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Craft beer: How one man's thirst to succeed paid off

What's the link between Van Morrison and a self-confessed beer geek's dream of opening his own brewery in the singer's east Belfast stomping ground? Ivan Little investigates.

Published 09/05/2015

Heady brew: Ivan Little samples a taste of the beer
Heady brew: Ivan Little samples a taste of the beer
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Cap fits: Boundary craft beer, from Belfast is brewing up a storm with discerning drinkers
Pub landlord Pedro Donald

Something's brewing in east Belfast. But this time it's not trouble that's fermenting on the Newtownards Road - it's beer. And in a roundabout way, Van Morrison, who's from the Beersbridge Road, played a part in getting an exciting new brewery up and flowing.

For it was after an American fan of the singer travelled to Newcastle for one of his concerts in the Slieve Donard Hotel that the first ingredients for the business were added to the east Belfast mix. The chief executive of the East Belfast Partnership, Maurice Kinkead, bumped into the fan - a retired banker from San Diego - after Van's gig and eventually he told him that his organisation were trying to find a brewery to come to east Belfast.

The American had helped finance a number of craft breweries in the States and the upshot was an ultimately fruitless fact-finding trip to San Diego by Maurice, who had hoped to persuade one of the 80 micro-breweries there to set up in east Belfast.

But, in the end, Maurice found the perfect candidate - in Belfast - after self-confessed beer geek Matthew Dick, from Finaghy, heard about the partnership's interest in attracting a brewer to Ballymacarrett.

And now, less than a year later, Matthew's Boundary Brewing Co-operative - a very different BBC - are producing three different types of beer in a unit at the Portview Trade Centre on the Newtownards Road.

Happily, the beers have been an instant hit with knowledgeable beer drinkers with a thirst for something more challenging to their palates than ice-cold lager.

So much so that the first 90 cases of the brewery's three craft beers - an American-style pale ale, an IPA (Indian Pale Ale) and an export stout - sold out within days, which perhaps wasn't surprising because a number of dedicated tipplers were actually waiting in off-licences for the beers to arrive.

And many of the drinkers had something of a vested interest in sampling the first batch of the beer ... because they are shareholders in the brewery, which is run along co-operative lines, owned and managed by 446 people who staked as little as £100 for a taste of the action.

Matthew Dick, who was once dubbed a "beer evangelist", found more disciples than he imagined. The 31-year-old had been hoping to raise £70,000 through his community shares option, but exceeded his target by 50%, which enabled him to realise his teenage dream of brewing his own beer faster than he anticipated.

But he insists that he was never hooked on the hooch in his youth.

"Not at all," he says. "When I was about 15 or 16, my parents allowed me to have a drink of beer, or wine, with a meal. But when I used to go out for a drink with my friends a few years later, I was never interested in doing what they were doing - getting smashed.

"That didn't make sense to me, probably because I'd grown up enjoying a beer."

Matthew's love for beer matured with age and travelling to Belgium, where some of his friends lived. "It was a whole different world of beer drinking over there with beautiful brews available all over the place."

Matthew expanded his horizons even further when he moved to America with his US-born wife, Sheena.

"The beer scene there was electric. The best in the world," he says. "I worked in a brew pub, but when we decided to come home after five years, because it was so much cheaper for me to do my Master's degree, I was sad to see the selection of beers here hadn't got any better.

"So I began brewing my own beer at home and I got carried away with it. I was at Queen's University in Belfast, but I probably spent more time checking my fermenters than writing my papers."

Matthew progressed to become a part-time lecturer, but knew that the two strands of his life were incompatible. One of them had to give. And it wasn't the beer.

"It was an easy choice, really. And the decision was expedited at a monthly beer club I was attending, when I was offered a job with Brewbot, which is essentially a robot which brews beer and can be controlled by an app on a smartphone."

However, his new employers never had any doubt that Matthew was still obsessed with kick-starting Boundary, even though last summer he went with colleagues from Brewbot for a technological set-up accelerator programme in the United States in marketing, social media, management and design.

"However, I realised that if I didn't follow my passion for Boundary, I would internally combust," says Matthew, who struck out on his own late last year to develop a business plan and website for his co-operative brewery.

The £100,000 financing was raised in just eight days, with a judicious use of social media and the average investment around £260 per head.

Matthew was encouraged by the East Belfast Partnership to consider a space in the Portview Trade Centre on the Newtownards Road for setting up his brewery.

He says: "I had looked elsewhere in Belfast, but most people were at best blase about the project, whereas Maurice Kinkead, from the partnership, was really excited."

"Matthew really impressed us and it's the kind of business we were looking for," Maurice Kinkead says. "It has a bit of an edge to it and when you are trying to regenerate an area it's the kind of initiative we are keen to support."

One look at the Portview unit and Matthew was sold. And then came the buying of the brewing equipment and the acquisition of the best ingredients on the market, like the grain from one England's top suppliers.

Matthew started brewing in April and organised a tasting night for friends and investors - the ultimate you-know-what in a brewery - and the first bottles of beers were dispatched two weeks ago after bars and off-licences approached him, rather than the other way around, which is the normal way of doing business.

Boundary is organising a beer festival at the end of the month, which is expected to attract 1,500 people, including the brewery's investors, to the old Harland & Wolff drawing offices.

Other newcomers like the Walled City Brewery and Northbound Brewery in Londonderry will be offering their wares at the festival.

The Hilden Brewery, near Lisburn, has long been a pacesetter, but other breweries have sprung up right across Northern Ireland offering beers with names like Sheelin, Pokertree, Whitewater, Clearsky, Farmageddon and Red Hand.

But why has the revolution in craft brewing finally exploded here especially when the beers aren't exactly cheap?

Matthew says younger generations - the "millennials" - want to be more informed about what they are consuming and they are happy to pay more.

"They also want to eat and drink local things, which are healthier for them. They are getting smarter and wiser to marketing and the old-school approaches are not working any more.

"If you take that away from the big brewers, there's very little left in terms of taste, depth or flavours whereas if you drink our stout there's chocolate, coffee and roast biscuit."

But Matthew derides any notion that the popularity of the new beers is down solely to its hip and trendy appeal - although he admits they go down particularly well with 20-35-year-olds.

"When you look at the people who invested in us, they really do range across all the ages," he says.

"Only last week, a man in his 70s came in and offered to help me with the slow and laborious process of bottling and capping of the beer, which he did for eight hours non-stop."

The Boundary brewery may only be in its infancy, but thoughts are already turning towards expansion. An empty unit next door is now on the radar.

"One day, I would like to have even more and bigger vessels for the brewing and I can't wait to start employing other people and give them jobs, which they will be committed to for life. I want to be the best employer in Belfast," Matthew says.

He would also like to roll out the barrels of beer on draught, but the current system of licensing and "tied" bars is restrictive.

"Around 96% of the draught taps are tied to big brewer," says Matthew, who still has a disdain for binge-drinking that was imbued in him as a youth.

"That is the total antithesis of what we are doing with our beer. And yes, it is stronger than many other big beers, but the whole point is to enjoy it and not a means to an end for a forgettable night.

"If you go to somewhere like Belgium, you will see people drinking 12% Trappist beers, but there won't be a scrap in sight - there will be no aggression, no trouble. They're different cultures."

Even so, Matthew, whose wife is a youth worker, is extremely positive about Belfast and about the east of the city.

"We are changing here and we are healing. It will take ages longer but we are recovering and there is progress in the right direction. And it's nice to be here for all that."

Unusually for a brewery, Boundary has an arts studio tucked away in a corner for painter John Robinson, whose work adorns the three varieties of beer that are produced.

"I've known John for years," says Matthew.

"And one day, when I was out walking the dog, it came to me that his artwork would look amazing on our branding.

"We sat down with a selection of pale ales I was experimenting on and I explained what my vision was - I wanted the beer to be light, approachable and not too hoppy because I wanted our average Joes to enjoy it.

"John took notes and did some sketches and he came up with his paintings, which are perfect for our beers."

Matthew has developed an art studio for John, who will paint more labels for the special beers that Boundary produce on a regular basis.

The only problem for Boundary is not enough equipment to manufacture large quantities of beer at any one time.

And because the first supplies flew off the shelves and out of the fridges, Belfast is currently Boundary-free.

But fresh supplies are currently brewing away happily and Matthew has no intention of cutting corners to speed up the process, which takes up to a fortnight.

"We don't rush it because it would hurt the beer - unlike the big brewers. That will never happen with Boundary beer."

'It's all about the quality'

Pub landlord Pedro Donald compares the craft beer revolution in Northern Ireland to the massive upturn in the restaurant business.

The man who runs the Sunflower Bar near the centre of Belfast, says: "People here didn't know there was good beer out there for years. It was the same with food.

"If you think back to the '70s and '80s, you couldn't have found anything like what you can get in restaurants nowadays.

"We didn't really know any better. And once people taste good beers, like good food, they are reluctant to go back."

Pedro currently stocks up to 15 craft beers in his pub and most are Irish - the majority of them from the north.

Several weeks back, Pedro took two cases of the Boundary brewery's three beers without tasting any of them.

"And that's very unusual," he says. "Publicans normally want to know what they're taking.

"But I knew Matthew and knew he was passionate about his beer. He has been running a beer club in the Sunflower for over a year now."

Pedro wasn't disappointed.

And neither were his customers, who had been following Matthew Dick's progress on social media sites.

"The Boundary beers sold out very quickly indeed and that's despite the fact that they are smaller in size than the normal bottles of beer and, henceforth, there's a bigger price.

"But, nowadays, it's all about quality and not quantity with discerning beer drinkers.

"People are always looking for them, which proves that they're good, but I have to explain that we are waiting for more supplies."

Belfast Telegraph

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