Northern Ireland's craft beer revolution: Massive expansion for Whitewater and brews reaching Prince Felipe of Spain
The number of small independent breweries in Northern Ireland has tripled in the past decade and the thirst for further growth seems to be unquenchable, as John Mulgrew discovers
Their beers have reached international monarchical heights, while the biggest brewing success story is now set for a massive expansion in the coming months. Welcome to Northern Ireland's craft beer revolution.
The crop of small, independent operations has more tripled in a decade -- with at least six new breweries opening in just a handful of years. Leading the way on sales and growth is Kilkeel's Whitewater Brewery, which has an annual output of around 350,000 bottles and is widely available in the three big supermarkets.
But owner Bernard Sloan has told Business Month that it's set to expand exponentially in the coming months, and "could do 10 times the volume of beer and we'd still have space".
"We are taking on more people and are about to begin the move to a bigger site," he said.
"The demand -- especially in the last few years -- for craft beer, is down to flavour. The next wave is not here yet, but it's coming."
While part of the interesting side of this is the increasingly widening selection and explosion of 'artisanal' beer -- to use an Americanism -- another is the varied backgrounds of many of the brewers.
For the latest tranche of those deciding to take the brewing career plunge, the range of previous professions couldn't be more varied -- including architects, a PhD student and firefighter.
But while some of the latest additions to the brewing marketplace in Northern Ireland follow largely traditional lines, others are also trying to push the boat out in terms of innovation and crucially, technology.
Brewbot -- a crowdfunded tech start-up based in Belfast -- has developed a self-contained brewing system, which utilises a smartphone app to aid the process.
Self-styled 'beer evangelist' and lead-brewer for the project Matthew Dick put a PhD on hold to turn a hobby into a career.
The 29-year-old Belfast man is also in the process of setting up the city's only brewery -- a co-operative called Boundary Brewing.
"Craft beer is growing fast, and following the footsteps of other markets," he said. "Tied bars are even seeing the value of selling craft beer as well as some of the off-licences here.
"Many are selling out of craft beer faster than they can restock their shelves."
Mr Dick -- whose 'breakfast stout' was presented to Prince Felipe of Spain at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona -- said those between 21 and 35 with disposable income were "prepared to spend more to get more".
For breweries trying to push the boundaries -- such as Galway Bay in the Republic -- Scotland's Brewdog is very much the runaway success story. Formed in 2007, it quickly grew to become the nation's biggest independently owned producer of all things beer.
The big players on the commercial end -- chiefly Diageo which owns Irish brewing stalwart Guinness -- have yet to really enter the Northern Ireland market, despite indicators of craft having something of impact on their own sales. In January, they blamed a 6% drop in sales of the dry stout during the second half of 2013 on the hot weather rather than the rise of craft.
But Northern Ireland still has some catching up to do with the rest of the UK and Republic -- with the leviathan that is micro-brewing in the US now boasting well in excess of 2,000 operations across the country.
Northern Ireland's taste for quality, small-batch produce, still largely rotates around the more traditional fare of pale ales, reds and stouts.
The region's longest running craft brewery -- Hilden -- is also on the rise. The operation based outside Lisburn continues to feed the demand for traditional ale styles, served on traditional handpump or in bottle.
Two of the latest brewers to buy a mash tun and get stuck in, both come from very different backgrounds. Darren Nugent was working in PR and marketing in England, before returning to his native Carrickmore in Co Tyrone to launch a career in brewing. Pokertree began selling two beer lines in January this year.
"I saw a gap in the market -- there was very little choice," he said. "Demand so far has been very good -- those who like the beers, really like them."
"Culturally we are a bit behind the rest of the UK and the Republic, but in five years, who knows where we'll be," said Mr Nugent.
Another to join the brewing fraternity was firefighter Eoin Wilson who opened Farmageddon in Comber earlier this year.
"There seems to be the same sort of argument with beer as there was with wine -- people's tastes are changing," he said.
"You also have the slow-food movement, locally. It's care and attention, and after things like the horsemeat scandal, there's a move towards handmade produce."
WHAT'S CHANGED IN 10 YEARS?
Northern Ireland's independent brewing industry was once a much lonelier place -- with Hilden flying the flag since 1981. In 1996, Bernard Sloan established the Whitewater Brewery -- but it wasn't until the turn of the 21st century that it began to grow substantially and started bottling. Clanconnel followed suit in 2008, introducing a range of brews under the McGrath's branding. Fermanagh's Inishmacsaint began production a year later, with the Ards Brewing Company -- set up by architect Charles Ballantyne -- also beginning to brew in 2011. But the renewed and reinvigorated interest in Northern Ireland brewing has been further bolstered in the past two years -- with no less than five breweries being opened. These include Sheelin, Pokertree, Clearsky, Farmageddon and Red Hand. Co-operative Boundary Brewing is another brewing project in the early stages of development.
WHAT'S WORTH SEEKING OUT?
Traditionally, most of Northern Ireland's breweries have been just that -- traditional. While the independent brewing industry will take some time to grow and catch up with the creativity and diversity of brewing nations further afield, there are some great and interesting beers available.
Named as the Champion Beer at the Belfast Beer Festival in 2012, Hoppelhammer is a balanced IPA (Indian pale ale) with a herbal, crisp hop bitterness, and can be found on tap, cask and in bottles. A stalwart of the brewing scene, Hilden's Twisted Hop is a crisp, refreshing and well-hopped ale. For those after something darker, Farmageddon's India Export Porter offers a rich, roasted malt and balanced espresso bitterness. For those drinkers normally resigned to a well-known Diageo-owned red ale, McGrath's Irish Red offers a great deal more complexity with some crisp, biscuity malt. In addition, if travelling south, Galway Bay's 'Of Foam and Fury' is a superb and boundary-pushing 'Double IPA' worth seeking out.