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.


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