Founder of country's only charcoal company is fired up for sales drive
A love of outdoor cooking and a lucky meeting led to Irish Artisan Charcoal, writes Aine O'Connor
Once a year, a group of old friends meet in Co Galway, and it was at one such evening two years ago that an idea met an opportunity, and Ireland's first and only charcoal company was born.
Irish Artisan Charcoal, which made its debut at last week's Local Enterprise Village Ploughing 2017, is co-owned by Colin O'Loan.
O'Loan had studied science in what was then RTC Galway, but felt it wasn't for him. It was 1999, he had been accepted into the Garda but when he got the call to train in sales with Renault, he chose that and spent the next decade selling cars. "Then came the downturn and in 2009 myself and my wife were about four weeks back from our honeymoon and the garage closed."
Their first child was due in March 2010 and he went to work for a different car firm. "When you work all your life, you just want to get back out there. I did six or eight weeks in another dealership and it was real high-pressure selling and I had nightmares for about two years afterwards."
His wife, who was still working, encouraged O'Loan to relax and consider what he wanted to do. He took over caring for their baby and started working several evenings a week in Sheridan's Cheesemongers and Wine Bar in Galway. "It was nice and relaxing, and I was seeing all these fantastic cheeses and meats."
Meeting people who were running artisan businesses fed into an idea he had to make charcoal, something that no-one in Ireland was doing.
Each of the friends at the gathering had different interests - they brewed their own beer, one made his own sausages, another had a beehive, and one, Seamus O'Loughlin, was part of a co-op that owned some forest.
"Charcoal is basically just branches that are cooked," O'Loan says. "When you're managing a forest, you'll plant 10 trees and after four or five years, you cut out every second or third one. They're looking for straight trees with thick bodies to make planks and generally the cut trees are left to rot back into the ground. It's considered low-quality and for some reason people don't want to use it."
Seamus suggested this wood would be perfect for making charcoal. It was ash, which was ideal for his plan, as hardwood is suitable for charcoal. "You can't use soft wood or anything with resin, like elm or fir, because it gives a very nasty flavour." Within hard woods, there are differences, too, as different woods give different flavours and cooking times.
In November 2015, O'Loan and Seamus went to Devon, bringing ash branches from Seamus's farm in Limerick, to try making charcoal in a retort kiln. "If you imagine they're like a big thermos flask, there are two cylinders, an internal one stuffed full of timber and closed up tight. In the gap between the two cylinders you light a fire so that heats it up, but the fire never touches the timber."
Cooking the wood drives off all the moisture and volatile gases, one of which is methane. Worldwide the most common method to make charcoal is a ring kiln, which offers only 8-9pc efficiency and all of the methane goes into the atmosphere.
The retort kiln was different, it captured the methane that was being produced and rerouted it under the fire. "It means you no longer have to keep putting fresh timber in to burn off the gases because it starts to cook itself. It's a very scientific way of making charcoal, much more environmentally sound and it achieves 20pc efficiency, so for example if we put in 500kg of hardwood, we get 100kg of charcoal."
The charcoal they brought back was unlike any Colin had ever seen, "It lit instantly, no smoke. We knew it was really, really good, so we put a business plan together and approached the Local Enterprise Office (LEO). We needed a kiln which is about €20,000 and the size of a caravan, and to ship that home. We got a Micro Finance Ireland loan and since then we've gone from strength to strength."
He is full of praise for the LEO's assistance. "It absolutely couldn't have happened without Limerick LEO, they also helped set up the website, you order online we ship to your house two days later."
Colin knows he is fighting against the Irish tradition of barbecuing. "We think the sun has to be cracking the stones, that you have to be able to eat outside, with at least 28 people and it's no fun unless at least three kids get stung by wasps.
"But I'm a big fan of cooking outside all year round - the 365 barbecue. I did Christmas dinner on two barbecues last year, a goose on one and turkey on another and I fed four families. I even went for a swim while they were cooking!"
The company launched a new kind of barbecue, the Big Poppa Smoker, at last week's Ploughing event. "It's a really nice barbecue for cooking, similar to say the 57cm Webers and a bit quirky looking."
He had first built one for himself and used it when he was showcasing the charcoal. There was so much interest in the smoker that he got requests to sell them.
Now sole agent for the kits in Ireland Colin builds them using recycled food grade barrels which he has sandblasted to remove the paint, then seasoned with fire.
"We'll be selling them made up or if people are handy they can buy the kit," he says.
No trees are cut down for their charcoal and no animal habitats destroyed. However it is the cleanliness of their product that Colin feels distinguishes it.
"Ours has no chemicals, it's just trees. Cooked trees. We discourage people from using lighter fluid or firelighters, all those smells and flavours and chemicals are going over your food, and that's what separates us from the competition." It is also what has drawn several Michelin-star restaurants to use their product.
"They love the story and the idea that it's local but that also it is clean and the taste is great."
However, as it is more expensive than other charcoal, Colin is aware that cost can outweigh the eco and health aspects for some businesses. But there is more to charcoal than barbecuing. Hospitals administer activated charcoal in cases of accidental poisoning, and charcoal powder is given to horses to ease colic.
It is used in food, in chocolate and on some goat's cheese. It can be added to cocktails, mixed in with pizza bases, and is also used in beauty products like shampoo and toothpaste. Their chemical-free charcoal is perfect for all of those and the aim is to expand the business by getting another kiln.
Colin is still the main carer for his two children, now nine and seven. Tim Stanley makes the charcoal and Colin does "anything and everything" in the running of the company.
He still works one night a week in Sheridan's and teaches swimming and kayaking part-time.
He also works with the makers of that lovely local produce that partly inspired his business idea.
"Selling charcoal on its own is a hard sell, it's a lot easier if you have the smell of food cooking!"
He will have plenty to report when he meets his friends at their gathering this year.
Sunday Indo Business