By Clare E. Bonnyman
LISBURN, Northern Ireland – It’s the most beautiful day Northern Ireland has seen in months, but Lisa Maltman has no time for that.
She is in charge of global sales and marketing for the Hilden Brewing Company, Ireland’s oldest independent brewery, established in 1981.
Being a small brewery in Northern Ireland is a struggle, with a large percentage of the market controlled by multi-national companies like Diageo and InBev – which run Guinness and Stella Artois, respectively.
Maltman’s office, much like the rest of Hilden Brewing, is a constant flurry of activity to keep the company’s product on the market and in the game. Her desk is covered in Post-it notes, graphs, business cards and bottles. In the midst of a craft-beer revolution in Northern Ireland, Hilden is using every opportunity to grow.
“We brew every day, and we are at peak capacity at the minute,” says Maltman.
“I’ve just remembered about seven different things I have to do,” she says, typing away furiously.
In recent years craft beer production and microbreweries have taken off internationally. Government-licensed alcohol vendors and bars across the world are serving more and more microbrews and craft beers, usually locally sourced.
In North America in particular, the craft beer market has boomed. In 2012 in Canada craft beer sales grew by over 30 percent, in contrast to relatively flat sales of wines and spirits.
This of course pales in comparison to the growth of microbreweries in England, where the microbrewery movement began in the 1970s. That was when a new generation of small, focused breweries started to produce cask-conditioned beer, also called “real ale.” From 2002 to 2012 the number of microbreweries in England doubled, making one brewery for every 50 pubs. There are well over 1,000 microbreweries in England today, and the number is growing by hundreds each year across the U.K. mainland.
But as of the summer of 2014, only 14 microbreweries are active in Northern Ireland. There are a number of reasons why.
Being in the U.K., it’s not hard for Northern Ireland to import a variety of microbrews to add some craft-style diversity. There are also very few bottling plants in Northern Ireland to service new microbreweries. This of course doesn’t even go into the politics that make it difficult to start a brewery in Northern Ireland.
The modern craft beer revolution has reached a crucial point for Northern Ireland, as more microbreweries pop up and fight to survive.
For many, this means expanding horizons beyond borders and sometimes even beyond brewing.
The brewery has turned itself into a multi-faceted business in the 33 years since its founding by Seamus and Ann Scullion. Now retired, Seamus and Ann still live on the property, but have left the brewing to two of their children.
Alongside brewing, it supplies a top Belfast restaurant with grain to be used in original recipes and supports local farmers by donating its recycled grain for cattle feed and hops for fertilizer.
There is also a new bottling plant on the way, set to complement the introduction of a new brewery on site. The two expansions would turn the Hilden Brewing Co. into Northern Ireland’s one-stop-shop for all things craft beer.
Both would also help Hilden in its contract brewing business. At the moment, Hilden brews for three other microbreweries in Northern Ireland, producing beer on an order-by-order basis until the smaller breweries have their own brewing set up. In a way, Hilden works as the incubator for small Northern Irish microbreweries.
The new brewery alone would triple the capacity of Hilden’s current output, allowing it to increase production while continuing contract brewing. The bottling plant would cut major costs in transportion. Like other Northern Irish microbreweries, Hilden has until now shipped its beer to England for bottling and labeling.
The bottling plant would “pay for itself,” both in cutting costs on the production of Hilden brews, and also attracting other Northern Irish breweries to use the Hilden facilities for localized bottling and labeling.
As one of the foremost contract brewers in Northern Ireland, Hilden produces a number of ales to serve the country’s cravings for craft beer, and helping out young microbreweries.
Clanconnel Brewing Company is taking advantage of this. “We basically leave the brewing to some of the bigger boys,” says Mark Pearson, founder of Clanconnel.
By bigger boys Pearson is referring to Hilden and Whitewater Brewing, the two largest microbreweries in Northern Ireland, and the only two with the equipment and staffing to brew both for their customers and for other microbreweries.
Pearson started his brewery in 2008, working at Danish Bank during the week and brewing and bottling on the weekends. Inspired by the beer scene in his trips to Copenhagen, Pearson saw opportunity in Northern Ireland.
Pearson sits in the middle of an empty warehouse, waiting for shipments of its six different McGrath’s brand beers to return from the bottling plant. Clanconnel is growing quickly with the market.
“We brew 5,000 litres at a go now,” he says, “and we just placed an order for 10,000 litres of each beer.”
What’s driving the growth is a desire among locals for trendy craft beers and microbrews. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), an organization dedicated to the awareness, availability and quality of real ale, is reveling in the production of local real ales.
“When you come down to the basics it’s just taste,” says Philip Hernberg, chairman of the Northern Irish branch.
CAMRA NI was founded in 1981, at the same time as the Hilden Brewery. “We were in one room, and the first beer was brewing in another,” Hernberg recalls, “so there wasn’t any beer for the meeting!”
CAMRA NI has over 300 members and counting. Through organized pub crawls, brewery visits and their annual Beer Festival, CAMRA helps to introduce more and more Irishmen to their local craft brews.
It’s a cause that CAMRA NI takes personally, given the alleged “stranglehold” that multi-national breweries have on local pubs.
Due to the small number of microbreweries in Northern Ireland, CAMRA plays a key role in supporting the industry.
Hernberg, an avid football fan, travels the world to watch matches and taste local brews. He has knowledge of beers and brewing that rivals any bartender in Ireland, and the attitude to go with it.
“I drink my beer for the taste, not the effect.” Intoxication, he says, is just an unfortunate side effect.
The idea of enjoying beer for its flavor is common throughout craft beer drinkers. It’s a kind of ideology.
Beer isn’t just for drinking “eight or 10 pints on a Saturday night,” says Clanconnel’s Pearson.
Microbreweries support a more artisan lifestyle, focusing on the individual flavors and appreciating the “craft” that goes into each bottle.
For Hilden especially, offering consumer choice is a big deal. Maintaining independence from mass-produced products is essential.
“What we and other craft brewers are trying to do is offer choice to the consumer,” says sales director Maltman. “Go and buy four or five different craft beers, and enjoy them and appreciate them individually.”
All of that aside, the market in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is proving a serious challenge for the production of craft beers. But the struggle is less about brewing, and more about how to get the product into the pubs.
In a land known for Guinness, the market is cornered by large multi-national alcohol titans like Diageo, Molson Coors, and Heineken, who produce everything from Guinness to Smirnoff, and even hold the monopoly over the Jameson brand, a “traditional” Irish whiskey.
“If you come to Ireland as a tourist, of course you drink Guinness because you’ve only ever heard of Guinness, so it’s a bit of a stereotype,” says CAMRA’s Hernberg.
Diageo has developed the brand to the tourist, turning the original Guinness Brewery at St. James’ Gate in Dublin into an attraction, complete with state-of-the-art exhibits and even a “Guinness Academy” on site so visitors can learn to properly pour their own pint.
Most every pub in Ireland will have most if not all of the staple beers – Tennant’s, Harp, Bass, Carlsberg, Smithwick’s and of course, Guinness.
The hold Guinness has on Ireland is particularly powerful given its identity as the Irish beer. As a result, 35 percent of the 275 million pints of beer consumed by Irishmen every year are stout, and as the biggest stout brand on the market, Guinness is a lot of that.
With Diageo producing everything from Guinness to Harp to Smithwick’s, the multi-national drink titan has a tight grip on classic Irish brews.
All of these established, gigantic brand names in the market make it difficult for the small breweries to find their way to the eager consumer, many of whom might not even know the brews are there.
Pearson, who had worked hard in recent years to get Clanconnel products onto international shelves, still has trouble here at home. Clanconnel products aren’t even carried in Lurgan, the town where the brewery is based.
“It’s getting into the bars, it’s getting shelf-space,” Pearson says. “If your beer were to disappear tomorrow, they’d find another. There’s no real loyalty.”
Larger corporations have allegedly imposed limiting contracts on pubs, allowing them to serve their popular products but only by limiting the local, cask beers they have on tap. This limits the microbreweries in that they can only get into the pubs with bottles, and the cost of bottling and labeling is too much for some small microbreweries to bear.
“It’s a battle you know,” says Pearson, “but that’s just business.”
But the more microbreweries that start up in Northern Ireland, the better the environment for them all.
“There’s just a real sense of ‘together we’ll be a lot stronger’,” says Maltman. “If we’re hoping to change the ways bars operate in Northern Ireland – in that they’re all tied to the likes of Diageo – and if we all work together as a unit, and push to change that we’ll be stronger.”
In 2013 a Diageo report showed that Guinness sales dropped 6 percent in the last half of the year, a drop that came with the rise of craft beer consumption in Northern Ireland.
“At the end of the day you’re a competitor but you’re not competing,” says Pearson, “you’re competing against each other, but coming together against a bigger animal.”
Outside help is crucial, and thankfully abundant. JD Wetherspoons, a British pub chain founded in 1979, owns over 900 outlets throughout the British Isles. A champion of cask ale and microbrews, Wetherspoons was an early supporter of and is the largest single purchaser from microbreweries in the United Kingdom today.
CAMRA NI too does more than just enjoy the products of Northern Irish microbreweries. Hernberg himself is currently trying to fight the restrictive pub-to-brewery relations in Northern Ireland.
After a brewery titan acquired three major Irish real ale pubs and demanded the removal of hand-pumps last year –preventing them from serving real ales on tap –Hernberg and other members began reaching out to various governmental bodies to fight back.
They hope to establish enabling legislation that would allow pubs to bring in at least one real ale without the fear of the brewery giants pulling their product or demanding for the removal of craft products.
In the Crown Liquor Saloon, a famous Belfast pub, CAMRA NI is carrying out a pub-crawl.
The “craic” or atmosphere is lively, with friends catching up and new members getting acquainted with their fellow craft-connoisseurs.
Despite the battles that go on and the challenges, it’s hard to deny their success in a room full of half-empty glasses of the products of Northern Irish microbreweries.
Ian Jones sits by the bar, enjoying a glass of craft beer and observing the goings-on. A CAMRA member for 20 years, Jones has developed a philosophy of his own.
“There’s no such thing as bad beer,” he says. “Some are just better than others.”
Photos by Clare Bonnyman and Kelly O’Brien