Craft Beer Culture Brews Up a Storm
Hop on the national taste train as Claire McKeever speaks to the key players helping to transform a hipster hobby into a commercial phenomenon
With April designated as the Brewing and Distilling month of Tourism NI's Year of Food and Drink, and the Belfast Craft Beer Festival taking place from this Thursday through to Saturday (April 21 - 23), it would seem Northern Ireland's thirst for a homemade tipple is at an all-time high.
While the Hilden Brewery Company, established in 1981, and Kilkeel's Whitewater Brewery, now in its 20th year, have both been operating steadily from the outset, only recently has the craft beer boom started to propel the local industry towards the mass market.
'Northern Ireland is really beginning to put itself on the map when it comes to craft brewing,' says Jonny Campbell, co-founder of Brewbot. 'We have come leaps and bounds in the last few years.'
Brewbot, an innovative brewing device and app, was created by Campbell and his tech-savvy friends back in 2013, after an enlightening trip to North America and a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Since then, the brand has organically morphed into many other businesses, including a popular brew bar and office space on the Ormeau Road in South Belfast.
'It all started after to a trip to Portland, Oregon in 2012 and our eyes being opened to the amount of beer you can get there,' he says. 'Eventually we created Brewbot, an appliance made of stainless steel and reclaimed wood, and an app that would take people through the brewing process; providing techniques and different brewing recipes.
'For us, it was important to create something that allowed the person brewing to feel like they were contributing to the process and to give them the necessary brewing skills they needed along the way… It is exciting to see people create beers from Brewbot’s product.'
Brewbot, the appliance, is now being sold for approximately £7,000 to both casual crafters and those eager to set up their own brewing business. As a business idea it could prove to be quite lucrative, with profit margins proving much higher compared to individuals using other brewery sites to produce their own beers.
The Brewbot team has grown from a small group of friends to a workforce of almost thirty, with former staff member Matthew Dicks going on to set up Boundary Brewery, 'one of the most exciting' of an 'incredible community' of beer makers Campbell and his colleagues reach out to.
'We’re quite discerning with the beers that we choose and always endeavour to pick the beers we would be happy drinking,' he says. 'We try to showcase the best of what is happening here in Northern Ireland and to supply some great international beers too.'
With shipment of its kit overseas and further plans to see the business grow in San Francisco, it seems Brewbot is well and truly flying the flag for the country's craft beer industry. 'We’re looking forward to seeing where the bar will go,' Campbell concludes. 'What is cool is that people often walk into the bar hating beer and walk out loving it.'
Another beer business to have made its mark recently is Walled City Brewery in Derry~Londonderry, set up by qualified brewer James Huey after the brewing production he worked for at Diageo was closed down.
Last May the Ebrington-based brewery started its own production and supply of four house beers, and more recently, a supply of 'seasonal' beers with undertones of chilli, cherry and blackberry - all made by Huey onsite.
In addition to selling its own beers, the bar and restaurant also supports the supply of other local beers such as Northbound, a husband and wife owned brewery, and Kinnegar, a brewery lying just over the border in Rathmullan, Donegal.
'It’s great, people are willing to try something different than their usual six-pack of beers from the supermarket,' says manager Stephanie Bradley. 'They are veering away from the large production of beers and trying more local breweries that have a unique flavour.
'Craft beer is something that has been vastly growing in America and other parts of Europe - Germany and Belgium - so it is good it has finally reached us. We have some fantastic breweries in Northern Ireland.'
Going back to where it all began, Hilden Brewery is one of Northern Ireland’s oldest and most well known independent breweries. Based in Lisburn at the original Barbour Thread mills, Hilden was started by husband and wife team, Seamus and Ann Scullion, in the early '80s and has since gone from strength to strength, producing local beers that are described as having 'real character and taste'.
The business also manages onsite restaurant The Tap Room and Molly’s Yard, a bar and base its brews in Belfast’s city centre. Additionally, just last year, the company built a brand new brewery and bottling plant to house production of its cask, keg and bottled beers, which are now sold to local suppliers and to countries such as France and the Czech Republic.
'The most popular beers we have are Belfast Blonde (lager), Headless Dog and Twisted Hop (also stocked in Asda and Tesco), which each cater to big brand tastes,' says manager Ashleigh Hanley. 'We then have other alternative beers such as Barney’s Brew, a spiced wheat beer and in fact, the first wheat beer to be brewed in Northern Ireland.'
Hilden also proves to have a great relationship with other breweries and is even embracing the healthy competition: 'We’re all helping each other; we’re all very close. It is great to get ideas from one another.'
'We have seen an incredible change with consumers,' she adds. 'People want to know what they’re eating, drinking... where any ingredients come from. I think this has really contributed to the sale of craft beer in Northern Ireland.'
So, as we raise a glass to the thriving industry and indeed the month Tourism NI call an opportunity 'to celebrate all the brilliant things we’re brewing and distilling', there seems no better time to 'hop on' the craft beer craze.
Belfast's Craft Beer Festival takes place at Custom House Square from April 21 to April 23. For more information on events, traders and tickets visit www.belfastcraftbeerfest.com. Belfast Food Tours now offer dedicated tours of well known breweries including Boundary, Hilden and Brewbot. To book visit www.belfastfoodtour.com. A tour of Walled City Brewery is also available when booking a meal at its restaurant or a city walkabout through Visit Derry.
Article body images courtesy of Tourism NI, Brewbot, Hilden Brewery and Walled City Brewery.