Donegal isn’t the first place you’d necessarily associate with a thriving craft beer culture – but try saying that to Brendan O’Reilly, proprietor of Dicey Reilly’s, recently voted NOffLA Off-Licence of the Year. This article originally appeared in the May 2013 edition of Checkout.
While winning the title Off-Licence of the Year at the recent NOffLA awards took Brendan O’Reilly by surprise – “I was updating my Twitter account when I heard my name being called, I couldn’t believe it” – for those in the trade, it’s a reflection of the time and attention put into making his business, Dicey Reilly’s, the best in the Northwest.
Ballyshannon, where the business is situated, isn’t a thriving metropolis on a par with Cork or Dublin (although the town gets pretty crowded every June for the annual Rory Gallagher Festival), yet as a result of O’Reilly’s hard work, and that of his wife Sinead, its clientele know a good wine (or beer) when they see one. Refusing to go down the discount route of the multiples, Dicey’s boasts a range of just over 800 wines and 420 world beers, and recently began brewing its own beer, Donegal Blonde, in its own on-site brewery.
“I did my first brewing course in 1997, in Sunderland University, and followed that up with a week-long course at the Porterhouse in Dublin,” O’Reilly explains. “There were only a handful of independent breweries around at the time. The timing wasn’t right to introduce one to Donegal.
“But four years ago, with the rise in interest in craft beers, we carried out a feasibility study with the local Enterprise Board, and drew up the plans. Fast forward to 2012, and we produced our first batch; we’re on the market about five months now.”
Donegal Blonde has been styled as an accessible beer for those unaccustomed to the craft sector, to lure drinkers more familiar with bigger brands. It’s a strategy that seems to be working. “We felt that a blonde ale is a more acceptable beer for people that drink mainstream beers, because it has a low ‘hoppiness’ and low bitterness.” Superquinn is an early supporter of the beer, stocking it in its 24 stores nationwide, while it is also available in independent off-licences around the country.
But the Dicey’s story starts long before Donegal Blonde - around 38 years to be exact - when Brendan’s father John (who still works occasionally in the shop), opened the pub from which the off-licence business was founded; Brendan and family lived upstairs. A renovation of the premises in 1990 to encompass a small off-licence – “I think we had three wines at the time: Liebfraumlich, Blue Nun and Black Tower” – hinted at a promising future, and a dedicated off-licence was opened in the neighbouring building in 2003, at the time a private dwelling. “We didn’t know it then, but the building dates back to 1856,” he explains, “and was the home of Margaret Delap, later to become the wife of Thomas Barton of Barton and Guestier.”
The Dicey Reilly’s off-licence business is situated on two floors, with wines located upstairs and beers and spirits downstairs. While big brands are present, such is the array of boutique products that the shop resembles something of a library, with O’Reilly able to call upon an encyclopaedic knowledge of taste profiles when dealing with consumers. It’s this level of detail that he feels separates Dicey’s from traditional supermarket offerings, and emphasizes the importance of the independent off-trade sector. “You have your customers coming in for the big brands, and you always will, but for people to come back, you need to create the added value. It’s a knowledge-based business; if someone comes in and tells you they have tried a particular craft beer, and what they liked about it, they’re relying on your knowledge to guide them about other products that they can go home and enjoy.”
Now ten years in business, Dicey’s hit the ground running, winning the Connacht/Ulster Off-Licence of the Year award at the 2004 NOffLA awards, and retaining it every year since (except 2011), before landing the top prize in this year’s honours list.
On the question of legislation, O’Reilly agrees that there are clear dividing lines between the alcohol retailing practices of a mainstream multiple and an independent off-licence, particularly on the service side, yet is frustrated at the Government’s willingness to lump all off-trade outlets together when devising legislation.
“NOffLA has done a wonderful job in terms of building the independent sector’s reputation, with fully-accredited programmes such as the RTC (Responsible Trading in the Community),” he says. “But the Government doesn’t seem to be taking any of this into consideration. We don’t have the buying power that the multiples have, we can’t drop our prices and leverage out excise increases across a full grocery range. And yet we’re considered the same when it comes to legislation.”
He does feel, however, that the past couple of years has seen the emergence of a new type of consumer, which appreciates the nuances that differentiate independents from the mainstream. “People can see what the muliples are at. It’s not a question of price, we don’t do deals on slabs of beer like the multiples. The person that’s coming in to buy four world beers, to consume over the weekend, is there for the quality rather than the quantity. It’s the same with wine; the multiples are driving their wine sales by price, whereas our customer is coming in to buy a particular wine for a particular occasion.
“Independent off-licences are part of the framework of communities, like the butcher down the road, like the greengrocer. It’s not the multiples that create the community, it’s everybody working together. It’s our responsibility to keep going.”
© 2013 - Checkout Magazine by Stephen Wynne-Jones