Guinness is probably the most popular beer exported from Ireland, but back home, it competes with more than 75 small, independently operated craft breweries. St. James Gate produces 50.7 million barrels of beer every year. But these ‘microbreweries’ can’t compete with that. They don’t need to. These beers are appealing to beer enthusiasts who enjoy discovering new flavours of craft beer brewed by knowledgeable and dedicated professionals. Despite its growth, Ireland’s beer sector is creating an increasing amount of food waste. For beer, grain is needed, but once the brewing process is over, the wet and steaming grain is discarded. The grain at this stage is referred to as ‘spent grain,’ but it is still perfectly edible.
In the United States, companies are recycling waste grain into food, but here in Ireland no one is doing it. Siblings Niamh and Ruairi Dooley from Ballykeeran, Athlone have joined forces to start a new food business called BiaSol, which aims to turn spent grain waste from breweries back into food. There has been a lot of research into the benefits of spent grain. I had the pleasure of meeting the brother-and-sister team at their Ferbane Business Park headquarters.
Science v Maths
The story starts in Ballymore Co. Westmeath, which was where Wicklow man, Eugene, met one of Mayo’s finest – Anne. The couple married and first had Ruairi, followed by Niamh. The family moved to the Athlone area when Eugene was hired by Ericsson some 20 years. Nicola attended Our Lady’s Bower and then the University of Limerick (UL). Ruairi attended Marist before studying at Dublin City University (DCU) where he graduated with a degree in accounting and finance.
Niamh: My passion for animals began when I was a young child. For many years I wanted to become a vet until I realised that being a vet involves dealing with sick and/or injured animals, which would be difficult for me. When I was selecting a third level degree course, I chose one that combined my favourite subjects: Home Economics and Biology. While I was in my final year of college, I decided I wanted to go to Canada, so I moved to Vancouver within a few months of finishing my degree.
It was my first time living in a city of such beauty. I was in this little bubble on the UL campus in Limerick, whereas Vancouver was much bigger with a beach and mountains. I’m into nature and the outdoors, so I really enjoyed living there.
Ruairi: Niamh and I went in different directions academically and geographically. I chose DCU’s Accounting and Finance programme. Maths and numbers will always be my thing. When I was nine or ten, I dreamed of being an astronaut and loved astronomy. I had many posters of planets and the galaxy in my room. I liked physics and maths in secondary school, but I decided to go into finance because it was a more lucrative career path. Furthermore, I didn’t travel after college as Niamh did. Not only that, but I guess I wanted to work and figure myself out first, so I joined a consulting firm. My career started off on the finance side, but I have moved into technology and worked on big projects.
Covid and Opportunity
Niamh and Ruairi are like many siblings who quarrel over trivial things. As they grew up, their relationship got better, and they began to realise that they are really more alike than they ever thought.
Ruairi: During our teenage years, we weren’t really good friends, and we would avoid each other more or less; I went to Dublin, Niamh to Limerick, and then on to Canada. After travelling through Southeast Asia with my girlfriend, I settled in Australia and worked within the IT sector out there. Meanwhile, Niamh returned to Ireland and got a job that she loved.
Niamh: I had to move back home to Ireland in 2019, because my Visa ended. I started working with Bord Bia on their ‘Food Dudes’ healthy eating project, which encouraged primary school children to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables. I was back living at home, and I had a very nice job. But Covid-19 hit, and Ruairi was in Melbourne, where lockdowns were incredibly strict. We reconnected over Zoom since we both had so much spare time. Ruairi suggested that we research a food project that both of us could do.
Ruairi: Niamh was very good at show jumping as a child, so we had some farmland for horses. Once Niamh outgrew the horses, we rented that land to a local farmer. With Covid-19, we had time on our hands and began to think about how we could use that land. Niamh’s food science background was really helpful.
Niamh: Both of us knew we needed to incorporate sustainable food practices into our project. In addition, we are health-conscious, so we wanted a nutritious, healthy product. Initially, we considered making flour by grinding crickets, which are abundant in protein. In a small space, we could grow millions of them.
Ruairi: It was a pity, because I had no trouble buying cricket powder in Australia. I baked banana bread with it but didn’t tell my housemates. They all ate it and when I let them know afterwards, one of the girls ran out the back and got sick! Yet only a few minutes ago, she had thought it was delicious.
Niamh: We did some research and concluded that Irish people are not ready to eat foods made with flour made from insects! Fortunately, we discovered brewer’s spent grain instead.
Their idea to recycle spent grain led Niamh to join Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers programme at Athlone Institute of Technology in June 2020.
Niamh: Since I had more free time than Ruairi, I applied. The programme was excellent, and I learned a lot about business. Our project passed phase 2 and is now in the final phase 3.
Ruairi: Our first step was to approach local craft breweries across the Midlands, who supported the idea and were eager to work with us. We next pitched the idea of a ‘Brew Flour’ to local food stores in Athlone, in the hope that they would stock the spent grain flour. Everybody we spoke to said yes!
Niamh: Our business is based in Ferbane because there aren’t any suitable food grade premises in any other part of the Midlands. We collect spent grain from different breweries and bring it here, where it undergoes the process to turn into flour. Our Brew Flour is perfect for baking sourdough bread and other bread products. So many people have commented on its wonderful taste.
Ruairi: Our company has two parts. At the moment, we supply Brew Flour to the trade, including cafés, restaurants, and bakeries. But we are excited about our new health food product, which we aim to launch towards the end of 2021.
Niamh: Spent grain provides so much nutritional value and I would love to see more products being made from it on store shelves across Ireland. Losing my job provided me with the opportunity to set-up an exciting business with Ruairi. We both have different roles within the business and work really well as a team. I’m very lucky to be working with the one person I can always rely on and trust, my brother.
Ruairi: It’s the age-old science v maths argument. Niamh believes she does the exciting creative stuff; while I do the boring numbers stuff. How wrong could she be!
This article was published in Westmeath Independent 29/09/2021.