From the graveyard to the Gate

A few months back a guy pm’d me on twitter saying he’d recently discovered my blog and inviting me down to Dublin for a look around their brewery.

The guy was Padraig Fox and he works at the Open Gate taproom.

For those of you who may not know, Open Gate is the pilot brewery for Guinness, who are one of the biggest brewers in the world and their flagship Stout is still the most drunk beer in Ireland. However, Guinness and their parent company Diageo don’t exactly have a great reputation among the hardcore craft beer community.

Personally I’ve always been a big Guinness drinker, whilst most pubs have a tap selection that consists of a multitude of bland macro lagers a pint of the black stuff was and still is a great consistent fallback that you can be sure of getting pretty much everywhere.

Despite this however even I was skeptical of the surge in new brew styles coming out of St James gate in recent years. Were they a cynical attempt to cash in on the recent boom in craft beer or were they a real effort to bring the public what they seemed to want?

Padraig and myself messaged back and forth for a while and it quickly became apparent that he was genuinely passionate about beer and refreshingly open. In my experience most correspondence with brewery reps (especially the larger ones) tends to be them trying to sell the brand and keep to the company message, so my chats with Padraig were a refreshing change.

Finally I had a free weekend and decided to take Padraig up on his offer of a visit. So with the ever supportive Mrs Hallion behind the wheel we set off for Dublin.

I had one stop planned before we got to the Open Gate.

The Pearce Lyons Distillery had recently opened to the public and since I first saw pictures of those copper stills on that old church altar I was keen to get a look around.

Turns out the only way to get a look around at all was to book a full guided tour, more than I really wanted, but I had a bit of time to kill before heading to the gate.

The tour was pretty interesting and there was a lot about the history of the church and some of the souls buried in the graveyard and in more pleasant weather I maybe would have enjoyed that part of the tour more. As it was freezing and we all just wanted to get inside, get a look around and sample some whiskey.

The church itself was beautiful, with it’s unmistakable glass spire and impressive whiskey themed stained glass windows. And the two copper stills sitting proudly on the altar really were enough to make a man religious.

With the whiskey warming my belly the climate outside seemed much more pleasant than earlier and we made the short walk to the Open Gate Brewery.

The taproom is generally only open to the public from 5pm Thursday-Sunday. But Padraig said if we just called round after we finished up at the distillery he’d show us about before the doors open.

Open Gate is situated in Brewhouse 2 and Padraig started our little tour by giving us a brief history of the building, he was mercifully brief as despite my whiskey coat it was still pretty chilly outside.

We quickly moved inside where the bar staff were busy setting up for the night. The taproom is inside the working brewery, giving visitors the chance to see where the beer is made as they drink.

I’ve saw more than my fair share of breweries and Open Gate is exactly as I’d expect from such a high end side of the business. Very clean, laid out logically to allow for good flow and with all the fancy bells and whistles that the resources of Guinness can afford you.

One clever aspect I quite liked was the waste hot water, that is produced enmasse during the brewing process, is used to heat the taproom.

We quickly moved on to what we were really interested in, the beer.

With Padraig manning the taps, we worked our way through the entire range on offer that night, along with a few bottles for good measure.

I drank far too many to talk about them all, that and the whiskey at the distillery was the closest I came to lunch that day so my memory got a little hazy about half way through the sampling.

My highlight was the Rye Pale Ale which I really enjoyed, I ordered a full pint of it after we finished sampling. I could definitely have a session on that one without a problem. Also it was interesting to get to try foreign extra Stout from the tap as I’d only ever experienced it bottled before.

Mrs Hallion enjoyed the sampling probably even more than I did, I was surprised that she really enjoyed the chocolate and mint stout, but her favourite on the night by a long way was the champagne saison. She was also taken with the bottled wheat beer.

To be honest we didn’t have a single below par beer that whole night.

True, I felt that they were often a bit tame and not as complex or challenging as I’d often prefer. But that’s to be expected as they are made in a way as to appeal to as large a market as possible.

Plus they’d all been filtered and pasteurised, which improves clarity and prolongs shelf life but can detract from the flavour to an extent.

During the sampling we chatted back and forth about the taproom and how Padraig had ended up working there. He seems to have been a bit of a journeyman within Guinness, from storehouse guide to the quality team, and sales to finally taking on his current role.

As the drink flowed our conversation flowed too, from our thoughts on the future of the industry to our shared outrage at Ireland not getting the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

I was surprised by how much freedom the brewers there were given by Guinness. They seem to have free rein to brew whatever they can imagine.

These experiments are put on tap at the bar and they use the sales from there to just how popular they are. If it looks like there is a market for it they look at if it’s possible to scale the recipe up to mass production standards. This often isn’t possible, especially in the cases where fresh fruit is used or where the flavours are very delicate. Padraig explained that a delicate beer with a shelf life of say 6 months or less would be a non starter for Guinness’ marketing plan.

To be honest I could have probably stood and chatted all night but I was in need of food and I felt we’d taken advantage of our hosts generosity for too long already.

We’d arranged to call back in the next day before heading home, Padraig had squirrelled away a couple of bottles of “Stouta this world” for me from the recent international Stout day and Mrs Hallion was determined not to leave Dublin without a growler of that champagne Saison.

Unfortunately something arose and we were unable to meet up the following day but I’m sure we’ll be back.

If you’re planning on visiting yourself (which I recommend you do) it’s โ‚ฌ8 entry and that also gets you a 4 beer taster flight. The taps change regularly but there’s a strong core range available.

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Portrush Beer and Food Festival

On Saturday Mrs Hallion and myself took a drive up the north coast to Portrush for their second annual beer and food festival.

The festival, organised as always by those great folks from Lacada Co-op, has drawn a great mixture of exciting Breweries, from new kids on the block to some of the biggest names in the Irish and UK craft beer scene.

Yellowbelly

Periodic Table Saison 5.1%

My first port of call was Yellowbelly, these guys make some of the best sour beers in the country but I decided for my first beer of the day I would have something a bit less complex.

Their table Saison was just the right beer to kick of with, smooth and easily drunk but it woke the palette up just right.

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Beer Hut Brewing Co.

Ahoy Captain Irish sea salted IPA 7.4% After breaking myself in with the saison I was ready for something a bit more intense.

I’ve had salted beers before but nothing quite like this, the first mouthful was shocking, like I’d fell overboard from the ferry to Cairnryan.

Thankfully my tastebuds grew somewhat accustomed to the salty overload and I was able to taste the beer that hid beneath.

I’ve never had the experience of getting more thirsty the more I drunk, very strange.

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Lacada Brewery Co-op

Damson Kettle sour 4% After the last salty beer I was parched and needed something fruity to restore my cracked tongue.

I love a good sour but had never had Lacada’s take on the style so I was keen to try it.

I wasn’t disappointed, this was a fantastic beer! Just the right amount of sourness to give you that smack in the back of the mouth but not overpowering.

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Lacada Brewery Co-op

Raspberry Citra Smoothie IPA 5.5%

I heard good things about this one from some friends who’d been to the fest the night before. That paired with rumours that there wasn’t a lot of it meant as soon as I saw them change over the tap from Devil’s Washtub to this, I was straight over.

First mouthful didn’t impress me but after the Damson sour I knew it would take a minute for my tastebuds to reset. The more a drank it the better it got. Hazy and juicy with raspberries but with enough hops there to remind you it’s beer.

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We paused brewed to refuel at the food section of the festival downstairs.

Shout out to Babushka kitchen cafe, for probably the best toasted cheese sandwich we’ve ever had.

Whiplash

Let it happen DIPA 8%

With my stomach lined I felt ready for a Double IPA and I knew the boys at Whiplash consistently bang out great beers.

It was the perfect beer to blast away any lingering tastes from lunch and shock my body back into beer mode. A truly cracking DIPA

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Deadend Brew Machine

Defeat Not Victo(ry) Raspberry Belgian Pale 5.8%

Mrs Hallion picked this one for me, she’s fond of anything raspberry and also Deadend are from her native land (Scotland)

We both really liked this one, awash with fruit flavours, nice hop aroma but no bitterness on the tongue.

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Beavertown

Earl Phantom Earl Grey Berliner Weisse 4.5%

Finally decided I should have a Beavertown, I’ve tried most of them before and I really wanted to try a new one. That left me only a couple of options and I’m a big fan of Berliner Weisses so I picked Earl Phantom.

Most beers of this style I’ve had lately have be flavoured with fruit so the Earl Grey in this one was a welcome change, it added to the brew without hiding the natural flavours of it.

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Evil Twin Brewing

Even More Jesus Imperial Stout 12%

Go hard or go home they say.

So I did, my only dark beer of the festival (changed times!) and Evil Twins sole contribution.

This is a proper smack you in the face Imperial Stout, as thick as oil and just as black. Massive overwhelming hit of coffee flavour disguises this beers alcoholic strength.

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All in all it was another excellent wee festival and massive congratulations to all involved in the organising.

But maybe a change of venue is required before next year as there very little standing room from early on and it was a 1 in 1 out policy for much of the day.

Can’t wait for next year!!

Cheated by a “bottled” Blonde

Recently I was browsing through the beer aisles looking for inspiration when I saw two pinup girls looking back at me. Now I’m generally not a fan of using scantily clad women to sell beer but this artwork in my opinion stayed just the right side of tasteful.

They say never to judge a book by its cover but I’m a sucker for a snappy graphic. So I picked up one of each.

It was only when I got home that I looked closer that things didn’t add up.

I cracked open the blonde and had a taste, it was perfectly fine, somewhat bland but pretty inoffensive. But one thing it didn’t taste like was a blonde beer. I looked at the can and realised my mistake, it wasn’t a blonde, it was a lager that was only called “Dublin Blonde”

Feeling a little foolish that I’d been distracted by a picture of a pretty lady so much that I’d completely misread the labelling, I looked at the Red.

Now an Irish Red ale is a great beer style, not the sexiest or most fashionable but a good Red is hard to beat. Rich and malty and goes down easy.

This “Dublin Red” however wasn’t a good Red, in fact it wasn’t even a Red at all, it was a Pale ale! ๐Ÿ˜ณ

<<
ain, it did say clearly on the can that it was a pale ale. And like it's sister it was an inoffensive but uninspiring wee beer.

So was I so easily distracted by an illustrated pretty face that I lost the ability to read properly or have these beers been disingenuous with their branding?

I wasn't overly familiar with Irishtown brewing company but with the magic of google I was able to read all about them.

<<
e of the first things I noticed was a statement about why they have girls on their cans, which makes me think they may have had to defend this policy more than once

<<
es that explain it to you? I'm none the wiser.

Damn "health and safety brigade" not letting us workers get smashed at lunch time before returning to operate heavy machinery! ๐Ÿ˜ก

Their views on "over hopped hype" might explain why their beers were somewhat boring.

Now, don't get me wrong, I get that they are promoting their beers as session beers and as such shouldn't be too strong in alcohol or too complex in flavour.

But to truly be a session beer you have to want to order a second and I simply didn't.

While searching for info about these beers online I stumbled on a few of their marketing stunts, ranging from free beer for blondes…

To the more controversial sky banner over Dublin

I’m sure that one will have caused quite an outcry but I imagine that was the plan all along.

This all makes sense when you realise that Irishtown Brewing Company was founded by Joey Shore and Flor Prendergast, two marketing managers who also own some other drinks companies.

With no brewing experience to their name, they contract brew through Hope Brewery in Dublin.

To their credit they are open about this on the website and don’t hide it like many other contract brewers.

(At the time of writing this, the cans had been conscientiously recycled so I can’t say if it’s so open on the can)

Now I’m not one to run down people trying to make a go of something and this may reek of cynicism but it strikes me as more time was spent designing the cans than what went in them.

It seems to be a case of style over substance, or maybe brand over beer if you will.

Man cannot live on liquid bread alone…

I read recently about the Paulaner monks of Munich, famous from their brewing expertise, they would fast for the whole of lent (46 days), with beer and water their only sustenance.

I’m certainly not recommending this. Aside from the strain it would put on your liver/kidneys, which would depend on the actual number of units you consumed per day, beer isn’t exactly high in many essential vitamins.

And just incase you were wondering why they fast on beer and water and not beer alone. Due to the diuretic effect of alcohol, without the water you last only a matter of days.

All that being said…..

It got me thinking.

What if I was to do this for one day, the detrimental effects would be limited and short lived. Those monks had just the one beer, but I have access to beers from across the globe.

So what would a day of beers in place of food look like?

Just so you know, I follow the Hobbit meal plan.

Breakfast 7am

The most important meal of the day they say. So how about Coffee, bacon, maple syrup and blueberry pancakes? โ˜•๏ธ ๐Ÿฅ“ ๐Ÿ ๐Ÿฅž

Funky Bhudda, maple, bacon, coffee Porter, is a perfect way to start the day. I’ve actually reviewed this one before and loved it, so we’re off to a good start.

That along with Rochester Mills, Blueberry pancake milk Stout, will tie me over to second breakfast just nicely.

Second breakfast 9am

After a hefty double Porter/Stout start to my day I’m looking for something sweet and fruity now. A smoothie would be just the ticket ๐ŸŒ๐ŸŠ๐Ÿ๐Ÿ‹

Siren Craft Brew, 10 Dollar Shake is fruity and creamy and even counts as one of your 5 a day! (disclaimer: does not count as one of your 5 a day)

Elevenses 11am

By now I’m peckish again but also wary of spoiling my lunch. A small piece of fruit couldn’t do any harm, surely. ๐Ÿ‘

St Louis, Premium Peach Lambic is sharp, juicy and refreshing without being too sweet. Just like a good peach should be.

Lunch 1pm

By now the midday munchies are kicking in and I’ve a hankering for some pizza ๐Ÿ•

A Seefurth Mamma Mia, Pizza Beer. Just like mamma used to make, fills a hole nicely.

Afternoon Tea 3pm

Usually at this time of day I get a little peckish and start searching the cupboards to find something to snack on. Maybe a sandwich would be nice.

Catawba, Peanut Butter Jelly Time, aged will real raspberries and toasted peanuts, is the perfect midday filler.

Dinner 6pm

After a hard day hallioning I’m ready for a proper dinner now. I love a good hot curry, though it doesn’t love me, so I find a cooling dessert helps ๐Ÿ›๐Ÿจ

Ballast Point’s Indra Kunindra is bursting with flavour, brewed with cumin, cayenne pepper, madras powder and toasted coconut, it’s a proper Ruby Murray

And with Mad Hatter’s Mint Choc Chip for dessert and burn from the curry quickly dissipates.

Supper 9pm

People have lots of different names for their meals and supper to many people is a full meal. But in my house supper is when you have a bowl of cereal at night.

A big bowl of Black Bottle Brewery, Cerealiously, is perfect to round off my day, everyone knows the best bit of cereal is slurping the chocolate milk at the end.

Total daily calorie count: 1593

Recommended daily calorie count: 2500 (male)

Total daily alcohol consumption: 27 units

Recommended daily alcohol consumption: 2 units

Disclaimer: This article is for entertainment purposes and to show the diversity of flavoured beers available. I do not suggest anyone attempts this in real life.

Edit: Many of the beers used in this piece are single runs or seasonals and may not be available to buy at the time of publication.

How not to get a job in the brewing industry

A short while ago I noticed that a brewery in Belfast was looking for an assistant brewer.

I thought about it and came up with a list of pros and cons:

Pros

  1. I’d kill to work in the brewing industry.
  2. I’m a big fan of that brewery’s beer.

Cons

  1. I have absolutely zero experience in the industry.
  2. It would mean a pay cut.
  3. The number of day per week I’d work would nearly double.
  4. My childminding costs would go up with the increase in days worked.
  5. Belfast is twice the distance of my current commute.
  6. The job would require traveling away from home from more.
  7. Work hours were erratic and included weekends.
  8. Did I mention the zero experience in the industry?

So I weighed it all up and applied (see Pro No1)

Needless to say I didn’t get the job (see Con No.1)

But I enjoyed writing the application so much I thought I’d share it with you.

There was only 2 questions and as you’ll see I failed to answer then in my trademark roundabout way.

I hope you find my failures entertaining ๐Ÿป

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What are your top 5 beers in the whole wide world? And why?

Tough question, I’ve found beer to be such a subjective thing that it can be hard to rank my favourite beers, it can depend on where I am, what season it is, time of day, my mood, how much time I have, if I’m eating and what I’m eating, to name but a few contributing factors. For example on a hot summers afternoon, sitting in a beer garden with friends, a crisp, lightly hopped session IPA is just the ticket. However on a cold winters night, in front of a roaring fire you’d want something very different, a strong porter maybe.ย 

But I think you can tell a lot about someone from their choice in beer, which i assume you agree with, hence this question. So I’ll tell you about 5 beers that are very important to me, and how they were milestones in my beer education. They aren’t going to feature on many people’s top lists, and there are better beers out there, beers that I will one day get the chance to sample I’m sure. ย 

So I’ll start at the beginning…

1) Duechars IPA from the Caledonia Brewery, Edinburgh.ย 

I went to Edinburgh with my college for a field trip, visiting factories and local industry. We visited the Caledonia Brewery one day, it was my first time being in a brewery and the engineer in me was fascinated by the giant vessels and tanks, and the flow of the brewery, like how the grain was upon delivery sent up to the storehouse on the top floor and then fed down to the mash tubs via a shoot when needed. It was also the first time I’d seen or smelled hops, we took a pinch and rubbed it between the palms of our hands to release the aroma, the head brewer laughed and told us we’d have that smell on our hands for the rest of the day, that was no bad thing in my opinion.ย 

We finished in the brewery taproom for a free pint of Deuchars or 8 schilling. I had a Deuchars and I’d love to say it was love at first sip but that simply wouldn’t be true, later I would grow to love it but for 18 year old me it was overwhelming, it was however like nothing I’d ever tasted before and it opened my eyes to a whole new world of beer.ย 

2: Skull splitter from Orkney Breweryย 

A couple of years later and I’m back in Edinburgh studying engineering at Herriot Watt University, which as you may know is world renowned for its brewing and distilling degree course. The brewing students host a beer festival every year in the student union. This was before the idea of craft beer existed in the UK so it was all cask conditioned real ales, mostly all from Scotland. But the standout beer for me by far was the Orkney Skull splitter a very strong Scottish ale. At that time it was the strongest beer I’d ever tasted and I did so with a mixture of curiosity and a certain level of bravado. I had expected a strong taste of alcohol but it was deceptively well balanced. It was this beer that really got me into strong dark ales, which inevitably led me to Belgium.ย 

3: Straffe Hendrik from de Halve Maan Brewery in Brugesย 

I was given a book by beer writer Pete Brown a few years ago called “three sheets to the wind”, in which he travels around the world and looks at beer, beer culture and people’s attitude to alcohol in general.ย 

This book was important to me for two reasons, firstly it got me interested in writing about beer which I eventually have dabbled in myself, and secondly it introduced to me a destination I soon began to see as Mecca for beer fans, Bruges in Belgium. I vowed I would one day go there and on my 30th birthday I did.ย 

On arrival myself and my wife went straight from the train station to de halve maan Brewery where we did the tour and then sat in the courtyard drinking Bruges Zot, poured fresh from the barrel, my wife with the blonde and myself having the bruin. These beers themselves were extremely good and probably would’ve been on this list if it wasn’t for the Straffe Hendrick I had next. It was their quadruple and at 11% it was everything I was looking for from a Belgian ale. I remember as I drank that beer in that courtyard I thought about how if I hadn’t made this trip I might never have drank this beer and wouldn’t know what I’d missed.ย 

4: Belfast Ale from Whitewater Brewery Castlewellan ย 

Strange one to include on the list I admit, for whilst it’s a very nice, easily drunk ale, it’s not one you’d expect to change anyone’s life but it definitely had an impact on mine.ย 

A few years ago I’d moved back to Northern Ireland and I’d found my beer choices quite restricted. I was still in love with all things Belgian but apart from a few of the more macro brands there was very little available without shopping online.ย 

I was in Tesco doing the weekly shop when I did my usual scan of the beer shelf hoping to see something new. And on that day, I did, a whole range of ales from Whitewater brewery and it was clear from the labelling that they were from Northern Ireland. I bought one of each and spent the next few days sampling them. They were all very good but I’d had similar styles of equal quality many times before, the big thing for me was that it was made right here in Northern Ireland and that made all the difference. Overnight my outlook changed and while I still enjoyed beers from all around the world I had now began actively seeking out beers brewed locally. Which led me to what I’m currently doing.ย 

5: Henrietta Hen from Hillstown Brewery Randelstownย 

I’d been writing beer reviews for years, originally just for my own reference in an old notebook with the bottles label stuck to a page and tasting notes written alongside it. From that I progressed to writing reviews online on beer websites. Eventually I was convinced to start my own blog, which I set up a few months ago. I started off with some standard beer reviews and then started to add more pieces of beer culture, from people you meet at beer festivals to what beer goes with what glassware.ย 

I then started touring round local breweries and chatting to the brewers in an attempt to let people know more about the people who brew their beer.ย 

I was invited down to Hillstown Brewery recently and did the usual, tour, interview and tasting session. As I was leaving I was given one of each of their range which I spent the next couple of weeks trying.ย 

There were two IPAs, Squealing Pig which they describe as a simple introductory IPA and Henrietta Hen, their West Coast style, intense heavily hopped IPA.ย 

I drank the Pig first and it was very good, a real session IPA. I was worried about the Hen as I wasn’t generally a big fan of these over hopped IPAs, still being more a fan of the darker end of the beer spectrum. It was hazy and smelled intense and tasted extremely bitter but I drank some more, really concentrating on the different flavours and I had one of the most eye opening beer experience I’ve had in recent years.ย 

Since then I’ve been trying more of that style of which there is a plethora to choose from.ย 

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If you were stuck on a desert island forever, what would be the one beer you brought with you? And why?

I like this, it’s like desert island discs but for beer fans.ย 

Now I’m thinking is it just one beer? Because that would be torture to decide when to crack it open. Or a lifetime supply of that beer? In which case you’d have to be sure it’s something you wouldn’t get bored of.ย 

I’m assuming the island is hot and sunny, so straight away I’m thinking a good quality Czech Pilsner. But then I’m like, but it’s a dessert island I’ve got no refrigeration! And a warm pilsner isn’t pleasant.ย 

So now we’re talking something that doesn’t have to be too cold, I could use the sea to chill it slightly but these are warm tropical waters so it’s only going to do so much.ย 

Regardless of whether it’s one bottle or a lifetime supply sized crate, I’ll need it to last a long time. So that’ll mean high alcohol content and a high IBU as the hops will also help preserve the beer.ย 

Long term beer storage is best in cool dark places, which will be hard to find on this island. So I’ll have to make the tough call of ruling out bottled beer, opting instead for cans or kegs. This will drastically reduce the damage done by the sunlight.ย 

Flavour wise, I’d want to avoid anything sickly sweet, unpleasant in those conditions.ย 

Something crisp and clean but still complex enough to keep me interested over the years.ย 

So…

I need a canned/kegged beer, with a high ABV%, high IBUs, clean but complex, and it has to be a beer I really like…

With all that in mind I’d go for possibly the unusual choice of a barleywine. In particular I’d bring kegs of Old Guardian from Stone Brewing.ย 

It’s brewed with Warrior, Cascade and Chinook hops and then dry hopped with Pekko hops.ย 

It has an Abv% of 11 and IBUs of 75.ย 

Not only will this beer taste great on day 1 but its flavour will develop over time so that I will never be bored drinking it.

……………………….โ€ฆ…………………………..

So what you think Hallions? Should I have got the job or not?

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 Breweryย 


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 Companyย 


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.