Hilden Beer Festival

Iain Todd savours the sights, sounds and stouts at the much-loved Lisburn brewery

If there’s one thing we need more of in Northern Ireland, it’s festivals involving local beers, local music and local people, but without the local weather. Last weekend saw the Hilden Brewery in Lisburn celebrate 30 years of beer making with its annual festival, showcasing the best brews from across Ireland and the UK. According to the Scullion family, who run the brewery, it is the oldest beer festival in Ireland.

When I arrive, the sun is beating down. The smell of charcoal and cooking meat greets me as I walk through the gate and into the Brewery, with its cobblestone courtyard and haystack benches. I spend a while taking it all in, grab a beer menu and make my way to the makeshift bar, which has been set up below the mash tuns in the main brewing room.

The menu boasts 27 beers brewed by 19 different breweries, stretching from Tipperary to Armagh, from Cork to Antrim and spanning England and Wales also. I make the decision to drink in half pints, fearing the consequences of spending an afternoon knocking back pints of strong ale and cider. I do have to get home by myself, after all.

I bite the bullet and start with The Bruin, a brown ale in the Belgian style from the White Gypsy brewery in Tipperary. It goes down far too quickly, being my first beer of the day. However, I manage to savour a bit of the flavour and decide it tastes a little like a mixture between a chocolate porter and the zesty, sweetness offered by light wheat beers such as Hoegaarden.

Sunny times

Next, it’s onto the Dungarven brewery in Waterford and their only beer on the menu, Helvic Gold, a blonde ale that boasts a surprisingly sharp, hoppy tang on the finish. Before I get too carried away, though, I decide to explore the grounds and take in the festival atmosphere. I can hear music coming from the Twisted Hop, a massive tepee set up on the lawn behind the brewery which boasts its own bar, the ‘Songwriter’s Stage’ and tables and chairs for both recreational drinkers and music fans.

I arrive just in time to hear Dan Barden close the first set of the day, with the sounds of bodhran and acoustic guitar providing a relaxing soundtrack to the afternoon. The first band of the day, The Hardchargers, then take to the stage with their three piece blues set, which sounds like a mixture of Howlin’ Wolf and the sleazy distortion of early Clapton or Rory Gallagher.

Musical director Aaron Rossi, who organised the bands for the day, appears to have got it just right. After all, what goes better with beer and hot weather than the blues? I sink the rest of my beer and decide it’s about time to taste some of the Hilden brewery’s own efforts.

Barney’s Brew, one of Hilden’s most recent creations, is a light wheat beer with overtones of orange zest and cloves. Not too sweet, yet packing enough flavour to keep it interesting and enjoyable.

Behind me, Chris Campbell and the Paper Boats are getting stuck into their set, creating melancholic and nostalgic folk with guitars and fiddles, in the style of Davy Graham and Ray La Montagne. Everywhere I go, there is a bar and a band. No wonder these bank holiday festivals at the brewery have become so popular!

So far, I've worked my way through a good swathe of Ireland via its breweries and beers, from Waterford and Tipperary. But I decide to stick with the breweries from the North for the time being, and next opt for one from the College Green brewery, which is situated in the Queen’s Quarter of Belfast.

College Green is owned by Hilden, and has three truly complex and enjoyable beers in its portfolio: Molly’s Chocolate Stout, Belfast Blonde and the hilarious-sounding, Headless Dog. It is a very drinkable beer, quite light and incredibly hoppy on the nose. Yet, given the chance to choose again, I would have gone for the Chocolate Stout, which mixes flavours of coffee and cocoa with hints of fennel to create a complex, yet well balanced porter.

Mmm, beer!

A dander back to the courtyard, and I take a moment to reflect on the history of the Hilden Brewery. The building has only existed as a brewery since 1981, when the Hilden Brewery Company was founded by Seamus and Ann Scullion. Nowadays, their son Owen runs the beer making, and is both a qualified and experienced brewer.

Interestingly, the brewery buildings were once stables used by the Barbour family, who came to the area from Scotland in the late 18th century and set up the Barbour Threads Linen Mill, which, until its closure in 2006, was one of Ireland’s longest surviving working linen mills.

Speaking of tradition and history, I decide to take the opportunity to try some Armagh cider, made by the self proclaimed ‘focal point of the Armagh cider revivalist movement’, Mac’s Armagh Cider. I am offered a sample of every single one of the ciders on sale, from sweet to dry.

The ciders are created using different proportions of cider apple with other varieties to create the various blends. I ask if they keep their own starter culture of yeast growing for continued usage and the reply is an emphatic ‘no’. All batches use fresh, active yeast to ferment the juice, which is extracted using mechanical presses: no enzymes, no chemicals.

Next on my list is Sorachi: a Japanese style ale from the Dawkins Brewery in Bath. The beer uses Japanese Sorachi hops, hence the name. However, it tastes more like an English IPA, missing the rice-sweetness you would expect.

Dazed and Confused is a hoppy pale ale from the Triple FFF brewery in Hampshire. The moniker is appropriate at this time of the day...

At the Twisted Hop, Pete McCauley starts his set. A little Radiohead-esque, his setup sees him armed with keyboard and drum kit, switching between the two instruments and supported with a pre-recorded backing track. He tells me later that this is how he gigs when his backing band can’t make it. You have to admire his tenacity and persistence. Like all the other bands I have seen the music goes down well with this appreciative Hilden crowd.

Before I go, there’s just enough time to try Hilden’s own Champion’s Brew, a ruby ale that retains a nice balance between hoppy bitterness and comforting malty sweetness.

As I leave the revellers, sunbathers and increasingly tipsy ale quaffers, I think to myself how important operations like that of the Hilden Brewery are to the make-up of Northern Ireland and its culture. The thoughts I take away as I make my way towards the gate are of local produce, family and tradition. And in an age of globalisation, I think we could all use a little bit more of those.