In 2011 Northern Ireland boasted the grand total of five microbreweries. A mere five years later that number has risen by about 500%. Yes, really. I’ll wait for a moment while that figure slowly seeps into your brain…
Ready? We’re up to the mid-twenties in what seems like the blink of an eye. It’s been difficult at times to keep track of who’s opening when, and what they’re producing but isn’t it fantastic? The Northern Ireland beer scene, like the rest of the UK and Ireland, has exploded into a great aurora of nano and micro breweries all shimmering and dancing (on social media) for our attention.
But can they all succeed in this tiny market or will it eventually be a case of dog-eat-dog? For many, the export market is essential. Whether that be to the rest of the UK, Australia and New Zealand or USA and Canada is irrelevant as long as they’re exported. Irish beer (and let’s not beat about the bush in terms of politicising the term Irish or Northern Irish – abroad we’re Irish, fact) holds a certain charm over those living in the countries just mentioned. Why on earth would they all drink what seems to be a gazillion pints of Guinness per year – it’s certainly not for the taste. Just off the top of my head I can already think of three local stouts that beat the Big G hands down. I’ll not say what they are, go out and discover them for yourself.
A lot of newer brewers have told me in the past year that they’re playing safe initially by releasing beers such as golden and pale ales to tap into the lager drinkers across the country. That’s fine if there are a couple of breweries doing this but with the NI brewery count rising what seems to be every other month the danger is that everyone will produce more or less the same thing and that’s not sustainable. Yes I know we all need to start somewhere. Anyone who now likes their tasty beer will probably have been a lager fan at some point. That may have led onto golden ales or IPAs, then suddenly you’re sipping a double IPA, bock, saison, lambic etc. It’s a great adventure to embark upon.
So take a chance you brewers and drinkers alike. Try something left of centre, you may just like it. Discover new bars, seek out places that offer more than the usual. Years ago, I knew what I was going to drink before I stepped out past my front door on a Saturday night. That was because everywhere sold exactly the same stuff. Now there are more and more bars and even restaurants that stock something that bit different. In Belfast, Brewbot on the Ormeau Road, The Woodworkers on Bradbury Place and real-ale haven The Crown (owned by the National Trust) on Great Victoria Street have a superb selection of taps from all over the UK, Ireland and further afield. Bittles Bar near Victoria Square has one of the best selection of Northern Ireland bottled beers.
Outside of the city it’s a more depressing story. Most of the country is still stuck in the 1980s but doesn’t have to be. Why not ask your local pub to start stocking bottled beers from here? I say bottled as most of our pubs are tied to big boys Diageo or Tennent’s and deliberately won’t offer a range of local draught – but that’s another story for another day. However, you don’t always have to settle for Harp, Guinness or Bud. Try a Whitewater Maggies Leap IPA from Kilkeel, Farmageddon Golden Ale from Comber, Stranded Bunny porter from Portrush, Boundary Export Stout from Belfast or a Northbound Kölsch-style from Derry/Londonderry … I could go on and on and on. That’s if I haven’t already.