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.
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.