Talking to Barry Flanagan is an exhausting but inspiring experience. He is a non-stop source of stories and ideas. Over the last eight years he has built three separate business, all based on the ancient art of fermentation.
The Works... TBC
“I come from a family of publicans,” he tells me. “Our home base is The Silken Thomas in Kildare. It is forty-five years in the family. When I was growing up, it was brought to the kitchen table every night, so from early on I had a clear idea about pubs and how everything works.”
Unsure if he wanted to go into the family business, Barry studied for a general business degree in the University of Limerick. As part of that he did work experience in a bank. “After two weeks I decided an office job was not for me”, he laughs. Instead, he worked a few years in the Silken Thomas and really enjoyed it, and several other pubs including Harrigan’s in Newbridge, where he met his Polish wife Ola.
New Kid On The Block TBC
“My dad had bought a second pub, Flanagan’s Mill in Sallins, in 1975, in case the second-born son (me) wanted to go into the business. In 2012, Barry and his wife took it over and opened up Lock 13, a gastro-pub, in the lounge.” The Silken Thomas is based on a carvery which personally I don’t like. They do it well and have won lots of prizes, but we wanted to do something different. We wanted to improve the plate while still offering value for money. We decided to challenge the customer offering them small local Irish micro brews alongside Guinness and Heineken. We saw there was a customer demand and it raised our game. We began matching beers with food as well. Sales increased every year but Barry tells me “it wasn’t always easy to convince people – even my dad. In his 70s and a successful publican, he saw me giving out free samples and raised an eyebrow. But I had been to the U.S. and England and saw how they brought a pub into a different sphere. Ever since drink-driving and the smoking ban, the pub has changed. It is now acceptable to eat out there as a family, and it is food that brings the vast majority of people to our pub. A lot of people don’t really know what a brew pub is. We match our food with craft beer, we offer customers a taste before they buy. I always tell staff not to be pretentious, but if somebody wants a commercial lager, offer them a taste of our alternative. It’s about engaging with the public, with brewer’s nights, food and beer dinners, and creating a night out. People want to be educated and want more.”
Next, they began making their own beer. There was a unit beside Lock 13 with a commercial kitchen, which they turned into a brewery. “I am not a marketeer or salesman,” says Barry, “I am a publican. I only wanted to deal with local pubs that were interested. At that time, we were 100% draught. In 2019, we got a new brewer, Rob Rainsford from Rye River Brewing in Celbridge. Rob wanted to do try out his own experiments and in late 2019 he argued we should start doing canned beer. I was reluctant at first, but he convinced me. Obviously, we are delighted now, as our draught went by the wayside with Covid. We fill and can all our own beer onsite. We did 3 lockdown beers for local off-licences and online sales.
Dry but thrust quenching January
Barry now has a third business, inspired by his Polish parents-in-law. “My love of fermentation came from brewing but also from my Polish mother-in-law. Every mother in Poland is the Gordon Ramsey of fermentation – they are with us at the moment which is fantastic. She makes everything; sourdough, kvass, kefir and pickles anything from the garden. It is just normal over there. I believe a vintner should be more than a publican; he should know about brandies, spirits, wines and beers, and how to manage beer lines, and bottle whiskey. So I qualified as a wine sommelier, and as a brewer”.
“Kombucha started at our home. I still have a scoby, my jellyfish there (my wife hates it). Once you get your head into it, you see the health benefits. We started slowly in the brewery. I saw a week-long commercial kombucha course in Barcelona and asked Rob if he wanted to go – how bad can a week in Barcelona be? He came back and said we have everything we need already. In September 2019 we started doing a 100% organic kombucha for ourselves and supplying it to a few local cafés and our coffee supplier. Then in January 2020 we went to a Grow with Aldi session, basically for a free lunch and to gauge what they wanted. We pitched to them and gave them samples and they took us in for a two-week period.”
“Aldi started with it on Sunday of the June bank holiday and it sold out in two days. By the second week we had run out, and customers were asking us online what was happening. They rang us and said you are one of the six winners, so we have been in 100 Aldi stores since October. It has been brilliant and we’ve learnt a lot. We moved from step one to step five of our plan overnight.” They are now about to launch a blood orange and turmeric kombucha largely because of rugby player Johnny Sexton and the Irish rugby team. Sexton tried their kombucha first and asked for a delivery to Carton House where the Irish team trains. “Loads of the team now drink it. Both Sexton and Carberry take turmeric daily so we have designed this with them and others in mind. They also produce a more mellow wild berry, ginger and lemongrass kombucha.
Barry obviously feeds off his team. “It’s a family culture. We work together and succeed together, or go down together. We want everyone bringing in ideas; we are an open book. I get the staff to do online training. We retain staff because they are trained, and they enjoy what they do. They drink our beer as well. It was all of those things that drive us on to the next level”.
Local is important to Barry. His staff, including brewer Rob Rainsford, are local. Before lockdown they supplied local pubs. They source barley from Minches in Athy. They supply beer to Michelin-starred Aimsir restaurant in the Cliff at Lyons. “We are in Sallins, on the Grand Canal, a potential green route, and one of the great highways and byways of Ireland. It is a great place to be.”
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