Kilkenny's ale from beyond the Pale
Costello's Brewing Company is restoring Kilkenny's proud tradition of brewing the best of ales
Gerald Costello of Costellos Brewing Company in Kilkenny is on a mission to re-establish the city's traditional brewing reputation. With the closure of the historic St. Francis Abbey brewery in the city in 2013, and Smithwicks production thereafter relocated to Diageo's Dublin site, Gerald found himself lamenting the loss of the local craft.
For years, brewing had been a passion of Gerald's, which grew, he explains 'out of necessity.'
"I have been brewing for the guts of 20 years at this stage," Gerald says. "I started back in college; rag week was coming up and we had no money, but we wanted to drink beer for the week, so it was the cheapest way to get our hands on it," he laughs.
"We put in about a tenner each between four of us and we got a couple of home brew kits and managed to produce about 80 pints of beer for the 40 quid, so we were quite happy."
From this point on Gerald fell in love with the craft of brewing; however, it was to be a number of years before he would pursue this passion professionally.
"I studied business and I trained as a chartered accountant for a few years, but I left that as soon as the training contract was up," Gerald explains. "I knew that it wasn't quite for me, so I went back to college again in Galway and I did a master's in e-commerce there. Then I met my wife and moved to Kilkenny in 2007.
"The recession was taking hold at the time and I got a job in a refrigeration company, REL (Refrigerated Engineering Ltd), that was in a bit of bother," he adds.
"They had winding-up orders and all of that posted on them, and being an accountant, they needed somebody like me; so we put the business through examinership and came out the other end, and through somebody I had met there I then got a contact for somebody else in Kilkenny, who was looking for an accountant in the bathroom-fixtures industry. I stayed there for about five or six years and I learned a lot. During that time Costellos Brewing Company was in the planning stages."
After years of research and painstaking financial planning, Costellos Brewing Company was finally launched in August 2014.
"It's very challenging, but the reaction has been great so far," Gerald explains. "Myself and my wife grow a lot of our own food and buy locally where we can, and I think many people are like that these days. You want to buy locally when the opportunity is there."
Gerald has found that this policy of supporting local businesses and products has been a huge driving force behind the market for Costellos.
"Kilkenny has a reputation globally for being a brewing centre of excellence and for good reason," Gerald says. "We are probably considered the home of Irish red ale, but at the same time there is no brewery in Kilkenny any more. Yet there are brands out there trading on that tradition of Kilkenny's brewery heritage. So people really appreciate what we are doing and the fact that we are local.
"You can't be considered a global centre of excellence in brewing when there isn't a sinner in town who can brew beer and that was a big driver in us setting it up," Gerald says. "The support has been brilliant. We built a little tasting room at home out of an old stable and we get guys out and stick on a brew and people love it, the smell reminds them of their youth because you used to smell the hops when you were in Kilkenny; people grew up with that, so there is a real emotional connection there.
"Kilkenny is synonymous with red ale and that all boils down to the water make up, the mineral contents and the acidity of the water - your primary ingredient in brewing," says Gerald. "So we felt it needed to be a red ale; Costellos is our take on what Kilkenny wants to drink."
Costellos is even made from ingredients with the potential to be grown in Kilkenny, which could, in time, restore the demand for crops not considered economically viable for local farmers in recent years.
"Kilkenny was the last county in Ireland to grow hops and sell them commercially, so there would have been a thriving hops industry in Kilkenny, and the two hops that we now use have the potential to be grown in Kilkenny," Gerald explains.
It took approximately five years for Gerald to get Costellos Brewing Company off the ground, and there were times he feared being blown out of the water before he had a chance to begin.
"Diageo never made any secret of the fact that they were leaving Kilkenny and that they were going to close the brewery and go back to James' Gate; so one of the fears I had at first was that we weren't going to be quick enough and that others were going to open up in Kilkenny, but that didn't happen," he says.
However, this event did provide Gerald the gentle push he needed to finally launch Costellos.
"It is a challenging industry, but it is a valuable industry," Gerald adds. "It's highly competitive in terms of tap space and promotions and all of that stuff, but we have had a great reaction. Everybody is interested in what our plans are for the future and wishing us all of the best with them."
Over the next few months Gerald hopes to establish the Costellos' own brewery in Kilkenny city as their brewing is currently taking place in a facility in Kildare.
"We are looking for premises in the city centre and we hope to have the brewery up and running for the first quarter of 2016," Gerald says. "Up until August we had only ever put beer through draft systems and had it for sale in pubs through draft, but now we have bottles also."
Gerald's background has been an invaluable asset throughout both the planning stages and now in the day-to-day running of Costellos.
"My financial background really helped in the research stage because my natural instinct on how to research the industry was to have a look at the people who were already in it, to see what they're doing and if it is actually paying off," Gerald explains.
"So I knew how to get everyone's accounts and look at them and see what level of investment they had in it, what their business model was, because you could read it in their financial statements.
"I could see what they were making, what was the bottom line; were they making money or losing it hand over fist, and why? That sort of analysis really helped.
"Throughout all of that we identified a business model that worked at a manageable investment level for us and that is how we hit on both how we should launch the business and what sort of beers we should produce," he adds.
"That was a really practical guide and meant that it is not just a blind love of beer that has us in the industry, it is first and foremost a commercial enterprise, otherwise we wouldn't be doing it. We feel that the potential is there in Kilkenny for it to work and if it works in Kilkenny then there is potential beyond that."
Costellos is currently funded by Gerald and his wife's personal savings, but they hope to secure bank funding for the new brewery.
"We've had huge help from Kilkenny Leader Partnership," Gerald says. "They gave us a dig-out on getting all of the feasibility studies done. There is a lot out there as regards research on national and international markets, but there wasn't a lot on a localised basis in Kilkenny before we did those studies, and Kilkenny has pretty unique tastes in beer.
Nationally, a red ale would be 5pc of the draft beer consumed on a national basis, but in Kilkenny it's about 35pc. So we really are the home of Irish red ale.
"The Local Enterprise office has been great as well," Gerald adds.
"I have my financial background, so on that front we are not too bad, but when it comes to marketing and digital marketing it is great to get a bit of help. That has been invaluable, particularly to realise you are not on your own and you do have somebody to turn to."
Gerald's favourite part of the business is 'brew day.' "When you are running the business, maybe 10pc of the time is actually spent brewing and 90pc of the time is spent chasing everything else because it's fairly hectic, but I love brew day," he says.
"It's really calming, you can't rush it; you have to boil or you have to mash for an hour and 15 minutes and then you just need to wait and taste the other beers, so it's nice to have that balance."
Follow Costellos Brewing Company on Twitter @CostellosBrewCo
Sunday Indo Business