Akron Irish: Black Donkey
By Lisa O’Rourke
The next time that you go to the grocery store, head to the beer aisle and take a look at the choices. On any day there are brews that are made from vampire blood, the sweat of Eliot Ness, Australian jailbirds, Christmas, nuts, bees, water from the Ohio River, and anything else that you can imagine.
These are hoppy days for beer nerds, but there is also sacrifice. In exchange for all this variety, some old favorites are next to impossible to find. Like so many other things, this variety can be numbing and overwhelming; all in an attempt to satisfy a simple quest for the beverage that Ben Franklin said was proof that God wanted us to be happy.
Happily, we were driving the narrow roads that twist through the farmlands on a visit to Roscommon when I noticed something. A perky donkey head was smirking back at me from a realtor size sign stuck in a field. My disinterest turned into a “Who are those guys?” as a I saw more of the signs and they were still there the next trip.
Black Donkey Whiskey
The “who” is Black Donkey Brewery, located in Ballinlough, South Roscommon. It was then that it struck me even more, “Who are those guys?” Because as I processed, this is some new local artisanal brewery, I remembered where I was, and that this kind of thing was not going on in the Irish beer world.
It was and is going on with spirits. There are gins and whiskeys that you have never heard of being put into bottles in Ireland as we speak. Beer has lagged behind. After all, this is the home of the black stuff.
Is Budweiser King
A pint of plain in its country of origin is hard to beat. Yet, it has been beat. For example, loads of Irish are surprisingly fond of Budweiser. It came into the country on the back of an export-distribution deal with Guinness and found that some Irish citizens had a taste for a lighter brew.
What kind of brews were to be had at Black Donkey? I contacted them and luck was with me, because the owner/operator Richard Siberry agreed to a Zoom chat. Richard and his wife, Michaela Dillion, had immigrated to the States, settling in New York some thirty years ago, with the idea that they would return to Ireland someday.
Richard was watching the craft brew movement here and the idea to start one in Roscommon was born. So, armed with some Yank ideas of innovating and adding choice to the good but stagnate Irish brew market, Richard and his wife Michaela returned to Roscommon. They chose their mascot, the iconic and beloved farm animal, the donkey, and Black Donkey Brewery was born.
Another reason for the donkey symbol was their notorious stubbornness, a trait which they knew that they would need to start a business. The brewery mission statement was to create something unique, high quality, natural, sustainable, all the best of high ideals for a business.
High ideals pair with passion and Richard is an impassioned beer lover, as you would expect. His favorite tipple is one that I had heard of but never sampled, Saison beer. This problem demanded research and since I am a dedicated journalist, I went in search of one of these beers.
I was not able to try the Black Donkey Farmhouse version, Sheep Stealer, since it is yet to be imported here. I found a suitable proxy. Saison is a blond, hyper-carbonated, ale-like drink that does quench the thirst. This type of beer originated in Belgium and is just thing that you would reach for after a hard day in the fields, which is why it is often prefixed with farmhouse.
Part of the Black Donkey mission was to use as much local talent as possible, from marketing and packaging through to the actual ingredients themselves. Their beers are as “all Irish” as they can be, barring some imported barley and Belgian hops.
The singular and unique trait of the beer, the one that they are internationally known for, came about in an unexpected way. Richard wanted to find a source for local wild yeast, to give his product a truly authentic twist. He had let that idea ruminate and the lightning strike happened when he was attending a meeting, a place where ideas usually go to die.
Cave of the Cats
He was at a local town booster meeting held in the Rathcroghan Center in Tulsk, Co. Roscommon. The director asked if the group would like a tour of Olwenygat, the mythic “Cave of the Cats,” entrance to the underworld, an all-around cool place.
To enter the Cave’s narrow passage, it is recommended that you slither in on your back. Lo and behold, during the slithering, Richard saw a berry. After some testing by a local tech school, he was able to get the yeast started from that local botanical. He had a public harvest/product launch on Halloween of 2017. The result is Underworld Savage Ale, the first beer made from a wild Irish yeast.
Things were going great, a brand, a market and a product. So, what could go wrong? Well, it turns out that one of the very things that many a tourist goes to Ireland in search of, Guinness. While Ireland does not have the kind of free house or franchise system that many UK pubs do, Guinness has an essential stranglehold on the Irish market, and it turns out, they don’t care for competition. Think McDonald’s versus the local burger joint to get a good idea of the dilemma, size and distribution allow the Goliath advantages over the David.
Another issue is Irish beer consumption itself. The Irish are social about everything, including beer drinking. Home drinking was stigmatized in the old days, a slur whispered about a neighbor. That is changing with the onset of strict drink driving laws and no other way home from the pub in most of the country.
The numbers are changing, but 57% of the beer consumed in Ireland is done in the pubs. The other issue is that beer and brand loyalty just don’t mean what they used to, even in Ireland. Calorie counts and wine culture have played a part in lessening beer drinking there.
Does it have to be this complicated and was it meant to be? No. Beer was historically a native elixir, meant to ease the thirst and a long day. While too much variety can be overwhelming, no variety is stifling.
I am a supporter of underdogs; I can’t help it. I also believe that areas should have their own local beer, local everything for that matter, it is just good in every way for a community. In this world of choice and export, something unique and authentic presents just what a tourist is looking for.
It is also what the Irish should be looking for, something made for them by their neighbors. Look next time you are there. Black Donkey tours are arranged by prior notice. You can always get a Guinness at the supermarket.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at ol*****@ic****.com.
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