to clansman and travellers, so that’s what we do, dispense to anybody who wants to come for a drink.” A wide smile spreads across his face.
With suspicious eyes?
The McMahons were out with an English couple one night who “came in with an armful of craft beer,” Séamus says. “As the night went on, we fell in love with it.”
Research followed and they presented their business plan to the local enterprise office (LEO).
“It was Celtic Tiger meltdown time and they were basically looking for anything that would show shoots of enterprise,” he says. “We sat around the table – the bank on one side, LEO on the other – with customs and excise at the far end. We put our cards on the table to see what it was going to cost to produce and have everyone on board.”
The big question for customs was: “What’s the bond going to be?”
Why the suspicion? Irish Country Living queries innocently.
“The bond is an invisible line in the yard, where the beer can’t pass without paying duty,” he explains. “Duty is paid on what you sell. You could wash it [diesel] and get any colour you want then – that was rampant around here – so they [customs] thought this was going to be a glorified washing plant,” Séamus reflects.
The American story
A few years back, the Brehon Brewhouse got into the Epcot festival in Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. “Epcot would be a massive beer and food festival, and we represented Ireland,” he says. “We have a tap in Finnegan’s bar in Universal Studios, and also in Raglan Road in Disney springs. We had a good few taps pouring in Orlando and Tampa, but they wanted your life. It was grand a couple of times but it’s hard work [being out there] and the novelty wears off big time.
An American tale
“So, we were wheeled in (to Disney), checked for bombs and we headed down this long corridor, through security, into the bowels of Disney, into a wee room,” he reminisces. “There was a couple of lads lying back on the coach. ‘So you guys are Brehon from Ireland?’ I says, ‘Yea, I’m Séamus and this is Rúairí,’ and he says, ‘Yeah, well, we’re Disney and we like stories.’
“So I stood up and told them our story. As I was talking, Rúairí was opening bottles, giving them the brown bread we cooked the night before in Tampa and the Kerrygold butter. We told them what was in it, along with this that and the other. The he says, ‘Jeez, this is good beer,’ called his secretary and says, ‘I want three of their taps in Epcot.’ She replies, ‘There’s no room for three taps’.
“‘Well, I want three taps.’
“As he was going out the door, he says to me, ‘That’s great beer, they are great stories, but to be honest with you, Séamus, I shouldn’t be drinking, I’m on the chemo tablets.’ I didn’t know what to say, but we got three taps.”
Siobhan is in charge of the brewery tours. There are 22 groups booked in this year – same as last year, before everything was cancelled due to COVID-19. Séamus is confident that they will return.
“Tour groups might be going to Belfast or Dublin and stop here on their way. We do a full tasting, meet and greet, tell them about the McMahons and Brehon Law. We go through the full brewing process and show them around the dairy, if they’d like. We take them then [to Séamus’s childhood home which is converted to a bar and tasting rooms] to do the tastings.
“There’s a few bob in it with a bus load of them, but if there’s just a few it’s can be a pain in the arse,” he quips.
Laughter lines and lines of beer
Admittedly, COVID-19 has robbed us of a good laugh and our visit to the Brehon Brewhouse was an antidote.
If you get the chance to visit, make sure to ask Séamus about his “light and bright” grandparents, Fanny and Dick; two great horses; and the nephew who has “gone to the dark side.”
Séamus told us the Brehon and family stories “go down very well in America”.
But I’d say it could be the way you tell it, Séamus.
COVID-19 was good to Brehon Brewhouse, with sales increasing, but Brexit has majorly increased the price of materials such as cardboard, glass, caps and gas.
Competition, Séamus says, was fierce during lockdown. With no pubs open, everyone was clambering for supermarket shelves. There was money in kegs, but you must have a draw. He says: “If you got a pint of Brehon and it had been sitting in the tap for week, it doesn’t represent the quality of a fresh pint.”
He would welcome minimum pricing if “it was put at the right fecking height. We’re competing against the slabs of Heineken, Guinness and Hop House that have a huge marketing budget. There are a lot of [larger] brewers going under the pretence of being nice, cosy, small craft brewers, too.”
“We don’t rush it,” he says. “When you ask me what’s in beer, there’s hops, there’s malt, there’s water, there’s yeast and there’s a lot of time. This is what differentiates the craft beer from the big guys.
“I’m not a hippy like those guys with the ‘stache, ‘I’m getting notes of raspberries there... I’m getting raspberries, too... We’re all getting raspberries,’ and there’s no raspberries in it. I am fanatical about getting quality out, pushing it on, but I’m by no means a beer nerd. I treat it as a business.”
Listings early on were achieved with “hard work and a lot of bullshit”. But he admits: “I hadn’t the infrastructure or the team around me to keep all the balls in the air. I thought once they were in the warehouse, brilliant, lie back, but this wasn’t the case. Our biggest obstacle has been domestic distribution. Moving boxes from Monaghan to the rest of the country has been a problem and has hindered our national brand recognition.”
A canning plant will be the next major purchase, if they can continue to expand. Cans are costing 40c each. There is a move towards aluminium as it is easier to recycle and preferred to the weight of a bottle, which means less energy to recycle them.
To support expansion, an import company was set up in America, which means they can now bring in other craft beers or spirits, reducing costs.
“We secured start-up grants from LEO Monaghan, as well as substantial investment from ourselves,” Séamus says. “Development of the business has been organised in a phased way so as to not incur many loans. [We also obtained] a LEADER grant for the bottling plant.”
The Brehon Brewhouse is making a return. Loans have been paid. Séamus explains, “when milk prices went up, it gave us time to breathe and the chance to make mistakes. If we hadn’t the farm back up, we probably would be gone out of business. Any profits we got for the first few years, we didn’t take any wages out of it whatsoever, we just paid everybody and reinvested.
Advice for others
“Be well informed as to what you want to achieve,” he finishes. “Running a business is demanding. Running a dairy farm is also demanding. Running both needs planning; your time is essential. Use of outside expertise is essential. You can’t do this on your own.”