Brewers of the North: No.5 Whitewater Brewery


When I initially started to plan this series Whitewater was one of the first breweries I contacted. Disappointingly I had to reschedule the original planned visit for one a couple of months later.

Unfortunately this meant I didn't get to see around their old brewery before they finished up brewing there, but on the big plus side it meant I was able to get to see their brand spanking new, purpose built, modern brewery.

Whitewater have been on the go since 1996 and are currently the biggest independent brewery in Northern Ireland. Started by Bernard and Kerry Sloane in a shed on Bernard's family farm. With no brewing experience and real ale an incredibly niche market in 90's Northern Ireland, it was an incredibly brave step.

I have a soft spot for the old girl as Whitewater was the first locally brewed ale I ever tasted, probably around 10 years ago. Back then if you wanted real ale you were limited to English big brewers like Greene King, Wychwoodand so on. So a locally brewed beer was a revelation.

So on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, accompanied by the long suffering Mrs Hallion, who'd agreed to spend one of our days holidays on this, we set off on the relatively long journey to Castlewellan.

I'd emailed the owner Bernard the day before to confirm we were still good to proceed, unfortunately it turned out he had to go to a meeting around the time of our arrival but had arranged for his wife Kerry to show us about.

When we arrived Kerry was dealing with some brewery business herself, running one of the biggest independent breweries in the country is a busy job. But she soon emerged smiling and carrying a now cold cup of coffee that she didn't have time to enjoy.

You could tell that Kerry was justifiably proud of their new brewing setup and took great pride in showing us the process from start to finish.

The first thing that struck me (apart from the impressive scale) was the flow of the brewing process. As this is a purpose built brewery they have been able to lay everything out just how they wanted it and standing up where the barley is milled Kerry pointed out every step in the process right down the the bottling line and the storage at the other side of the brewery.

What I found particularly interesting was the centrifuge and pasteurising equipment, I've never seen anything like that in a craft brewery. It allows them much more control over clarity and purity than other brewers. It really is the epitome of a microbrewery, everything you'd expect in a large industrial brewery but on a smaller scale.

Their bottling line would be the envy of most local craft brewers. The fully automated machine, adds labels, cleans and sterilises, fills under pressure and caps, all in one. All that is needed for constant bottling is someone loading empty bottles and someone unloading the full ones.

From there we went next door to an empty space that they plan on making into a visitor centre, with large windows onto the brewery floor it will give any visitor a clear view of the brewery at work without the health and safety nightmare of having to taking them into the work area itself.

Even though Whitewater is an old hand by NI brewing standards, they aren't afraid to update their image and beer styles to match the newly emerging craft market.

Kerry even told me of their plans for a brew school, where budding brewers can learn how to make the beer they love themselves.
I've seen a few local breweries do these classes and they seem very popular, so I've no doubt this will do well too.

Like most of the brewers I've spoke to, Whitewater are keen to see a change in our licensing laws that would allow them to sell direct to the public, like other breweries around the UK and the world can do.

With the tour over its usually question time but Kerry's tour was so thorough and I'm so familiar with Whitewaters work, that I didn't have much to ask.

I left with a case of Hen, Cock and Pigeon Rock a souvenir of my visit. I'd only tried it the previous day but was instantly hooked and is now a firm favourite of mine.

It's an Irish red but I wouldn't have guessed that without reading the label. Irish reds are often easily dismissed as a beer style. Very drinkable as a session beer but not normally very exciting. The Hen, Cock and Pigeon Rock however was slightly hoppy, fruity notes, a gentle malted flavour and a citrus zest that really lightens the whole brew, well it was on draft, I can't speak for the bottles yet.

Whitewater have always had an extremely solid core range but in recent years they've really shown what they can do with some new additions.

Thanks again to Bernard for arranging my visit and to Kerry for her great tour.
I look forward to seeing what comes out of the new brewery in the near future.

Brewers of the North: No.4 Hillstown Brewery 


My visit to Hillstown was unlike any of my previous brewery visits. Whilst they took place during a normal brew day with me dropping in on the proceedings and generally getting in the way with my camera and notebook. This visit was arranged to coincide with an launch event that was taking place at the brewery that day. 


They were celebrating becoming part of the Economusee network. Economusee essentially promotes traditional crafts and skills as a tourist attraction to offer more to visitors to Northern Ireland than just the big attractions. So ideally you might spend you morning watching a man make hurling sticks by hand at Scullion Hurls, then visit the rock formations created by a giant at the causeway before getting a close up look at how beer is made at Hillstown before finishing your day visiting the site where the fateful RMS Titanic was built at Belfast Docks. 

The event meant I was not the only person looking for a word with Jonathan, one of the founders. In fact when I first spotted him he was chatting to a rather glamorous looking lady, she looked a lot like Pamela Ballentine, a minute later I looked again and came to the conclusion that it bloody well was Pamela Ballentine. I suspect if you’re not from Northern Ireland or are under 30 you’ve probably no idea who I’m talking about, but she is a local TV personality, a news presenter, she’s kind of a big deal, like a Northern Irish Ron Burgundy. 


I decided to explore the farm a little whilst Jonathan was talking. It’s quite an impressive setup actually, apart from the working farm they also have a farm shop and a restaurant. But what really drew my attention was a little tap room beside the brewery. I wandered over to see what I could sample. I had a small taster of their Goats Butt wheat beer that had recently won a gold medal at the all Ireland craft beer championship. I could see why, it was very fine indeed, quite fruity and was clearer than I’d normally expect from a wheat beer. I took my time to appreciate it and chatted to some of the other visitors, by the time I was done Jonathan was free to show me around. 


The story of Hillstown Brewery’s begins with the farms cows. Jonathan and Nigel hard heard about feeding beer to cattle, most notably Wagyu cows for the famous Kobi beef. They wanted to do something similar themselves and with some homebrewing knowledge they had an idea how to do it. 

We visited the aforementioned beasts in the cattle shed next door to the brewery. The idea with feeding beer to cows is to calm them and cause them as little stress as possible. This leads to relaxed, more tender beef. I must admit those cows were definitely relaxed, it was the quietest cattle shed I’d ever heard. 


Next I had a look around the brew house itself, a well laid out modern setup that has expanded several times since the breweries inception, the most recent additions in equipment will make them the 3rd biggest brewer in Northern Ireland after Hilden and Whitewater. 


But what really gives Hillstown an advantage over other breweries in the country is their supply chain for ingredients. Through their brewing supply company Get er Brewed they import large quantities of hops, barley and yeast that they not only supply to local homebrewers but also to other craft breweries, including some of their larger rivals. This not only means an extra revenue stream for the brewery but also by buying their ingredients in bulk they are able to reduce the cost of their brew days, without compromising on the quality of ingredients. 


By then Jonathan was being called away to speak to someone else so I decided it was time to grab some of the food that was put on for us, the burgers made from their beer fed beef were particularly tasty. 


Then followed many speeches and the ex news readers many attempts at smashing a bottle of Stout on the wall of the brewery, I think more damage was done to the wall than the bottle, obviously Hillstown don’t cut corners on their glassware quality. 


Whist the rest of the visitors went on to do a tour of the brewery I hung back and chatted to Ally, the young recently appointed head brewer. He was brought over to run the brewery after completing a degree in brewing and distilling at Herriot Watt university in Edinburgh. An institution close to my heart as it’s where I met my wife. 


Before I left I was given a selection of their beers to take home and try. And any future brewers should take note, I like my bribes in liquid form. 


I spent the next few weeks working my way through the beers and in all honesty not a single one of them disappointed. But one of them had quite an effect on me and changed a long held mindset of mine. 


They brew 2 IPAs, the first one Squealing Pig is a pretty solid example of a traditional IPA and it went down very well. The second one is their Henrietta Hen, a west coast style IPA that packs a punch of hops. 


Now the few of you who read all my blogs will know that I have always been a dark ale fan, especially Belgian dark ales. I don’t mind a good IPA from time to time but it was just never my thing. I never got on board with the whole loading a beer with hops scene, so the promise of a west coast IPA wasn’t exactly making my mouth water but not being a man to waste free beer I drank it anyway….

And wow! Really bitter but balanced with zesty floral notes that really cut to the punch. I took my time to properly appreciate it and I was saddened when I finally finished it. 

The following week I went back and bought several more which didn’t last long. I think I’m becoming a bit of a Hillstown fanboy. 


That was a few weeks ago, I had a backlog of other articles to write and a day job to do before I finally got round to finishing up this piece. Since then, spurred on by that Henrietta Hen, I’ve temporarily left my dark beers to the side and thrown myself into trying as many modern hoppy IPAs as I can. Comparing them to the Hen, many have fallen short but a few have really been great. 


So, to Jonathan, Nigel, Ally and everyone else involved at Hillstown, I thank you and I can’t wait to try that DIPA you’re working on at the minute. 

Brewers of the North: No.3 Bullhouse Brewing Company 


As I drove up to the old farmhouse where Bullhouse is based I had to stop on the lane as my way was blocked by a squirrel, a pigeon and rabbit huddled together in what looked like deep discussion. The squirrel lifted his head and shot me a look like I’d interrupted an important meeting before they quickly dispersed allowing me to approach the house. It was definitely the most surreal start to a brewery visit so far. 

I parked up and saw William come out of what I’d knew from his website to be an old cattle shed where they’d once kept the bull of the farm, hence the name Bullhouse brewing. 

William was dressed in shorts and tshirt as it was that rare thing in Northern Ireland, a sunny day. He had in his hand a pump that he was busy trying to fix. After quick introductions he showed me into the brewery. 


Now bare in mind I’d just came from Ards brewing company (see: Brewers of the north: No.2) that same day, the contrast was striking. Where as Ards was white and clinical in appearance, this was much more rustic. William pointed out the difference himself but to be fair this is exactly what I think of when I think of a farmhouse brewery. And having tasted the beer coming out of that little brewery I was even more impressed. 


William is younger than most the brewers I’ve met so far and that probably explains his energy and passion. Not only is he running the brewery on top of a full time job but his belief in perfection and going beyond the standard brews is admirable. He happily admits that he often has smaller profit margins because he refuses to compromise on his ingredients and his quality control is ruthless too, if he’s not 100% satisfied with the finished beer he dumps the entire lot. Now, that’s not shocking in a large brewery but in such a small one it’s very honourable as each brew would account for a considerable percentage of his overall profit and any lost batches would be very costly. In fact the company motto is:

We brew great beer, at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always great beer

I think that says it all about the ethos of the brewery, also after reading that you’ll not be surprised to hear that William self funded the brewery himself. 

The reason why Bullhouse was started is a familiar story among craft breweries. After spending time abroad William developed a taste for craft beers that he was unable to satisfy when he returned home. He saw this hole in the market and decided to scale up his home brewing and try and establish a full size brewery. He began by ringing round local craft breweries and asking if they were selling any equipment, eventually acquiring some vessels from Farmageddon Coop Brewery to get him up and running. It took him a year of hard work from start to finish with a lot of long nights and favours from friend to make that a reality. 

Bullhouse has now been brewing for just over a year but it’s gained a strong reputation and definitely punches above its weight. This is because William realised early on that to have any chance against the bigger names in craft beer he’d have to come at them from a different angle. That meant brewing beers that others weren’t, such a Uber Tuber, his Saison made with comber potatoes or his Notorious P.I.G. a maple, bacon and coffee Porter. 


He also teamed up with local designers Andy Hamilton and Chris Ellis to create a bright and distinctive series of labels that are modern and funky and really make his beers stand out on the shelf. Personally I think his cans of Small Axe IPA are the best looking beer containers of any NI brewery, and the beer inside then is pretty damn good too. 


He’s also one of the few NI brewers to can some of his beers. This is done in England and returned to him, where it is sent to pubs and shops all over the country by a local distributor, as opposed to delivering from the boot of his little Renault Clio as he’d originally done. By outsourcing the canning and distribution, William has been able to use his valuable time to concentrate on what he calls “the fun stuff”, the brewing. 

William doesn’t plan on brewing from the old Bullhouse for long. He told me of his hopes for reform in the NI licensing laws that would allow brewers to sell direct to the public as they do in most other countries. Ideally he’d then move to bigger premises where he can have a taproom on site. 

I certainly hope he’s successful as that sounds like a place I’d very much like to have a pint. 

Brewers of the North: No. 2 Ards Brewing Company


I set off early on the Saturday morning and made my way to Greyabbey on the Ards Penninsula, an hour and a halfs drive from my house, it’s a long way but the sun was shining and the drive down the peninsula, along Strangford lough is hard to beat on a day like this. 

It’s not a part of the country I know well so I was glad of the sat nav, which took me to a small bungalow with the number 34, I was looking for 34B which I then assumed must be the business address of the brewery but I couldn’t see any outbuildings. I rang Charles, the owner/head brewer, and he straight away asked “are you at a bungalow with a blue door? Well that’s not us” 

He directed me back onto the road and to a little lane next door, I hadn’t even noticed the lane first time it was so hidden by the trees. It’s was long and narrow and wound threw the trees until I came out the other side and saw the house. But I still couldn’t see a building big enough to be the brewery. 


Charles came out and after the formalities he showed me to his brewery, we walked through the trees along a trail that was only just visible until we rested a timber clad building that whilst of a modern design, blended into its settings beautifully. 


It even had hops growing up ropes attached to the building at 45 degrees like guide lines of a giant tent. 

We went through the outer door of the brewery and Charles changed into white wellyboots and handed me a pair of blue overboots, I’ve worked in food production when I was younger so I knew the drill but I’d never experienced this before on one of my brewery visits. 

I’d heard rumours before about Charles’ setup here and when we entered the main brewing room they were confirmed. It was immaculate, a coated, drained floor, white plastic easy clean walls and highly polished stainless steel vessels. Charles explained that he treated beer production like the production of any other food or drink and hygiene was a massive priority. 

Charles gave me the tour and explained how his layout worked. Unlike any of the other breweries I’ve visited the building of Ards brewery was build from scratch purely for the purpose of brewing beer. This means everything is in a place not because that is where it fitted but because that is where Charles, who is an architect by trade, planned for it to go. Everything is in its own separate area and it flows perfectly, with raw ingredients coming in one door and finished beer going out another. 


I love the old style farm breweries I get the chance to visit, there is a natural kind of feel to them that appeals to my romantic side, but I must admit there is another side of me, an anally retentive obsessive side that found the layout of Ards brewery to be a artwork of order that I couldn’t help but admire. 

We went back up to the house for coffee and a chat next. 


Charles told me how he got started in brewing. He was a successful architect but like many people involved in the construction industry, myself included, the recession forced a career change. As the worked got less, he actively set out to find out what he could do next, his first idea was a bakery, as he enjoyed making bread, however baking for fun and baking for business are very different and he wasn’t keen at his stage in life of getting up for work at 4am. 

A friend actually suggested brewing and despite no real experience in brewing he was interested, the same friend taught him the basics and that was it, he was hooked. Shortly after he bought the equipment and started homebrewing. From there he expanded and built the brewery he now uses. 


The brewery is definitely more geared to real ale styles than any of the newer craft styles. He’s a wealth of knowledge of hop variety and seems like he wants to use them all at some point, an obsession that will keep him busy for a long time. With a core range of over 8 beers much of the time you can see his varied tastes. Unfortunately as the craft and real ale market grows here shelf space is becoming rarer and Charles now says he struggles to find anywhere that will stock his entire range. 

Currently Charles is splitting his time between brewing and his architecture work and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. Fortunately if he does decide to push ahead more with the brewery his current setup is so well catered that he thinks he could easily triple his output without having to expand his equipment or facilities. 

The beers are very much local, in fact Charles intentionally only supplies within a 10 mile radius of the brewery, so if you want to get a taste of his wares you may take a trip down the pennisula, a trip worth it for the beer alone but the scenery is a welcome bonus. 

Ironically for a man who has such a modern brewery he seems almost old fashioned in other ways, he has no website for example and a very limited social media presence. After meeting Charles it’s very clear that is just his way and while it may not be the best tactic from a business growth perspective, he’s kept more than busy with his loyal local fan base. You can’t help but respect the purity of it, even though it would be nice to be able to click a button online and have the beer delivered to my door, but for the time being it looks like I’ll have to make that drive back down the Ards pennisula every time I need stocked up. 

…Worth it though

Devils Washtub, North Coast IPA

  • Brewed by: Lacada Brewery Co-op
  • Style: Dark IPA
  • ABV%: 5.2
  • From: Portrush, N.Ireland

Billed as a North Coast IPA I was unsure as what to expect. The labelling didn’t expand anymore on what was contained within. Was it just a bit of spin to sell an IPA made on the north coast of Ireland or was it a unique style of beer in itself. 

Obviously I wasn’t going to discern much more with the lid on, so it was time to pour it. 

I was honestly caught off guard with the pour, the colour, dark almost black, with a swirling head of  cream caramel as it settled. 

So now my interest was welland truely peaked, what was this beer? Some kind of dark IPA?

It had the floral hop aroma of an IPA that was true but with the maltyness of a dark ale there too, in almost equal measures. 

First sip and again my tastebuds are confused, there’s the bitterness I’d expect, light floral notes, hint of citrus possibly but right alongside that were malt flavours, burnt sugar and dried fruit. The first drop on the tongue says IPA but the aftertaste that remains says dark ale. 

As someone who was making tasting notes to describe this beer, it really made me work for it, really hard to nail down. I’d say I’d classify it as a Cascadian Dark Ale, a little known style more common in North America that is starting to take off. 

I think this would be a great bridge beer between the IPA and dark beer drinkers, if you were a Hophead who wanted to start trying more dark beers, this would ease you in perfectly and visa versa. 
Overall an incredibly enjoyable beer that I’ll definitely have again. 

Big congratulations to the boys at Lacada for creating what is certainly the most interesting beer I’ve had in a while. 

Brewers of the north: No.1 Lacada Brewery, Portrush


A quiet street, with rows of terrace houses seems a strange place to find a craft brewery. But walk down a little back alley and you’ll find a big rusty roller door, to the side of that a small newer looking wooden door and in small letters you’ll see one word, Lacada. 

On the day I arrived at Lacada I could hear the clinking of bottles that confirmed I’d came to the right place. I knocked the door but knowing I’d never be heard over the noise from the production line within, I pushed it open and walked in. 

I was greeted with the sight of a surprisingly large space (surprising as remember this is down a small alley off a residential street) and 4 guys filling and capping bottles. I announced myself and asked for Laurie, the head brewer who I’d arranged to meet with, I was directed to a man in a boilersuit and woollen hat up a ladder hard at work. He apologised, but with no need, I was earlier than arranged, so while he finished up I nosed about the brewery and chatted to the guys doing the bottling. 

Now, these guys weren’t employees or even friends/family roped into a days work with the promise of beer, these guys were all part owners, for you see Lacada is a Co-op brewery. 

As a Co-op they’ve not only pooled their financial resources but their years of experience in diverse fields. From within their ranks they’ve not only been able to draw on the knowledge of several very good home brewers but also experienced business people and skilled IT and PR people. This has meant they’ve been able to create a distinctive brand and logo as well as a very professional website, all without having to outsource, which is expenditure you don’t need when starting any business.

Laurie finally got a chance to sit down and grab a sandwich and a cup of tea, he kindly allowed me to join him and have a quick chat. 

He explained how like many craft brewers he started as a keen homebrewer, his beer must’ve be pretty good as he was often asked why he wasn’t selling it. So after looking into it he dismissed the plan as unworkable until he considered a Co-op structure, with advice and help from the co-operative business hub a organisation from England who help co-ops get going, they formed a steering group and began to seek out investors. The raised the startup capital by selling community shares in the brewery, with a target of 100k shares which they quickly reached. 

With the finances in place they then had to come up with a name, not easy with so many owners to please. Lacada was eventually chosen, named after Lacada point, a little known geographical feature on the nearby north coast. Their location on the north coast is something very important to the brewery and they’d like one day to be synonymous with the area in the way that Barry’s amusements, Bushmills Distillery and the Giants Causeway are. Their first brew actually being named Giants Organ after a part of the world famous Giants Causeway. 

Next for the burgeoning new brewery was finding places to stock their beer. Lucky for them the north coast is a popular tourist destination and they had a wealth of great pubs and restaurants right on their doorstep.  They used their position as a local brewery, not only Northern Irish but actually from the north coast itself, along with it being a co-op owned by people from within the community as its unique selling point. 

Laurie is keen to stress that while he may be headbrewer and run the day to day aspects of brewing, the development of their beers and the creation of new recipes is very much a collaborative process among  several keen home brewers in the group and himself. This pot of experience and range of tastes means they have produced a strong core range and some great limited edition beers and with more in the pipeline that I’ll not give away too much about. One brew that I’m particularly looking forward to though is a version of their fantastic Utopian Stout but finished in whiskey barrels, it should be great if you manage to get your hands on a bottle. 

As for plans for the future, room to expand brewing facilities if/when required in the future was a key aspect when choosing a premises for the brewery. A lot of breweries start out in small premises and then find they have to relocate in the first couple of years. Sustainability is one of the big advantages with the co-op model, so as and when a co-owner retires or leaves the business those remaining are able to replace them and keep moving forward. This is why Laurie is confident that there is no reason why 50 years from now, Lacada won’t still be a community owned Brewery in Portrush. And with drive like that and with the people they have involved, I see no reason to doubt him. 

I went home that night and opened a bottle of Lacada’s Devils Washtub IPA (full review available on my blog) and went over my notes and pictures from the day. With the quality of their beer and the enthusiasm of the group I can only see Lacada go from strength to strength….


….maybe I should buy a few shares 🤔….
If you’d like to know more about Lacada and their range, visit http://www.lacadabrewery.com/

Galway Bay: Buried at Sea Milk Stout

  • Brewed by: Galway Bay brewery
  • Style: Milk Stout
  • ABV%: 4.5
  • From: Galway, Ireland 

I’ve been so busy lately setting up a new series of articles I’m planning that I’ve neglected my reviewing. So I thought I’d write one today on the last beer I’ve drank. 

(Edit. I know notice that the previous single beer review before this was another Galway Bay beer, I’d like to point out I have no affiliation with the brewery and this is purely coincidental… If however the brewery would like to sponsor me I’m sure we can arrange something wink wink.)

Firstly for those who may not know what a milk Stout is. 

Milk Stout, sometimes called Sweet Stout is essentially made as you’d make dry Stout but lactose (sugar from milk) is added to the brewing process. Since these sugars can’t be broken down and fermented by the brewing yeast, it remains in the brew and adds a sweetness to the final product. Milk Stouts were once incredibly popular and the dominant Stout style available most places except Ireland. It was even promoted for its health benefits and as a kind of latter day energy drink and while it’s health benefits may have been exaggerated to an extent, its certainly healthier than the energy drinks we have today. 

So this stout poured silky smooth as I’d expected, dark but not as black as some other stouts and with a creamy caramel coloured head. (I’d long drank this before I realised I’d maybe write about it and probably should have taken a picture)

I’d had this beer once before but back then it was labelled as a chocolate milk Stout. I’m not sure if they’ve changed to recipe along with the label or they decided it wasn’t chocolaty enough to have it in its title. 

Aroma wise it has everything you’d expect from a good milk Stout, roasted malt, molasses but with a very prominent hit of coffee. The lactose gives a rich mouthfeel and coats the throat on the way down. Obviously sweet on the palette but not overwhelmingly so, flavours of malt biscuit, caramel, with rich dark chocolate riding underneath, finishing again with that full coffee flavour. 

All in all a very decent wee milk Stout. Too sweet for me personally as a session beer but not for many others I’d imagine. But if I could have this with my dessert after a good meal, in lieu of the coffee course, I’d be extremely happy. 

11 stereotypes you meet at every beer festival 


The “Beard”


Harder to spot than it used to be thanks to the resurgence in facial hair, the beard is the elder of the real ale world. They were into this scene before the term “craft beer” had ever been uttered and they’ll still be around should the hipsters move on to a new scene. 

How to spot: Apart from the obvious beard itself, they often wear large hats and waterproof coats that would blend in well at a game fair or horse race. They may also have brought their dog and possibly their own glass/tankard. 

Most likely to say: is this CAMRA approved?

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The Lads

 

These lads (or bros as Americans might describe them) are only here for one thing, to get drunk. To be fair there’s an honesty to them that you can’t help but admire. They only drink pints as “halfs are for girls!” And inevitably they underestimate how strong many of the beers are and end up much more drunk than even they’d imagined. 

How to spot: Travel in a pack, usually minimum of 6 lads. Often sporting chinos and rugby tops or maybe a dress shirt if they are out in town on “the sesh” afterwards. 

Most likely to say: chug chug chug chug!

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The Beer Hater 


Many people attend these festivals with their partners, maybe they weren’t allowed out on their own or maybe they were convinced it would be a fun couples activity, which if both people like beer then it really is. However quite often people attend these events when not only are they not big beer fans but sometimes they can’t stand the stuff. If it’s a big, well organised festival then there will be plenty of other things for them to entertain them, music, food, maybe even ciders or a spirit tent. But if it’s a small festival, like one of the ones you get in a town hall then they may struggle to have a good time. 

How to spot: Often overdressed for the occasion, they’ll have a distant look in their eye. They’ll try and steer the conversation away from beer which the others in the group are talking about until they can convince their partners to go. 

Most likely to say: What kind of place doesn’t have any wine?!

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The Nerd 


A lot like the beard but probably less interesting. The nerd is obsessed with details. They know the exact brewing technique used in each ale or the variety of hops used and they’ll tell anyone who’ll listen to them. If you’re really into your beer you can actually learn a lot from these guys but if you’re just looking to enjoy a good beer in a pleasant atmosphere then they can be a little grinding. 

How to spot: They’ll often have a near full glass as they were too busy talking to drink it. They’ll either be talking to someone who looks like they want to run and hide or they’ll have found a fellow nerd and are doing what they love most, arguing about details. 

Most likely to say: Actually, I think you’ll find…

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The Hophead


The hophead is a relatively new group to the beer world, they crave hops and only the hoppiest (is that a word) beer will suffice. They’ll stick to the IPAs and anything with hops in the name all day. Theirs is a never ending quest to find a beer so bitterly hoppy that they can’t even drink it. 

How to spot: Generally among the younger end of the crowd, usually dressed trendily even if you’re not sure what trend it is. The contents of their glass will rarely be dark. 

Most likely to say: This is so hoppy, like definitely the hopiest hoppy beer I’ve had this week. 

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The Instagramer 


Pretty self explanatory this one. They spend more time taking pictures, selecting the right filter or adding the right hashtags. 

How to spot: They’ll probably be dressed unremarkably but they’ll be easy to spot by the massive camera around their neck and smartphone in hand. 

Most likely to say: I should have posted during peak hours! 
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The Foodie


This festival goer is all about the food. They appreciate the beer too but it’s more about how it compliments the food. And if it’s a well organised festival then they will be in heaven, with hog roasts and pies and giant pretzels for snacking. 

How to spot: You’ll find the foodies in the food area (duh) talking to the people running the stalls. They’ll have at least one hand full of food, which they may be taking pictures of. 

Most likely to say: It’s all about beer pairing, that’s the future. 

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The guy who’s only there for the band


You can get a very diverse range of music at a beer fest. Sometimes bands who you’d rarely see anywhere else. Nearby you’ll find this guy, he’s waiting for the seven piece bluegrass band he saw at a festival in Belgium last year. 

How to spot: He’ll be in the tent where the bands play and he’ll rarely leave. Likely be wearing a teeshirt with the name of a band you’ve never heard of. 

Most likely to say: You just have to hear these guys, they are so tight. 

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The BeerTicker 


If you don’t know what a beer ticker is, it’s someone who’s mission it is in life to sample as many beers as humanly possible. This can become an obsession, with family holidays revolving around regional beers and back again for the seasonal brews. 

How to spot: The easiest way to spot the beer ticker is by the size of their glass, why drink a few pints when you can drink a mouthful of every beer there. 

Most likely to say: That’s a great beer… but I’ve had it before so I’ll pass

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The Tourist 


The tourist and family are having a short break in the country and have quickly realised there’s not a lot to do. So in an effort to find something to pass they day they’ve stumbled upon this beer festival. They may not even like beer but it’s this or the model railway museum again!

How to spot: Probably one of the few family groups at the festival, they’ll usually be seen chasing after kids who’ve quickly got bored. 

Most likely to say: Next year we’re going to Spain 

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The Designated Driver 


What can we say about these absolute heroes. With many beer festivals taking place in rural areas or at a brewery outside of town, these guys are essential. There are many possible reasons why they’re driving today, maybe they lost a bet, maybe they made a mess of themselves at the same festival last year and this was the conditions of them being allowed back, maybe they’re just awesome, who knows. Whatever the reason, if you have a designated driver, look after them well, pay their fuel, buy their lunch etc. 

How to spot: Look for a group of five or less, see one of them without a beer and with a slightly sad look on their face? That’s the DD. 

Most likely to say: How many tokens is it for a coffee?

Death of a Wetherspoons


Recently I witnessed something truly unique, the closing of a JD Wetherspoons. 

The closure of a pub shouldn’t be that big of a shock, as currently they are closing at a rate of 25-30 a week, depending on your source. But for years Wetherspoons has bucked that trend and grown at a rate unheard of in the hospitality industry. 

This particular ‘spoons was very special to me, not only was it my local for many years but it was established around the time I first started drinking. It was where I had my first legal pint. 

Now many of you may have no fondness for the chain and wouldn’t mourn its loss. And to be fair a chain of pubs goes against everything I look for in a pub, but it does fulfill a role in society, a niche they have clawed out for themselves. 

The price

Money makes the world go round of course and if you can offer the same or similar as your competitors but at a lower price you a pretty much on to a winner. 

With the price of alcohol rising constantly in the UK, Wetherspoons remains a place where you can get a pint at a decent price. This was particularly true during my time in Edinburgh. The prices in Edinburgh are famously extortionate and I’m sure £6-7 a pint is fine for some but for a poor student ‘spoons was the only option. 

And £5 for a burger and pint was an affordable luxury then for me as it still is for many. Thursday night for me and my friends meant curry night, a hot sit down meal with friends for the price of a McDonald’s or something similar. 

Selection of beer

It seems hard to imagine nowadays but for many of us bland mass produced lagers was the only thing on tap in our local pubs. Of course now most pubs have got at least one craft ale on tap and several more bottled. 

I’d never even seen a real ale let alone tasted one before a trip to Edinburgh with my college, during which I visited the Caledonian Brewery. It was there that I first tasted an IPA. I’m not gonna pretend that I was hooked from that one taste but it definitely opened my eyes to what was out there. 

The next time I was in my local Wetherspoons I saw another beer from the same brewery, and I liked it more. I then began to work my way through all the different beers available and looked forward to each new guest beer. It was by this that I slowly developed my taste and discovered beers I’d never never have found elsewhere. So if beer was my chosen subject, then Wetherspoons was my classroom. 

The people 

When the local first opened its doors everyone was welcome and everyone came. Including people who had been barred from every other pub for miles around. This made for a very interesting first few weeks to say the least. 

Since then ‘spoons has been one of my favourite places to people watch. You won’t find another place around where you will get such a mix of characters. From the old man just looking somewhere warm to sit to the struggling writer nursing a single cup of coffee and using the free wifi. I’ve seen girls starting a big night out rubbing shoulders with men just finished a hard days work on the building sight. I’ve seen divorced dads taking their kids for an affordable Sunday lunch next to young parents out without their young one for the first time and anxiously checking their phones regularly. 

The settings

Ironically for a chain that are often attacked for being cold and devoid of individuality, some of the most beautiful and grand pubs I’ve been in have been Wetherspoons. 

They’ve taken some historic local building and made them useful again, saving many from the bulldozer. I’ve drank in old cinemas, banks, church’s, my local was once the county courthouse. Buildings with marble columns, silver domed ceilings, stained glass windows. 

Even old pubs that have stood for hundreds of years have been saved for another generation by the chain. 

The familiarity 

There is a reason chains of all kinds are popular, people like the comfort of familiarity. 

If you’re in a strange city all alone and you see a sign for a restaurant/pub chain that you know from home, then you can feel drawn to it. You know what to expect when you cross that threshold. 

When I first set out on my own, I found myself at a loose end one Thursday night and to be honest I was feeling a bit lonely and sorry for myself. I knew if I was back in Edinburgh me and my friends would be out for a curry club at ‘spoons. I soon found myself in a nearby branch and sitting down to a curry and though I was on my own it felt like I wasn’t. 
Now my old Wetherspoons is gone, sure to be replaced by something very similar but it won’t be the same. 

Just it’s opening was a watershed moment in my drinking life, so it’s closing seems to come at an apt time for me. It’s been been years since I regularly went to a ‘spoons for cheap booze. I’m at a stage in my life where I drink less but I what I do drink I demand to be of high quality and I don’t mind paying for it. 

So you can say what you like about the chain, I’ll always have a special fondness for it, even though I’ve moved on from them now. 

That said I’ve now got a craving for a curry and a 99p pint of IPA

Cheers

De Halve Maan Brewery, Brugge 


I was talking to my wife last night and we were discussing our upcoming trip to Brugge this summer, probably one of our favourite places in the world, couldn’t recommend it more. We both agreed that it’s a very laid back place and it’s best not to have a strict plan but just go with the flow. However there were a few things that we both agreed are musts. 

The canal boat ride, a very touristy thing to do yes, but it’s a very relaxing way to see Brugge from a side you really don’t get to appreciate on foot. 

The beer wall, this is a long alley and on the wall, behind glass, is a bottle of every beer made in Belgium (or so they say) and it’s coresponding glass. This is my wife’s favourite spot, not because she has any interest in bottles or glassware, but because at the end of the wall is a little bar and beer garden. On a good day you can spend hours there sampling their beers with your feet up on the canal wall watching the boats go by. 

De Halve Maan brewery, or the half moon in English. If it’s your first time in Brugge then the brewery tour is a must. It’s actually the only remaining brewery in Brugge itself. Not only is it a great little brewery, little is actually very accurate, some of the doors a passageways were not built for tall people, some were even a struggle for the shorter ones. But the best thing about the tour is that it ends on the brewery roof and offers an amazing view of Brugge. A better view and a much more pleasant assent than the famous belfry tower, which I did once and swore never again!

If you’ve done the tour before it’s still nice to sit in the courtyard and enjoy the atmosphere and sample the brewery’s four main beers on tap. 

There’s also a lovely little tavern attached that does some great food. It’s open for lunch only I believe for a couple of hours in the afternoon. 

I’ll now give a quick overview of their four main beers, the Bruges Zot which comes in blond and bruin and the Straffe Hendrik which comes in a tripel and a quadrupel, but I’ll point out that the tasting notes I wrote for these were ones I made at the brewery where I had the beer on tap. Most of you, unless you visit there, are more likely to get the beer bottled. The beer goes through a second fermentation in the bottle and ages to give a different taste, I’ll not say better/worse as I enjoy both, though I found the bottles to be a bit more complex. 

  • Style: Blond
  • ABV: 6%

A very straight forward easy drunk Belgian blond. It’s made with 4 different malts which give a subtle amount of depth to it. It has a strong aroma of yeast and some floral notes, hints of coriander too. The taste is simple but pleasant, a sweet malt on the tongue with a touch of citrus and definitely some banana there too. My wife’s favourite of the four and my least favourite. 

  • Style: Dubbel
  • ABV: 7.5%

It usually follows that where you have a blond you have a bruin, often the bruin seems like an afterthought, something they just had to make to fill a quota. This little dubbel isn’t like that at all, a great beer in it’s on right. Made with the same yeast as it’s brother it has many of the same tastes including that strange hint of banana. It’s made with 6 malts which add a deep malty flavour to the beer, a slight taste of coffee and chocolate with a subtle bitter and hoppy aftertaste. This isn’t the most complex Dubbel you’ll ever drink but sitting in the sun in that courtyard I could easily put away 2 or 3 and really enjoy myself. 

  • Style: Tripel
  • ABV: 9%

Where to start with this one? Whilst the Zots were very simple, this one had a lot going on in it. Again there’s that banana flavour and yeasty aroma same as the others, but then you’ve got coriander, cardamon, lemon zest, orange, traces of honey and cinnamon and finished with a malty sweetness. Throughout the whole beer you can definitely taste the alcohol, which at 9% maybe shouldn’t have surprised me but with all the other flavours going on I expected it to be more hidden. Quite a heavy little beer, one to savour over time. 

  • Style: Quadrupel
  • ABV: 11%

Finally we come to my personal favourite. This is a great example of  a quadrupel, or at least it’s what I look for in a quad. Again the aroma has a distinct hit of yeast, followed by malt and red berries. The taste once again has that hint of banana as seems to be the common trait of this brewery. You also get sweet malt notes, caramel, dried fruit, cherry and a bit of liquorice. The mouthfeel is surprisingly clean and dry and unlike the tripel this one hides its strong alcohol deceptively well, watch yourself with this one. 

I bring home a suitcase full off beer every visit to Brugge and these four always feature. I like to store them away in a dark cupboard and let them mature over some time. The Straffe Hendriks especially benefit from this treatment and can be stored for up to 2 years when they’ll be almost unrecognisable from the beer I drink in that brewery courtyard. 

All this reminiscing has made me itching to get away, July can’t come soon enough!

Cheers