In this installment of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle heads to Belfast to find out what’s brewing in the world of craft beer.
As an enthusiastic but discerning drinker, it has been one of the great joys of my life to watch the recent revolution in Irish craft beer, and I’ve been sipping with abandon on the panoply of IPAs, lagers, ales, stouts, porters and wheat beers to emerge on the Irish market over the past few years. However, when I’m invited on a beer-focused trip to Belfast, it strikes me that I have very little idea of what’s going on in terms of brewing “up North,” which must be rectified.
First stop is the Armagh Cider Company — not technically brewing, but close enough for me. Philip and Helen Troughton’s 80-acre orchard sits outside Portadown, where they’ve been making cider “from blossom to bottle,” since 2005 with their son, Mark. The main challenge facing them when they started out was that there was no demand for dry cider; Irish people had been presented with only sickly-sweet options for years, and knew no better. The Troughtons’ offering is decidedly more sophisticated, available in varying levels of dryness; they also produce a range of flavoured ciders and an apple juice which is, I think, the most refreshing of my life.
We head next to Hercules Brewery, the first craft brewery to open in Belfast for almost 160 years, where Niall McMullan makes his range of small batch Yardsman beer. His aim was to produce “beers that people can session on,” and so he began with a lager, “the easy way to get people into craft beers.” Yardsman Lager has been a hit, even scooping a gold medal at the 54th Monde Selection international quality awards. As Niall himself says, “if the Belgians are giving you medals for beer, you must be doing something right.” I have to agree: the lager is clean and crisp, with lovely citrus notes and a fine fizz reminiscent of Champagne. As I swig the end of my taster, Niall says, “it’s dead easy to drink, and you can drink lots of it.” He’s bang on the money, and I think the same could be said for his hoppy, toasted Belfast Pale Ale and creamy stout. I leave behind three tellingly empty glasses.
The next stop is the Belfast Craft Beer Festival, a rollicking good time where we meet the kind folks from the Hilden Brewery, the oldest independent brewery in Ireland and the first stop planned for the following morning. It’s great craic here, wandering around chatting to friendly brewers and enjoying plenty of sneaky samples. Sensibly, however, I haul myself back to the hotel at a reasonably well-behaved hour, so when we arrive at Hilden the following morning I’m fresh as a daisy and ready for a drink.
We sample the straw yellow Belfast Blonde, vaguely sweet with a clean finish; the darker Twisted Hop, a funky brew with a lasting sourness; the bitter, smooth Molly’s Chocolate Stout, laced with real cocoa powder and tinged with notes of coffee; and the intriguing Barney’s Brew, a wheat beer with unusual aromas of lemon, lavender, coriander and black pepper. Not only are they all gorgeous, but they’ve all got that elusive “something different” about them, and I also love that they’re unprocessed and additive-free.
Soon, it’s time to hit the dusty trail back to Dublin. I’m sad to be saying goodbye, but with the names of several new boozy favourites up my sleeve, it was a visit well worth making.