Michael O’Connor trades his mushrooms for beer

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Michael O’Connor hasn’t looked back since swapping life as a mushroom farmer to brewing the decidedly more earthy “Brassy Blonde” at his family home in County Londonderry.

Nestled on a hilltop between Greysteel and Ballykelly, O’Connor Craft Beer is among a number of local breweries showcasing their wares at the Big Cheese and Beer Expo organised by Derry City and Strabane District Council this weekend in Guildhall Square.

The three-day event is a major highlight of the NI Year of Food and Drink 2016 programme, celebrating some of the finest craft beers and cheeses being produced locally as part of Brewing and Distilling month.

The event is supported by Tourism NI Event Fund and by DARD under the Northern Ireland Regional Food Programme.

One of the main attractions over the weekend will be celebrity guest Sean Wilson, aka Martin Platt from Coronation Street, a trained chef and cheese maker who will be doing two live cookery demos in the Marquee on Saturday afternoon at 2pm-2.45pm and 4pm-4.45pm.

O’Connor Craft Beer is run by Michael O’Connor, the eldest of seven brothers, and his youngest brother, Shaun, who just started selling their ‘Brassy Blonde’ beer in February of last year.

Michael recalled: “We used to grow mushrooms for our sins. I stopped in 2012 and we really started to attempt to brew in 2013. We own a well which we were looking to use as we thought it would be our unique selling point but that didn’t work out because the well water was just too hard to brew the beer.”

Having started out from small beginnings, O’Connor Craft Beer embarked on its first public outing at the Sippy of Culture event which took place in the city last November.

With ‘Brassy Blonde’ firmly on the market, the O’Connor brothers are now working on a recipe for their next line but for now, it will be available by the bottle only, with plans to have it on draught down the line.

Michael revealed that ‘Brassy Blonde’ hasn’t encountered any negative reaction although it wasn’t the first choice of name, albeit a fairly memorable moniker.

“I am one of seven boys and also the eldest so it was going to be called ‘Seven Brothers’, but another guy in Manchester had already registered the name which he was entitled to do. We had to dump all the labels we had ready to use.

“Blonde is a style of beer and we chose the name because craft beers are intended to be a bit tongue in cheek and fun and, we thought it would be a name that would be easy to remember.”

At 4.4 per cent proof, ‘Brassy Blonde’ is classed as an average strength beer and selling well.

Michael hopes the Big Cheese and Beer Expo will increase awareness of the brand and expose O’Connor Craft Beer to a wider audience than the plain old mushroom from his previous life.

“At the end of the day, you are not going to please all of the people all of the time, but if you can please some of the people some of the time… It is important to raise awareness that there are a lot of artisan products available in your locality and if you enjoy the product, why not?

“If you go for one of the generic beers, you get the same beer in Strabane that you get in Derry, Limavady or Coleraine. The craft beers being showcased at the Expo this weekend are all individual and they all have a slight difference to them.

“All the products which we use in production are local. The beer labels are made in Derry, the bottles are made in Fermanagh – over 90% are from Ireland.”

Mary Blake, Council’s Tourism Officer and event organiser, said there has already been huge interest in the Big Cheese & Beer Expo which is expected to attract around 10,000 visitors this weekend keen to sample the very best beer and cheese the region has to offer, fresh from the success of last month’s two-day LegenDerry Food Festival which was savoured by 38,500 foodie fans.

Local craft breweries taking part in the event include Northbound Brewery and Walled City Brewery based in the city; O’Connor Brewing in Faughanvale; Lacada in Portrush; Kinnegar (Rathmullan); Farmageddon Brewing Co-Op (Comber); Knockout Brewing (Belfast); and Mourne Mountains Brewery (Warrenpoint).

Cheese producers at the Expo include the award-winning Tamnagh Foods based in Park, Co Londonderry, makers of the Dart Mountain brand including Sperrin Blue Cheese (2015 Irish Food Awards Gold), Dart Mt. Dusk Cheese (World Cheese Awards 2014 – Bronze), Kilcreen Cheese (Great Taste Awards 2015 - Gold Star) and the newly released ale washed Banagher Bold cheese.

Indie Füde will also be featuring Kearney Blue Cheese, Mike’s Fancy Cheese and City Cheese, with Dale Farm bringing its Fivemiletown brand and Bluebell Falls (Cork) making the trip to Guildhall Square for the event.

The Big Cheese & Beer Expo will also feature an impressive array of family-friendly activities during the daytime with live music including The 4 Of Us in the evening and opens on Friday, April 15th, 5pm-10pm continuing on Saturday, April 16th, 1pm to 6pm and 7pm to 11pm; and Sunday, April 17th, 1pm to 5pm. Admission is free.

To find out more about the event go to www.derrystrabane.com/food.