Let’s raise a glass of beer to our new local microbreweries…

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.

Roy Willighan writes about beer over at Quare Swally. You can also follow him on twitter @quareswally

  • murdockp

    I would go further and call the founders of these brewery’s and any other business for that matter literally miracle workers and they should be celebrated as any on who can get a business of the ground in one of the most anti business environments on earth is truly talented.

    They will have overcome the government agencies trying to put thier lights out at every turn, banks who won’t lend, planning laws that are anti development, licencing laws that are puritan, business rates that cripple.

    I raise a glass to all NI entrepreneurs. Optimists in a sea of bureaucrats.

  • johnerskine

    I left Ulster in the 1980’s for a number of reasons. One of them was the appalling beer.

    Draught Guinness has always been over-rated, as anyone who’s ever drunk another stout or porter will attest. As for the other types of gnat’s-pee on sale in Belfast then, the least said… Red Heart bottled Guinness was a joy to drink, but they got rid of that. Instead, we suffered the Glen Road travesty mistakenly described as Bass, or Smithwick’s. And once, down south I had McArdle’s, the worst beer ever – Smithwicks without the flavour. As for Harp – a crime against humanity. And don’t start me on Irish ‘cider’…

    So I’m delighted to read this article, and I hope more pubs outside Belfast start stocking decent beer…

  • Saint Etienne

    “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)”

    That’s both an opportunity & a threat though. The North Irish brand is so young/underdeveloped that it is easier for individual firms to shape it in a way they see fit. In a relatively new yet crowded market like craft brewing where ‘different’ is a USP I’d imagine that counts more so than an existing international brand that has a legion of conglomerates behind it.

    At least, that’s what I’ll be advising the co-operative I joined 😉

    To your list for something unique I would add Derry/Londonderry’s Walled City Brewery, a brewpub with excellent bottle selection & tapas style food menu it’s a hidden gem.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Good man, Roy. Bringing civilisation to Slugger!

    We have lots of great pubs but the choice is pathetic in many of them. I know the big boys have a history of being quite nasty is dissuading pub owners from stocking new beers but still I think some publicans have been institutionalised by the major conglomerates. Are there any tax incentives for micros in NI like in the Republic? i.e. the 50% tax rebate which really helped local beers getting off the ground (brought in by Brian Cowan, some would say the only useful thing he ever did).

  • Ernekid

    Theres some fine beers to be had from across Ireland especially from Ulster Brewers. The Fermanagh based Inismacsaint brewers make a lovely Ale. Hilden is always very drinkable and I tried the Yardsman Lager recently and it went down very nicely, much nicer than the mass produced fizzy pish that most pubs call lager. Kinnegar Brewing from Donegal does some rather nice beers too.

    Its time for our pubs, off licences and supermarkets to start supporting our local brewers properly and break away from the megacorps like Diageo.

    Beoir.org has a good database on where to source locally made drinks.


  • Ernekid

    The next time I’m in Derry I definitely plan to visit the Walled City Brewery. I’ve heard nothing but good things

  • kalista63

    About ten years ago I went to Morpeth for a sort of date thing and we frequented a bar known as The Tap. They made their own cider and beers, going to the cellar, no idea why, every time they poured certain beers. Seriously nice stuff and about a third cheaper that our’s (now, there’s an issue).

    So, I fly home, get the bus to Great Victoria St. and cross the road to Robinson’s. I couldn’t bring myself to order a pint, with the taste of proper beer in my mouth. I’m delighted things have changed, even though it coincided with me going off pubs but that’s my issue.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    To my knowledge, there’s no incentive to producers. There is the standard Invest NI route, but to what end that helps NI drinks producers is unknown. I’m waiting on a few FOI’s back on the subject.

    It’s not entirely that the “big boys” are nasty to dissuade pub owners, and I’m in NO way defending them. It’s essentially bribery by any other name.

    When I took over my previous bar, we paid off the debt of the previous owner, including a sum to Tennents NI, that was a loan which also secured exclusive draught pouring rights in the premises. We were then inundated with offers.
    Diageo would GIVE us over £40k for 3 years of exclusive pouring rights on draught (with no option for “guest” products)
    Tennents would GIVE us over £70k for 7 years of exclusive pouring rights on draight (with no option for “guest” products)
    We went with Molson Coors who gave us a much smaller figure secured against a sales volume. So for example (and this ISN’T the figure) but they give us, say, £5000 for us to sell 1000 kegs of their products. If we sell nothing but MC brands and meet that target in 9 months, then in 9 months we can renew the deal (or renegotiate), if we sell a wide range of products from different suppliers, local or otherwise, and give our customers a choice, and it takes 4 years to reach 1000kegs….so be it, it just means if we want another free £5000, we have to wait until then.

    It’s a much nicer way of doing it but unfortunately still has a small element of wanting the bulk of the sales to be mass produced globocorp (which I’m not denigrating) product. Given how tight the industry has had it in recent times… saying no to free money isn’t easy. Hency why Carlsberg, Harp, Tennents, Stella, Guinness and so forth are pouring everywhere.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    It’s widespread now, pubs across the province are stocking at least a couple of local, microbrewed options.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    Great article Roy.

    I’m particularly keen to see that this “Year of Food & Drink NI 2016” doesn’t just focus on the food part. Bloggers such as yourself are really important for upping the focus on what we’ve got in our region, good on ye!

  • Roy W

    Superb place. There are plenty more places (like Walled City) I’d love to have listed in the article but didn’t have the space.

  • Roy W

    I’ve spotted your beery faux pas. You should have gone next door to The Crown 😉

  • Old Mortality

    If you can’t stand Guinness served at teeth-chattering temperatures, may I recommend Blackrock stout from the Dungarvan brewing company in Waterford and I’d be delighted to hear of any premises where it can be found north of the border.

  • Al

    It is the only thing we have to thank Gordon Brown for. Under the 2002 Small Breweries Relief scheme, companies that produce no more than 60,000 hectolitres of beer receive duty discounts of as much as 50pc. God bless him! BTW Farmageddon is fantastic.

  • John Claudius

    Tbh I like Guinness. It’s a good dependable session beer. Also, as much as I welcome these craft beers there are some truly awful ones as well, maybe just a step up from the average home brew. To paraphrase both Hanns Johst and Herman Goering everytime I hear some hipster opine about his hops I reach for my tin of Harp

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    I believe the vineyard off licence on the ormeau road stocks dungarvan

  • Barneyt

    Newry had its own Brew not so long ago…it was called Finn Lager. I understood it was an initiative assocaited with Norbrook laboratories…which could worry some. However, it has now disappeared.

    It is associated with a brewery in Corby, Bedfordshire however I’m not clear if it was brewed and shipped in from there, or brewed in Newry and then brought to an end.

    If Norbrook was behind it, I wonder why it failed as it was a half decent pint and surely had plenty of backing. I believe they did a stout too. Anyone hear of this?

  • Barneyt

    Light relief…hold on…thats a great name for an IPA 🙂 I was going to say, light relief from the usual headiness on this site…no punn intended

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    Still exists, they even expanded to a second beer called Foxes Rock (I think) – don’t believe they have stopped but in fact, the last I spoke to them, they have such great investment behind them and capacity in their facilities that they intend to expand further

  • Barneyt

    Ok – they had the Finn lager on draft in the Spirit Store in Dundalk – great wee place by the way – and it was them that told me they couldnt get it anymore for the reasons I stated (pulled back to Corby).

    Problem with craft beer is they can get too successful. If you look at Franciscan Well. I believe one of the big north European lager firms (perhaps Heineken) has bought the out…so technically its no longer a craft beer. I rarely go for the standard beer these days….craft first

  • Barneyt

    Molson Coors now seems to own Francisan Well

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    Molson Coors owns Fran Well, with full autonomy remaining with the original team – I know there’s a tendency to look down on Big Corp. buying “craft breweries” (I dislike the term but there isn’t really a better one yet – personally, good beer is good beer) – I was told during a drunken session with some Fran Well guys and some Molson Coors bigwigs “For us, Carling pays the bills – Coors gets the profit – We can just have fun with the rest”
    Look at Blue Moon – widely criticised for being part of the big machine, but Keith Villa is a brewing demigod who gets to Willy Wonka to his hearts content – I tried an 11% cherry IPA of his, will never be for sale – but he made it. He’s made bacon beer and, when I met him, had just brewed “MarijuanAle” – for sale only at the brewpub he runs at the brewery.

    The guy who owns Fran Well said that when he started a brewery, he had one dream – his dad lived in America (Chicago or Boston, can’t recall which) – he wanted some day to be able to go and visit his dad, go down to his dad’s local, and order them both a pint of beer that he brewed himself back home. If it takes a GloboCorp to make that happen, what’s the worst thing about it? It’s beer snobbery in my opinion.

  • Barneyt

    I took the view that with big corps involved, it ceased to be a local initiative and it is part of a bigger network that no longer ties the craft brewery to its locale. I think many see it as being compromised…where micro becomes macro. The identify can be lost.

    Dont get me wrong, I have some ambition in this area myself however I may have missed the boat…but if I got something going, and would hope to stock it in every shelf in the land and beyond and make a few quid.

    If however they can retain autonomy fine, but my feeling is that a buy-out by a major corporation or its representatives cannot generally be good for the art or the non-hierarchical model that I feel these breweries should follow.

    I know small initiatives do not have the logistical capabilities of the established breweries, so they can provide an outreach channel…but you know what I mean surely? I like the cottage industry appeal and when I buy it, I like to think I am contributing more directly to the producer.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    Yeah, I understand the ideals of it – and in that sense, I agree – I’d rather help Shane from Cork and his brewery than the shareholders of Molson Coors. The reality is normally a bit blurrier though. When I was last down (early last year I think), there were 5 or 6 people who brewed the beer – the same 5 or 6 that brewed the beer before MC came along. A few local breweries have done incredibly well but are then limited by capacity to their growth potential – it takes what it takes.

  • Tochais Siorai

    You know the owner of the Spirit Store is standing in the upcoming General Election in Louth?

  • kalista63

    Same beer but.

  • Barneyt

    I did not know that.