You can tell the Hilden Brewery is the result of a passionate love affair. The beautiful white façade of a Georgian manse that greets you at the end of a leafy drive is the face of Hilden Brewery.
It looks like the Lost Palace of Romance and is bursting with mystery.
Yet it’s here that Seamus and Anne Scullion, on their return from Kent some 25 years ago, decided to establish Northern Ireland’s first independent brewery.
Scullion, originally from Bellaghy, had moved to the Kent countryside from where he commuted to London to his high-powered job as statistician. A family of two girls and a boy spent their formative years listening to Seamus and his thoughts concerning the small breweries he could see dotted around the English garden market county.
The thoughts developed into a passion and, next thing you know, the Scullions have moved into the old Barbour household in Hilden by Lisburn. Clearly attracted by the barns and outbuildings — extensive spaces in which to set up a brewery — Seamus did just that.
Today, the Hilden home and the large farm courtyard behind it, the fabulous parklands and famous teepees (always in use for conferences, festivals and parties) are becoming equally well known for the recently re-launched Tap Room restaurant. The success of the Belfast-based Molly’s Yard, run until recently by sister Siobhan, has proven to the Scullions, and in particular to other daughter Frances, that good food in rustic comfort is a winning combination.
The Tap Room is a graceful mix of bare brick, whitewash and rough stone walls, wood panelling, tasteful prints, mirrors and paintings and good lighting. There is also a bar. It’s a proper bar with stools and the kind of low-ceilinged counter that invites you to prop it up. It’s clearly not an afterthought and dominates the extensive room in a way to enhance the relaxed mood of the place.
The courtyard outside is bright, and on a good day provides al fresco dining.
I had been to the re-launch party a couple of weeks earlier and was staggered by the quality of chef Philip Clasper’s canapés. Only Tony O’Neill at the Merchant could match them in quality. There were canapés with duck confit, celeriac remoulade and tender, rare beef strips, crab mayonnaise with soused herrings and many more, each as exquisite as the next. And then, of course, there’s the beer. Real ale is making a comeback and as a commercial business, micro-breweries are definitely on trend. There half a dozen such micro-breweries in NI and Hilden would be among the most established, with a healthy list of bottled and draught beers. And as is the cultural requirement of micro-breweries, the names of these beers are compelling — Molly Malone Porter, Belfast Blonde, Chocolate Stout.
Some of these are particularly good with food, and brewmaster Owen Scullion can tweak certain beers to suit the dinner table. One such is Twisted Hop, which has a 4.7% strength and is packed with floral notes and light hoppy flavours.
This particular Sunday, the four of us were thrilled to see the crab on toast with soused herrings had made it as a starter. Three of us had this while the adviser went for potted prawns. While we waited for these to arrive, some pesto on toast and olives arrived. Growing loads of basil and having a further store of wild garlic, Clasper has decided to mark the spring season for the pungent bulb with a festival tribute. The pesto would appear again later.
The soused herring was outstanding — sweet, tender and beautiful to look at, curled as it was around chopped pickled white onions. They provided a gorgeous tangy balance to the creamy crab meat, which was powerful and distinctively full of flavour. And then there was the pesto, which unexpectedly threw in a subtle new dimension, marrying very well with the herring and crab and delicate salad of green leaves and sun-dried tomatoes.
The adviser’s potted prawns were packed tightly into the melted garlic butter and were also full of taste. They were perfectly presented, tender and juicy. The garlic butter was light and complementary rather than dominating and heavy.
Two specials of the day included pork belly with pak choi and scallop, and rump of lamb with root veg and potato gnocchi — one each for the adviser and me. The girls found comfort in the Hilden burger and chips.
We were all delighted and happy. The pesto had popped up, this time unexpectedly, in the burgers, but that was fine as both love the stuff. It appeared again with the lamb and by this stage I started to think a continuity theme was a good idea, but some caution should be exercised so as not to over do it. Frances’ enthusiasm and explanation that “the wild garlic season was about to end, so we want to enjoy it as much as we can” is fair enough.
Champagne jelly and toffee pudding came without the pesto and were terrifically good desserts.
The Tap Room at Hilden Brewery is a fabulous feather in Lisburn’s cap. The very close-by Hilden Halt railway station makes it rapidly and easily accessible to Belfast. The Scullions have taken the notion of local produce to heart and I defy anyone in Northern Ireland to better the home-grown combination of fine beers and food available here.
Pesto toast & olives £3.50
Crab & herring x 3 £20.85
Potted prawns £5.95
Pork belly £13.50
Burgers x 2 £19.90
Desserts x 2 £9.90
Diet Coke x 4 £7.20
Glass wine £3.95
Pint Twisted Hop £3.40
Hilden Brewery, Grand Street, Lisburn BT27 4TY.
Tel: 028 9266 3863