A Clearer Roadmap

Like many things, I have had many plans for this blog over the years with all the best intentions in mind, but to put it simply other things had to be prioritised. This is one of the many reasons why I have stepped backed from blogging, pretty much since 2015.

Although I have always been working in the background chipping away at these plans, with the hope of helping the local beer scene in Northern Ireland. Finally, I was able to check one of these off last week; a visualisation of Northern Ireland Breweries currently in operation. Over the years I have collected as much publicly available information as possible and collated them into a one stop repository here.

Version 1 is now live, it has received some pretty good feedback so far, although I think it is important to be clear about the project and why it has been created.

What is it?

It is simply a database of public information used to help bridge the gap between the producer and consumer.

It is aimed at making it easier to connect consumers and producers together, with the hope of changing consumer behaviour with regards to what they drink, how they see these products vs more widely available brands, and give a clearer insight into the marketplace.

The current marketplace is flooded with big beer brands such as Guinness, Harp, Coors, Tennents, etc. and it is hard enough for local producers to find routes to market already. This is somewhat due to the ridiculous licencing legislation here in Northern Ireland, lines tied to the big breweries and lack of understanding around these smaller independent producers – for more on this check out ‘Tilt and Pour an open discussion’ yes, written in 2018, but still very relevant today.

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How does knowing this information help?

Whilst working in the sector, I was fortunate enough to have knowledge of who sold what and who to call for insight into specific beers and so on. Not everyone knows or wants to know that, but it’s about having the resource of information available if needed.

This information allows more channels of the chain to disrupt the macro hold on Northern Ireland by providing the knowledge and allowing them to ask questions and provide answers to the key decision makers – hopefully to the benefit of our local producers.

For clarity, I use the example of asking your local pub do they stock ‘Brewery A?’ and then finding out they have no information or knowledge of them. By utilising this information, we can help advise and point them in the direction of finding out more for themselves. Hopefully this could lead to a new point of sale for the brewery, but at least it doesn’t close the door straight away – it’s about trying to even out the playing field.

Version 2 is pretty far on as well, I just need to get more information confirmed before the release.

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What about contract brands?

They were omitted initially as I hadn’t any confirmation of who brewed their beer with/for them. I just want to state why this is important, simply transparency. Big beer uses ‘craft brands’, their buying power to buy into/out breweries as routes to market and ties up taps and shelf space with the likes of ‘Cute Hoor’, ‘Lagunitas’, ‘Beavertown’ (Heineken), ‘Five Lamps’ (C&C), ‘Franciscan Well’ (Coors) and so on.

Contract brewing is a perfectly viable option for many businesses as it reduces cost of entry into the market, scalability, reduced overheads and limited risk. What isn’t great or fair is when brands are marketed as ‘brewed in Ireland’ or imply that they are brewed at a specific location, when in fact they are brewed at a corporation or another location nowhere near where the branding suggests.

It is important as well for us to know where the beer is made, if a beer has an issue from a consumer and business owner point of view, you would want to know is it only a specific batch or location specific, to try and reduce the loss across the board.

Lastly about contract brands, I always feel like they don’t see the opportunity to help build the business alongside the brewery they are brewing at. If we are in this together why not try and help each other?

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How do I get involved?

Breweries – simply email me at Belfasbeerblog@gmail.com and I will send a form over to complete and help fill the blanks.

Also, distributors feel free to contact and let us know who you stock as well.

Everyone else, share & use the information, start talking to your local off licence, bar or restaurant and ask do you stock any of these beers?

Let’s work on changing the conversation together!

Cheers!

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Fiercely Independent… when it suits.

Did ye hear the bars? Nothing is ever sacred in Northern Ireland is it?

Over the last few weeks there has been murmurs that a BrewDog bar was finally heading to Belfast, initially rumoured at The Marcus Ward (formerly The Stiff Kitten – a previous location that BrewDog looked at in 2014/15) but quickly the Muldoons site in Sailortown became the focal point with a verified venue on UnTappd associated with it (https://untappd.com/v/brewdog-belfast/10024107).

Although these rumours were quickly quashed with a response that the venture wouldn’t be a full bar in Belfast, it has since been announced that it will be the latest location for ‘BrewDog Now’ franchise (launching July 6th).

Whilst all of that was going on, unconfirmed reports and discussions emerged that BrewDog’s new distribution partner in Northern Ireland was going to be Molson Coors… Yes, that’s right a macro owned business distributing the ‘fiercely independent’ BrewDog.

Earlier today news broke confirming that Molson Coors would be the new distribution partner for BrewDog for both the on and off trade in Northern Ireland. The deal is aimed at accelerating the number of taps of Punk IPA across the region with packaged Dead Pony, Elvis Juice, Punk AF & Punk IPA aimed at the off trade.

This leads to more questions than answers unfortunately for BrewDog in Northern Ireland:

  • Does this mean that the licence associated with BrewDog Now is associated with Molson Coors?
  • Or, if we are ever to get a BrewDog bar, will it partly, if not completely, be tied to Molson Coors?
  • Distribution links within NI are Increased but at what cost?
    • The off trade will be in direct competition with supermarket pricing for the majority if not all the current offering. How can that be sustainable for the independents to help grow the brand?
    • Will pricing of Molson Coors be similar to their traditional approach of wheeling and dealing between accounts? High risk of devaluing the brand surely?

If you look globally, it adds interesting touch points:

Full disclosure, I am an Equity for Punk or EFP and have been since 2013, I try to avoid the forum as there is certainly a lot of hardcore blind sighted opinions; but today I made the decision to reactivate my login.

BrewDog are not ones to shy away from the public limelight. The self-proclaimed market disruptors have utilised PR for years to gauge a response, some of which highlight my questions.  I could go through the archives and unearth some home truths to the BrewDog faithful’s, but the quote below from 2015’s #independenceordeath will suffice:

“We are going to nail our colours to the mother fucking mast. We are going to live and die by what we believe in and the values we hold true. We are not doing this for money, we are doing this because we love craft beer.” 

https://www.brewdog.com/blog/nailing-our-colours-to-the-motherfucking-mast

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I purposely use this quote for many reasons, but one of my pet peeves from companies is deflection and acting like a charlatan. BrewDog’s narrative has always been about independence, the greater good and sticking it to the macros. Today isn’t the first time they’ll bend the knee to work with a macro to suit their own agenda. On the forum, even today, members of BrewDog highlighted “We are here to make money as a business and to our shareholders…” this one of the most corporate stances to see within an independent business.

Since that infamous quote from 2015’s #independenceordeath, this narrative has been used for raising millions through subsequent EFP campaigns. It also has seen a fair shift in movement with breweries, where we have seen time and time again breweries utilising a portrayal of independence in some form, fighting off the hands of evil corporation, only for them to fall into the clutches of what they once stood against.

Look no further than at those involved with the United Craft Brewers: (https://www.beavertownbrewery.co.uk/united-craft-brewers/ )

Does this mean BrewDog will follow suit? Who knows?

I just find the narrative between the press release oh too familiar to Lagunita’s from the initial deal with Heineken, deflecting from the change in stance and highlighting it is about bridging the gap between the customer and the product.

My last thoughts: if you are dealing with the devil then why choose Coors? Is this a tactic to downplay the partnership by selecting a smaller player? Or is this the end of the beginning, and the beginning of the end of independence at BrewDog?

Looks like the door’s ajar.

New Year Competition – Raising a glass & raiding the stash!

Over the festive period I cracked open a few big beers from the stash and found some hidden gems I had forgotten about, which brought back some cracking memories had at @AbvBelfast.

With the festival calling time on what, in my opinion (see my thoughts here via Irish News), was the best beer festival in Ireland, I thought I’d do a little giveaway to help deal with the news, as well as relieve some of the January blues! 

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Beers are from 2015/16/17:

  • Galway Bay Brewery – 200 Fathoms – 10% – Teeling Whiskey Barrel Aged Imperial Stout – Batch 0182 (2016)
  • Buxton Brewery/Omnipollo – Original Texas Pecan Ice Cream –  10% (2016)
  • Five Points Brewing – Old Greg’s Barley Wine – 9.5% (2015)
  • Galway Bay Brewery – Diving Bell – 9% – Salted Caramel Wee Heavy (2015)
  • Founders – KBS – Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout – 12.4% (2016)
  • Buxton Brewery/Omnipollo –  Original Rocky Road Ice Cream –  10% (2016)
  • Galway Bay Brewery/Boundary Brewing- Harmonic Convergence 12% – American Barleywine – Batch 0347 (2017)

Rules:

1. Follow @Belfastbeerblog on Instagram or Twitter

2. Like the competition post on Instagram here or Twitter here (each are worth an entry)

3. Tag 2 friends and tell us what your favourite beer at any beer festival was. (Be sure to tell us the festival as well) 

4. Repost this picture with #BBBgiveaway and tag us on your timeline or story (both are worth an entry for the draw)

5. This competition is for anyone living In the UK, Republic of Ireland or EU. 

6. Obviously be 18 years or over 

This will run until Friday 31st January with the draw following that weekend. 

Best of luck! 

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How to make running fun?

One thing I’ve always wanted to do is shine a light on those within our scene, those who go about making things happen and help in making the beer scene the way it is.

Over the years I have been fortunate enough to meet some great people in this industry, one of whom is my good friend Stephen Kelly. So when I finally got round to putting together a list, he was the first person I wanted to get involved, not to just interview but more importantly catch up over a pint.

Enjoy our little chat and be sure to follow him and all his endeavors online.

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Firstly, welcome Stephen, thanks for taking the time out to have a chat with me. I already know who you are, but can you give our readers a little insight into who you are and why some of us may already recognise you?

Hi Steve, thank you. Well, I am a full-time teacher, part-time runner, and some times craft beer drinker.  I have been involved in areas of the local craft beer scene for a number of years now. Myself, and my good friend Michael Kerr, used to run the Belfast Beer Club in the Sunflower and the American. I have also been involved in the organisation of the ABV fest each year since it began, so some people may recognize me from those incredible weekends. I also help out with the Boundary Taproom in East Belfast. I have also been running (excuse the pun) the Belfast chapter of the Mikkeller Running Club since it began just over four years ago.  On reflection, this makes me sound very busy!

Can you tell us what Mikkeller Running Club is? It’s format? And how did it end up coming to Belfast?

The Mikkeller Running Club is a unique worldwide community of runners and drinkers. It began about 5 years ago in Copenhagen through the Mikkeller brewery. Mikkel himself is a keen and talented runner and he wanted to create a running club that was fun and social in nature. Runners around the world were drawn to the idea and soon there were chapters popping up across the globe. We have over 150 chapters worldwide and we encourage chapters to interact and run together. We call it MRCTourism.  I had the pleasure of running with the Chicago Chapter about three years ago. It was an unforgettably positive (and warm) experience. I shared the day with my wife and son, and we were treated to some proper American Midwest hospitality (and Malort).

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So, it sounds like you have a good following, but what if you don’t run frequently or at all? Is this still something you can get involved with?

The ethos is pretty straight-forward: run, drink, have fun. Runners of all abilities are welcome, and I always tell newcomers that the beer is as important as the run. We want to meet new people, regardless of age, ability or fitness.  Most chapters meet one Saturday morning a month at their chosen clubhouse, although some of the bigger worldwide chapters meet several times a month. The clubhouse is usually a craft beer bar that is happy to give runners a free pour of beer. Most members hang around for a few more beers and sometimes lunch too. We began in the Brewbot 4 years ago but moved to Woodworkers in Jan 2017. Rona and Filly have been incredible hosts to our chapter since our move.

Running and beer, this seems like a dangerous combination! Are there any other perks?

Well, we certainly haven’t encountered much danger yet, thank goodness! The main perk, for me at least, is the social nature of the club. We get to meet up with friends who we don’t necessarily get to see that often, so it gives us a monthly excuse for a good catch up. We meet, make new friends, stay fit (ish) and enjoy a couple of drinks. In our busy, modern society it’s nice to have anchors in our social life. I think the first Saturday of each month is an important anchor for me at least.

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You have just celebrated your 4th birthday, congratulations!  Over that time you have had 49 runs, can you tell us about your favorite run? Or an incident? (Ignoring the time I almost ran into a pillar obviously)

I try to keep the runners guessing each month, so I aim to create a different route each month. After 49 runs I am beginning to find that quite difficult! My favourite runs are the Pub-Runs. On some special occasions we like to do a run that connects several pubs across the city. We usually run from the Woodworkers to the American and stop for a half pint. Then we head onto the Sunflower for another, before we make our way back to Woodworkers for a final beer. The craic on those runs is always fantastic.

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When’s your next run? How can we all get involved?

Yes, we have got 49 runs under our belt since we began in 2015. We will hit 50 at Christmas so we’re hoping that will be a special day. Our next run will be on Saturday 7th December. We meet at 11.30am at the Woodworkers and run 5km before returning for our beer. Everyone is welcome, so we hope to see some new faces. You can follow our shenanigans on Twitter @MRCBelfast or search Facebook for Mikkeller Running Club – Belfast Chapter.

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Thanks for taking the time to have a chat, now let’s get back to this pint. Cheers!

Version Control

If, like me, you work a lot and sleep a little, but still try to have some sort of functioning social life; which means going out you hope for a good nights craic and limited heartfailure when purchasing drinks.

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It’s been 6, yes 6 years since the inaugural Beer Club Belfast took place in the Hudson Bar, notably one of few places willing to give ‘craft’ a chance. A monthly event that would showcase the diversity of what beer can offer. Throughout this time, we were introduced to some of the (now more established) breweries in the scene, such as Tiny Rebel, Kernel, Beavertown & Magic Rock.  

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A simple but effective format: pay a small fee (£10 ish) for a chance to sample some great beers that we may have never heard of or had the opportunity to try, chat amongst friends or like-minded individuals and gain some insight that could be fed back to our own circle of friends, favourite pubs, restaurants or off sales. 

It offered us the opportunity to try new beer, but also allowed us the environment to form friendships, insights to how complex the world of beer is and to bring back the art of conversation to the pub scene. 

Since 2013, a lot of things have changed for Beer Club; it moved to Sunflower/American Bar when the Hudson decided to go in a different direction (the less said of Peaky Blinders the better, for everyone’s sake). In this time the folk behind it have created and established one of the most exciting beer festivals in the UK & Ireland, the ABV festival. Something I argue and have discussed at length at being the linchpin to the modern beer scene here in Northern Ireland.  

Although since 2017 Beer Club Belfast, there hasn’t been any monthly meet ups. Something that, sadly I feel, shows the current state of play within the Northern Ireland market and beer culture. 

About a month or so ago I noticed a peculiar Facebook Event page on Ulster Sports Club feed, ‘Beer Club with Five Points Brewing.  Unfortunately I was unable to attend, but it did peak my interest.  

The Ulster Sports Club feels like a time capsule with dim lighting and décor to match the 70’s vibe that meets you. Combining an offering of macro/micro beers with pub grub, the whole aura of the place reminds me of The Hudson and not because some of the staff are former Hudson Employees, but because of the environment you are in  

I’ve attended two ‘Beer Clubs’; one for YellowBelly a couple of weeks back, and to this weeks Heaney tasting. Both of which I must add I thoroughly enjoyed, but I do have some thoughts on their variation of ‘Beer Club’….  

Free entry, a space to relax and chat to the producers or employees of the brewery and sample a few beers from that night’s chosen brewery. Sound’s great right?  

Personally, I think they are missing a trick with what their ‘Beer Club’ interpretation is; it feels very disjointed and arguably likens to that of a promotional stunt that you would associate with a nightclub pushing the latest cheap spirit/mixer concoction.  It seems to me that they have taken a concept they have seen work before and left it at that just a concept! It gives the impression that they are putting on an ‘event’ in the hope of increasing their footfall on a Thursday night.  

Yes, yes, I know this is a new bar, so why am I nit-picking 

It’s owned by one of the cities most recognised pub groups, Beannchor, they own a lot within the city and have some of the most recognised hospitality sports in Northern Ireland (The Merchant, The Cloth Ear, Dirty Onion etc.). Something that shines through is their ethos of pricing and their understanding that margins are there to be made, however they are ignoring the fact that margins between macro and micro are considerably different and should be rationalised accordingly. Price sensitivity is something we are still aware of, and buying a can of beer at £3.29 retail at Vineyard, with the same can costing £6.50 at Ulster Sports Club shows the level of ‘understanding’ of the market demographic. I do not begrudge anyone making a fair margin on their goods as they have taken considerable risks and have overheads to pay. However, having the same ethos of micro/macro margins is unrealistic – as macros, they are able to subsidise costs and have considerable marketing budgets to promote said brands, whereas the craft or micro producer creates small batch and is less likely to push the same volume as the likes of Guinness or Heineken.  

Anyway, pricing aside, I believe that Ulster Sports Club still have an opportunity to re-establish Beer Club.  

If they are able to invest in some marketing that is more than just an events page, by adding tailored content such as; introducing the brewery, its wares and engage on social media between the brewery and them would be great. Offering a space in the bar that isn’t associated with football or any sporting event would be great, providing the opportunity to be able to ask questions comfortably and not fear you’re interrupting someone else’s evening. This leads on to giving a platform to incorporate more interaction from the brewers or their employees. This, in my opinion, would help the community thrive, draw interest from the scene and arguably increase interest in the bar from a wider audience and add value to their experience.  

I did state that I had good experiences at the two events I attended, and this remains true, but it was because I was amongst friends having the opportunity to catch up and share a few drinks which doesn’t happen too often, and not because of the event itself.  

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With all that said, I do hold hope that it will get better but know it will take time and interest from key individuals, after all the craft drinker is only one part of their business model.  

What are your thoughts or experiences on the new beer club at Ulster Sports Club? Let me know!  

Boundary at 3

Over the weekend of 21stJuly 2018 you may have seen an influx of beer activity across social media platforms, as well as a swarm of Boundary Brewing T-shirts in the City Centre.  What was going on?

Well Boundary was celebrating their 3rdBirthday! Each year as they grow, so to do their birthday celebrations.

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This year we seen a 3-day celebration across their Taproom & the Sunflower Bar, featuring arguably one of the most ridiculous taplists NI has possibly ever seen in a bar featuring the likes of Track Brewing Co (Manchester), Northern Monk Brewing Company (Leeds), Deya Brewing Company (Cheltenham), Odyssey Brew Co (Herefordshire) & Verdant (Cornwall).

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Where have the years gone?  It almost feels like yesterday when Boundary had opened their first share offering in December 2014; so much has changed since then & they are not showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon.

If you do not know who Boundary Brewing are, they are a co-operative brewery based in Belfast focused on curating beer recipes that highlight modern brewing styles & techniques whilst having its members & community at the heart of the business.

Matthew Dick, head brewer & co founder, draws a lot of his influences from his own beer journey, citing his stint in America & many trips to Belgium as key inspirations. That time in America was during a period of the American Craft Beer Revolution, where craft breweries were rapidly churning out new styles; and when you can enjoy the wares of Cantillion, Orval etc you are bound to draw some influence from these historic beers.

This can all be seen by the variety of styles that Boundary have made since 2014 – around 70 different styles across 500+ Gyles to date.

In the last three years we have seen them grow via two share offerings to 1100 members, exporting to a number of different markets such as Denmark, Italy, mainland UK, France & many more.  Boundary has also introduced us to Mal McCay of the Heaney Brewery, brought a stack of collaborations to the NI scene, employed Mark (who brought us Bloody Chancer & Almark) and are now setting their sights on the next phase of expansion, including extending their premises as well as their offering.

Now getting back to the birthday celebrations, this year they invited some of the most exciting UK breweries here to NI.

In attendance we had Adam Robertson of Verdant, Colin Strong of NMBco, Theo Freyne from Deya, Will Harris from Track and Mitch & Alison Evans of Odyssey Brew Co.  The attendance of these established breweries shows just how much Boundary are respected within the scene.

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All of which took this change of scenery in their stride and embraced the festivities. They were very welcoming to the scene and engaged with everyone in discussions, drinks, as well as a few brewery talks at the Sunflower. Some of these brewers have connections with Ireland and it was nice to see them back here reminiscing, telling stories about their time here and highlighting the changes since their last visit.

For me this was important for the scene to experience these beers from arguably some of the most talked about or sought-after breweries within the UK. It also allowed us an opportunity to give them a first-hand insight into a market that often gets easily overlooked, mingle with members of the community, get a feel for what these potential consumers believe is relevant or a must for them. This in turn will hopefully aid in bringing these breweries back through the likes of beer festivals, potentially open or improve distribution links and lastly, and somewhat selfishly, we will see an increased amount of their products on our shelves quicker & fresher!

A potential knock-on effect that could happen (which could take months or even years before the market reaps the benefits) by having these beers more readily available, could possibly influence how local breweries go about their own processes, recipe building, quality control etc. and could arguably help them develop further & enter into new markets.

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For me personally this is an exciting time for Boundary, not only as a shareholder, but also as a customer – so here’s to the next phase!

Lastly, a special shoutout to all the staff at the Sunflower for looking after everyone, top class service and all round legends! To the team at Boundary for throwing one hell of a party & Nelson Sauvin for bringing some of those epic beers across for the party!

Cheers

Steven

Just in time for summer!

Having seen the news this evening, ABV normally only comes once a year but this year the lovely folk have announced their annual festival beer release, as they always do but with a slight twist… they are releasing it out in the wild from tomorrow onwards!

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Giving us all a summer treat before the main event once again at Carlisle Memorial Church on 31 August and 01 September 2018.

‘Hoop du Jour’ is a session IPA, which has been a collaboration in the works for some time with their good friends 8 Degress Brewing. ABV has always had collaboration at it’s core since day one and this something they have continually built on throughout each festival.

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Courtesy of ABVFest

“Brewed with Irish pale ale malt, Enigma, Amarillo and Denali hops, ‘Hoop du Jour’
is the end delicious result – a sessionable IPA, silky and full-bodied with rich red
fruit flavours.”

As you can see from the notes above we are in for a ‘juicy’ treat,  might have to make an exception of nipping out for a midweek tipple! As with all their festival beers, this is a one off so don’t wait too long before grabbing a bottle or three!

Hoop du jour will be heading its way to:

If you don’t see your local bar/bottleshop etc on here, advise them to contact Prohibition Drinks about this before its all gone!

Have you got your tickets yet? We have! (Saturday night session as we normally do) ABV have advised that their ‘Whole Shebang Weekend tickets’ & Saturday evening session tickets are selling fast!

We would advise getting on this sooner rather than later, as this is what we believe to be the best Beer Festival in Ireland. Tickets available at www.abvfest.com (please note no door sales, over 18s, ID required)

Lovely news to start to week to, really has got us excited for the festival. Think a wee beer is in order!

Steven

There’s something in the water!

A story waiting to happen, is that of the continued development of the Heaney Farmhouse Brewery! Which today starts its next chapter as it has been granted permission to develop a new microbrewery & on-site taproom at the iconic Heaney Farm in Bellaghy.

Seamus Heaney country? Well yes!

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Suzanne McCay (niece of the Nobel prize winning poet and playwright) & her husband Mal established the brewery with the vision of bringing something distinctive to the family farm. Sighting their plans to make use of the Bellaghy water from an aquifer right beneath the farm throughout the brewing process & as the project develops, introduce more farm utilisation within the process.

Over the last couple of years Mal McCay, has been earning his stripes as a brewer at East Belfast’s Boundary Brewing,  leaving the comforts of a full time job to push his desire forward for the Heaney Farmhouse Brewery.

DSC_0903An agreement between Mal & Matthew Dick (Boundary Brewing) allowed both parties to benefit from each other through labour, brewing techniques, quality assurance & gain vital insight to the wider brewing industry.

This collaborative agreement allowed Mal to split his time from brewing the ever growing Boundary back catalogue & work on the Heaney beers, brand & those important brewery plans!

In late 2016, they initially launched 4 beers into the market:  Blonde Session Ale, Irish Red Ale, Dry Irish Stout & IPA. These beers would become their core range & were well received by the market. Since the launch, they have seen an influx of interest by not just the local bars, off sales & restaurants but also from interested parties from across the border & Irish Sea.

Mal has continued to develop the recipes to achieve the highest possible quality whilst ensuring a sustainable and viable product.  This has led to a series of product exploration through small batch releases which included: a DDH IPA, American Pale Ale, Gingerbread Imperial Milk Stout, A Modern Red & a Big Little IPA. Noting that the last two have proved so successful they have been incorporated within the core range, bringing their initial release of beers up to 9!

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Photo courtesy of Heaney Farmhouse Brewery – http://www.heaneyfarmhousebrewing.com/

Parts of the range can be found in a variety of places across Northern Ireland*,  ranging from your local pub, to being served at a Michelin Star restaurant showing their appeal to the wider consumer.

Speaking to Mal briefly after the planning committee meeting, he discussed his joy of the news & explained to us:

“This approval to build is the result of an incredibly stressful and expensive process but it’s the only way I would’ve had it. There are easier ways of starting a ‘brewery’ as you can see from the various contract brews about in NI at the minute but if we were to do this right and build something we can be proud of then this was the only route we had.

Hard work and dedication usually pays off and it gains you respect and that’s important to me and the family. From the start I’ve designed, brewed and packaged the beers myself, it’s far too important for me to hand my product over to someone else, I’d like to think we’ve gone about this the right way. We could’ve installed a tiny little kit and just stuck to the usual range of ales but I always saw this as being a much bigger project and something I have great ambitions for.

When the brewery is complete I hope people see how much hard work and thought went into it, we’re building something that should help us achieve our ambitions to make super high quality, interesting and exciting beers and eventually bring the farm right into the brewery from the use of ingredients grown on our land. It’s onwards and upwards now.

I need to give major thanks to Matt and all at Boundary, I’ve had a blast working there from the early days and gained invaluable experience that I know for a fact I wouldn’t have gained elsewhere. Maybe a collab or two down the line eh?”

 

I for one, look forward to following this next chapter closely!

Steven

 

*NI distribution being looked after by Nelson Sauvin – correct at the time of post (05/06/18)

 

Tilt and Pour – an open discussion

Having recently came across some older, unpublished material, it got me thinking: why didn’t I post this? What was going through my head? What has changed since then and why haven’t I blogged in so long?

Answer: procrastination.

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If you exclude the pieces about Brewbot & the transition to Northern Lights, there has not been any new content since Boundary’s crowdfunding three years ago. These three years have been filled with massive changes to our bar scene, how we as consumers perceive ‘craft beer’ (for want of a better phrase) and changes in the NI beer landscape – all of which have led me to this open discussion piece.

One of the many reasons why I started blogging and in turn founded the BelfastBeerBlog was to help show people that there is much more to beer than the usual ‘Harp Ice’, ‘Guinness’ or even ‘Carlsberg’.

Having spent considerable time in the drinks industry within Belfast, one of my first roles was working in an Off Sales. To this day I still remember my first day; I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume & variety of wines, spirits & liquors I was faced with.

Full of optimism and enthusiasm, I started discussing how much I enjoyed rum and that Captain Morgans was one of my favourite rums to drink….

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This instantly conveyed to my colleagues that I knew absolutely nothing about rum, nevermind spirits; and opened my eyes to the fact that ‘Captain Morgans’ wasn’t necessarily a good brand, but just a very well marketed brand. I had associated good marketing with the product being good – which is not always the case!

Why am I talking about ‘Captain Morgans’ on a beer blog? Well it’s actually to highlight, not only my naivety, but how excellent marketing and product placement has been influential on our purchases over the years.

Let’s face it; we see ads everywhere we go, on TV, our smartphones, on the Internet etc. So regardless of whether we like or dislike a brand, a well marketed brand will likely draw some sort of action from us such as: ‘Sick of seeing that ad’, ‘Oh, did you see that new ad for Product x?’

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But what about the brand(s) you didn’t see an advert for? Does that mean they are inferior to the ones you see everywhere?

To put it simply, No*

(*This is all subjective to personal taste of an individual brand or product)

During my time at the off sales, we always had the usual suspects (Guinness, Carlsberg, Smirnoff etc.) on offer and our majority of sales came through these established brands – well until the student loan ran out and it was all ‘whatever is cheapest mate!’.

During a long stock take, mid discussion with my supervisor, I noticed a bottle of ‘Weissebier’ (I did not pronounce it correctly) and the conversation quickly turned into a review on the beer.

Straight to the point, he told me it was completely different to 95% of the beers here and I should take a few home and try them out. With that in mind, I bought a few bottles and did exactly that, and to this day I can still recall the conversation I had with my flatmates that it didn’t taste like anything we’d had before! It genuinely baffled me that what I defined ‘beer’ as, was actually only one small piece of the ever-developing beer puzzle.

From that day onwards I started seeking out new beers, different styles and asking why didn’t I know about this beer?

In Northern Ireland, we have a very different bar scene to the rest of the UK & our good friends in the Republic. This stems from many avenues, but for now, I am going to focus on the macro’s strong-hold over bars/pubs and restaurants.

Across Northern Ireland, many bars have actual ties with the owner/distributor of these brands (Tennents, Diageo, Coors etc.).  What tends to happen is the licence owner(s) or potential owner(s) may want to revamp their premises, take over new premises or just want better priced kegs/products etc. They reach an agreement, whether its money towards the rebuild, rebrand, lines or even a lower price on their products/kegs but that comes with a catch.

Normally they restrict the number of brands or products that the bar can serve outside of their portfolio, this may be on tap or bottle lines.
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Article: ‘Drinks giant branded a bully for Arthur’s Day cover-up of rivals’ by John Mulgrew for the Belfast Telegraph

Within Northern Ireland,  draught has always been key and this is normally where the stipulation falls under for the licence owner(s)/macro owner/distributor.

This process allows the owner(s) to do what their intended desire was, but leaves a lot to be said for new entrants into the market.

This, arguably, restrictive approach has been happening for years, much longer than I have been drinking, never mind been on this earth. It has developed relationships with bar owners over the years or in some cases, even generations of owners, which has inadvertently created a constrained marketplace with regards to not only choice but the actual owners of bars as well.

Over the years we have seen bars change hands or disappear, but some of the most visited and sought-after bars actually have the same licence owner and arguably have the overall control of what the bar may represent with regards to stock etc.

This is a very brief overview of what can happen sometimes and not what always happens within the NI bar scene.

Another issue within NI is licensing; we only have a certain number of licenses available here and as mentioned before many are actually owned by a somewhat exclusive few who have an arguable stronghold over the market.

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Another consideration is the availability of licenses within NI compared to that of the mainland UK.  NI licenses are not readily available and normally occur at a high asking price whenever one does become available.

See Slugger O’Toole’s post here on stumbling across an NI drinks license for £80,000.

In addition, we have restrictive trading at specific times of the year, our licensing hours differ from the rest of the UK and this is something I will not go into further as there is ample amount of material on these specific areas online already.

We have seen a recent rise in breweries over the last few years in Northern Ireland, Roy @Quareswally (02/03/18) has a list here (some I would debate are not still in operation, but this is subject to confirmation).

So, taking Roy’s list, we have 24 breweries, 7 contract-based breweries & 4 brewpubs but for this discussion, I will set aside brewpubs.

For the 24 breweries, how many brands/products do they each have? What is their average lifespan? What styles are they?

If every brewery had 3 beers then we would have 72 different beers from NI breweries, do we have enough taps for them all? –  no, as the majority of the lines are tied**

(**not every bar/restaurant)

Do we have enough shelf space for them? At a push, you could possibly have one of each but the likelihood of having the option of buying one of every single beer available in NI is not practical or sustainable for all parties involved.

Why are you telling me this, what can we do?

As mentioned before, I was driven to find out more about different beers; I jumped in blindfolded and honestly, it was all a bit chaotic and confusing. It wasn’t until I found a few like-minded early adopters that advised me on more useful resources and breweries to seek out in my bid to research beer further.

This was dynamic in my own path within the industry, but what about everyone else? How can we show there is much more to beer than what they know?

Well in my eyes it can be simply put down to education, I am a firm believer that knowledge is power and within this arguably restrictive industry we have been besieged by advertising and strangled by corporations for too long.

Education offers us an out and a starting point to move beyond the Macro corporations within beer.  With that in mind I want to make it clear that I am not saying everyone should not drink macro beer – each to their own – rather, I want to give them the option of moving outside the bubble of ‘beer is this!’ or ‘this is all beer has to offer’.

Education is great, but what exactly am I referring to? For me, it’s the key details on the brewing process, the ingredients, highlighting differing styles & their characteristics and what sets the beer apart from a mass-produced lager!

But how can we find this information out?

Consider this very basic overview of the journey that beer may take to get to you:

On the basic level we have: Brewery -> Distribution-> Consumer

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Let’s look at this in reverse, how do we as a consumer seek out products? Local Off sales, bars/pub/restaurant, supermarkets etc. so what info can we source from here?

Consider the role of the bar manager/tender; they act as an intermediary between you and your choice of drink/food etc. In our local scene we see a variety of products across the fridges, shelves or on tap and sometimes we genuinely have no idea what it is or what it tastes like. Depending on the individual determines how/what they order, for example, we have the die-hards who drink what they know and that’s it, the ‘open to anything’ who are just happy to be there, the ‘explorer’ who finds joy in trying new things out at least once, and so on.

The bartender shares their own experiences of the products, which could be from further research or even a regurgitated marketing spiel to make you aware of the offerings at their establishment. It’s good business to have staff trained and understand the products they sell, this ensures maximum sales potential, which reduces stock holding and keeps cash flowing through their tills. Yet I find that even today on occasion, there is some sort of reluctance from individual bar owners/managers in educating the consumer/their team and are happy to just pour the pints, and ensure stability through tried and tested methods.

This model is fine but these bars may struggle to keep interest as the consumer develops new tastes/interests that lead them out of their ‘market reach’. I am not saying that every bartender needs to have an in-depth knowledge about every single product, it would be awesome but not realistic, but at least have some sort of fundamental knowledge of their core products or new products to ensure that the brand has a chance to develop.

Moving back up this basic overview to the role of distributors; they come in and discuss their portfolio to the bars/off sales etc and try to find a route for their products to market. In days of old, a lot of this would have been driven on best pricing got you the deal – but as the consumer appetite and interests have changed, so too has the role of the distributor, particularly within the ‘craft sector’. It is simply not enough to have a portfolio with products deemed as ‘craft’ to generate interest – they are acting on behalf of the brands they represent, and so take the brand’s ethos, and story across to the potential buyer.

Some do this by offering in-house training to help the bartenders be aware of what the product is, or introduce new concepts to them.  They also allow for event curation such as meet the brewer events, pop-up markets, beer festivals, beer clubs and beer/food pairing dinners.

Consider if the distributor did not do this – what chance does the brand have from leaving the source to grow within the industry? Very little.

Taking it back to the brewery, they make beer – that’s it right?

It’s much more complex than that.  Many that are in operation are a small team and must balance a variety of roles such as brewer/head of sales/quality control/head of marketing etc. to help ensure their product reaches the marketplace.

Take, for example, the use of ingredients; why would you want to know that? Its only beer!

Genuinely you would be surprised what you can find in beers these days, after drinking a Lime Hibiscus & Chilli Gose last night I can confirm it was a welcome reminder that beer is much more than Hops/Water/Yeast/Malt.

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Some of us want to know more about what we are drinking, whether its for that latest badge on untapped, to discuss with your friends or even need to know these for dietary requirements/health concerns etc.

Looking at ingredients initially to try and give a fuller picture; ingredients play a vital role within beer, simple alterations or techniques can change a beer completely, not only in taste, but complexity too.

This is where communication from the brewery to the consumer is vitally important.  Take ‘sour beers’ for example, we have seen a rapid increase in these beers appearing across our shelves, without the information on the label, communication via social media/blogs or information from the distribution network we may easily mistake it as just another ‘beer’.

The consumer would surely have a shock to the system if they drank a ‘Salty Kiss’ for the first time if they were unfamiliar with the style or the taste profile.

The main aspect from the brewery side of things is that transparency of their products, ingredients, processes etc help build the community with regards education and is likely to create a bond with their consumers.

Initially, our simple overview has been developed into:

Ingredients –> Brewery – > Brew –> Packaging/Conditioning –> Distribution Network ->Bar/Pubs/Restaurant -> You the consumer

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Courtesy of Warren Curry Illustration 

After finishing off my degree in Manchester I returned to Belfast having, what can only be described as beer envy.  In the time I had left Belfast, it had become ripe with opportunity and insight such as meet the brewer events, pop-up markets, new breweries and beer/food dinners. I genuinely had a beer events tab on my calendar to ensure I could make such events.

One of the first opportunities I found in NI was @BeerClubBelfast, a monthly event at Hudson/Sunflower/American Bar, where a series of beers would have been sampled covering a variety of different styles or providing an insight into a particular new brewery entering the NI marketplace.

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Personally, I found this super insightful, particularly for trying to understand what beer has to offer, what was accessible to the local bars and identifying key players in the trade.

Another great opportunity was working with distributors that went beyond their remit for their brands., In particular, highlighting Nelson Sauvin & Prohibition, where respectively between them, the NI beer scene would not be as accessible if it was not for them – they introduce us to such brands as Beavertown, Kernel, Cloudwater, Tiny Rebel, Magic Rock and Northern Monk, to name but a few. They have also brought these brands and much more to our local scene through events such as meet the brewer, beer dinners and appearances at NI beer festivals. This has allowed the scene to develop, introduce new consumers to the marketplace, increased variety and helped showcase what products are available outside of NI.

Lastly was the development of the beer festivals in Northern Ireland; a series of festivals of differentiating tiers to appeal to the masses, the geeks and those who fall in between. ABV festival in my eyes is one of the best beer festivals in the UK & Ireland, it has brought so much interest from not just our neighbouring countries, but also from further afield, bringing outside influence/interest into our scene. This isn’t implying that the likes of Portrush beer festival, Hilden beer & music festival, the Belfast beer and cider festival are any less important, just that ABV appeals more to me and my interests within the industry.

So, I have discussed some of the wonderful things the NI beer scene has done over the years but what about what it is currently doing?

Having left my role within Brewbot about 18 months ago, it has been interesting stepping outside of the industry and looking in from more of a consumer perspective. Over that time, we have seen a dynamic change within Belfast – yes, we have seen increased interest within what some may refer to as the ‘craft sector’ but overall, we have seen some stagnation within Belfast.

I am singling Belfast out here on purpose as it arguably leads the NI beer scene with regards to selection, interest, and opportunity of finding ‘craft’ beer.

But you said we had all these new breweries popping up in NI, so why do you think we are stagnating? It’s a complicated point of view, but just entertain me on this just a little longer.

As mentioned before we have 24 breweries, without considering contract brews or brewpubs here in NI, and our bars are somewhat restricted with regards to what they can or cannot sell.  This means we cannot ensure that their products will make our shelves, alongside the additional competition from more established UK & Irish ‘craft’ beer brands and macro-based brands.

As a business, they can see these established brands selling as they have a proven track record, and many seek comfort in these records as they ensure stability within their business; while introducing new and untested brands within a marketplace can be a risk and, arguably be an unnecessary one at that for a business.

Depending on the bar model/owners will depend on how they approach their offerings:

Just look at the ‘beer nirvana’ that was Brewbot; originally designed as a place where beer was the centerpiece and everything revolved around it – this changed dramatically towards its end.  From initially being the market leader in selection and events, to changing its wares towards more of a ‘craft bar’ to ensure stability due to issues outside of the bar. Even WoodWorkers is modifying its offering, where we have seen more established ‘craft’ brands more frequently on their taps. Northern Lights, since taking over from Brewbot have embodied a similar approach to the rest of the Galway Bay owned premises. Combining ‘craft’ drinking options, such as spirits, wines & of course a wide selection of beers, while using food as a key influencer to attract as wide a range of consumers as possible.

What has happened to the early adopters and the white whale chasing? – {Pearse I blame you for that analogy).

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The flip side is that other bars/restaurants are carving their own paths such as the Sunflower/American bar, Errigle and the Black Box. Not forgetting our bottle shops/off sales, such as The Vineyard/Neil Wines and the likes, who have continually developed their product knowledge and offerings to suit their consumer’s needs and wants.

In addition, the rest of NI is slowly adapting to the ‘craft’ offering with pockets of interest from Derry/L’Derry, Newcastle, Bangor, Portrush and more. Until more locations adopt or even open with a ‘craft beer’ offering Belfast will continue to somewhat stagnate until enough people are interested nationwide to allow more unique, weird and wonderful beers to enter into the marketplace.

It is almost like a beer hierarchy – I genuinely hate myself for using such terminology but until more adopters are established, the NI scene is going to relatively stagnate.

The difference is we are seeing a more widespread fight from the industry, take Boundary’s taproom – an established name within our scene whom have put questions forward about licensing within NI to Stormont – apparently that is still a thing. Allowing members of the public to enter and taste their beers from the source, whilst educating the consumer on their ethos, beer styles and where they want to be! This has been echoed by Lacada who have also introduced a taproom into their model. Taprooms are vital to breweries, as they aid in cash flow and potentially allows them to reinvest quicker.

In terms of availability of products, some of our oldest breweries such as Hilden & Whitewater are readily available in Supermarkets – this is fantastic to see as they are on shelves with major brands to highlight something from NI instead of just the Macro approach.

The range of styles/use of ingredients within NI breweries where previously breweries would have entered the market with a 500ml bottle of stout, red and pale ale, but over the last few years as consumers become more educated, so too has the offering of local brewers.  They have introduced a variety of new styles such as Berliner Weisse, Cryo IPA, DIPA and anything barrel aged, which would have been relatively unheard off previously.

We have also seen an increase in beer affiliated social groups such as the Mikkeller Running Club; Belfast Chapter, Captained by Stephen Kells & the Belfast Women’s Beer Collective founded by Mardi. These groups are playing a key role in the future of the scene, generating interest, encouraging us to get involved more and of course being more sociable.

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But what about those beer events?

Yes, I must admit that there is noticeably less of these events within the NI scene.  One potential view is that they have been somewhat absorbed by beer festivals and dinners but this does not mean they are any less important. Hopefully, as the rest of NI develops, we will see an increase of the frequency of these events or ones like them.

Without coming across as being critical of NI breweries, we are not quite there with our offering imo.  From the 24 breweries, 7 contract breweries and 4 brewpubs I would arguably only drink a small selection of these beers; I have nothing against them, but I have found some local brews to be tainted with infections, misrepresented (some of the contract brews) and arguably not suitable for consumption. However, this does not stop me from revisiting them.

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With that said we have some absolute cracking beers here in NI, with a series of new breweries on the horizon, but we have a serious learning curve to follow the likes of the market leaders from the rest of UK & Ireland to ensure sustainability and growth. If we do not look at these factors, what we could see is a series of disappearing/liquidated breweries or individual brewers being absorbed by other breweries.

I have banged on here for over 3000 odd words – apologies, but these were a few things I wanted to get off my chest and offer for individuals to analyse.  In no way is everything I say 100% accurate, rather it is just an opinion on the current state of the industry from one point of view and welcome everyone and anyone to add to this discussion.

The main points you should take from this are:

  • I am rusty with my writing
  • NI beer scene is growing, but now at a slower rate than it once was
  • Belfast beer selection is currently going through a phase of stagnation
  • We are producing some great beers but some still need refinement
  • Education for the consumer is key to the survival of this movement
  • Transparency and communication are vital for breweries to survive
  • Avoided the border/Brexit discussion

I look forward to hearing your views and opinions on this piece which will hopefully add to this discussion – is this the start of the next phase of BelfastBeerBlog?

Who knows.

Steven Barr

P.S. If you haven’t already, pour yourself a beer, you deserve it after reading this…

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All of the lights 

Earlier this week we saw the announcement of Galway Bay’s (GBB) acquisition of Brewbot Belfast on the Ormeau Road Belfast.

On Tuesday, Jason one of the owners or GBB confirmed the news officially on Twitter, leaving only a couple of hours left to enjoy one last drink at the bar that had promised so much.

Many took advantage of enjoying some of the existing stock at reduced rates, including some excellent sharing bottles from the states.

Following on from Jason’s announcement he quickly answered some of my questions from ‘Second bite at the Cherry?’ Where he briefly mentioned what to expect from the venture – “…20 Taps, Cask, Food, Fun”

Very little was known about the bar at this stage, never mind what it could be possibly named until a subtle hint was noticed by a few, the addition of ‘Northern Lights’ to Jason’s Twitter Bio which consists of the current bars owned by GBB.

Interesting name choice, considering this acquisition. Northern Lights is GBB’s first bar outside of the ROI. Playing on the Aurora borealis which is a series of dancing lights seen above the magnetic poles of the Northern & Southern Hemispheres.

A little more insight into the bar was released, highlighting that their 20 taps will consist of a combination of 6 of their own GBB beers & the remaining 14 lines left free for rotation between breweries, as well as to expect imminent information about an upcoming Meet The Brewer event. 

Are we beginning to see a more structured picture of what the bar will become? Is this their lighthouse bar giving direction for future GBB endeavors? Such as expanding their bar portfolio into the rest of the UK? Who knows. They have a big enough task tackling the Northern Irish market to keep them occupied for now.

Northern Lights may be the new kid on the block, but with the backing and insight from such an established name, one can only expect good things. Doors will open early next week, check their Twitter for the most up to date information. Be sure to call in for a drink or two, I know I will.

Steven Barr