When I was 21, by which I mean at the turn of the century, I once consumed the contents of countless bottles of beer and ended up with a hangover that I still remember. Until then, I loved beer and drank it exclusively, like all 20-somethings, mostly because of the feather weight of my wallet. After those traumatic few days, beer and I parted ways — to meet several years later, quite unexpectedly, in Belfast last month.
I had sworn off beer forever, or so I thought, until I was faced with the following itinerary in Belfast: three breweries punctuated with lunch and dinner. How many hours can I last inside a brewery without sampling the stuff, and how stupid will I have to be to do that?
Boundary, the first brewery I visited, is Belfast’s cutting edge, one of a kind, beer making “cooperative”, where a bunch of youngsters get together and experiment the heck out of everything. When Matthew Dick wanted to make some crazy beers (coconut or lemon or elderflower infused, for instance), he neither had many takers, nor many pounds. A friend suggested he revise his business plans to a multi-stake cooperative where there are hundreds of co-owners. So, Dick opened the stakes up to anyone who had £100 to spare, and within a week collected £100,000.
The money meant they could open shop, and shifted base to an old Linen Mill, at whose door I found myself, a bit stumped. The Boundary brewery is — how shall I put it? — unconventional. Everything is everywhere — artwork of labels, bottles of beers, canvases, cardboards, empty cartons, buckets, hoses, paint, all over the place. A bald guy was washing the brewing area, jumping about busily, as a volunteer took us to sample some beers. Boundary beers have names such as Funkacidic (grapefruit), Filthy Animal (chilli, chocolate and coffee, looks like muck) , and to celebrate their first anniversary, The Struggle, a 9.5 per cent which is much stronger than the usual Belfast beers which are about five per cent alcohol. I liked the cherry beer and the regular blonde but Filthy Animal was quite bad, tasting like it looked. The brewers were not surprised: they recognise that not everyone will like everything they make and that doesn’t stop them. Crazy stuff continues to happen at Boundary — they brew beers in wine barrels, label them “failed experiments”, shout and scream and keep experimenting.
None of that happens at Hilden, which first opened its door in 1981 and founder Seamus Scullion, grey-haired and soft-spoken, can be seen at his brewery even today, bursting with pride at the beer heritage. Funnily enough, the stately Hilden brewery is the former home of linen barons, dating to the early 19th century, and has played host to many famous people including Thomas Andrews, the designer of the Titanic, who got married here. The refined Hilden brewery does not experiment at all — why fix what’s not broken? On offer are blonde, amber and dark ale, of which I loved the crisp and refreshing blonde, smelling of summer and happy days. “We like to keep it simple,” says Scullion, as he shows me around the large, neatly segmented brewery. While the Hilden brewery completes 35 years, the Hilden Music Festival completes 30 years this August, an annual event with live music, gourmet food and, of course, craft beers, held on the grounds of Hilden House.
As I sat in the fine-dining restaurant attached to the brewery, slowly reacquainting myself with beer, I wondered what old Mr Scullion would think of Boundary and crowdfunding. Or of Brewbot Belfast, where a robot brews the goods. From the outside, it looks like an L-shaped wood-and-steel minimally designed chair but its insides are busy sensing and tracking the right temperatures and time to turn grain to beer. Ever since a Kickstarter campaign made them possible, Brewbots (Irishman Chris McClelland built it) are used at a few breweries across the world (including one in Mumbai) but this spiffy brewery and café in Belfast is the only one in this city to use it.
You can put any recipe into the Brewbot and track the brewing through an app. Brewbot Belfast experiments a little, not like Boundary, and I sampled five beers here from pale to stout (called Broken Dream), and, as usual, liked the paler ales better. Brewbot doesn’t have mass quantities of beer, so things keep changing at the bar and you are unlikely to find your favourite beer the next time you come by. The café was by far the most stylish — this is a great place to people-watch and the food’s good!
When I decided to get out of Belfast for some sightseeing, Echlinville seemed like a good idea. You reach it via a car-ferry and, the best part, get to taste some Irish whiskey. Considering I had spent one of my two days drinking beer, it was only fair that I devoted some time to something I actually love drinking. So I drove out of Belfast, about an hour to Strangford, to eat lunch at a seafood restaurant and then take the ferry to a lovely little town called Portaferry. Echlinville is about 20 minutes from there, a pretty drive through typical Irish countryside, without a person to be seen for miles.
It’s like entering the very large home of a large and welcoming family. Silver, the shabby little black-and-silver dog, came bounding at us and immediately threw a stone at my feet, expecting me to play. The Braniff family is as friendly as Silver, and the estate and distillery is open for tours any weekday. While the home and grounds are old world, the walk-through distillery is state-of-the-art with all the latest gadgets available in the market. The gadgets are new, as is the licence, which Shane Braniff only received in 2013, which means he hasn’t really got a whiskey out from the machines yet. What they did do, in the meantime, is buy over an old brand of Irish whiskey, Dunville, “revive it” and put it out. Dunville is a really fine, smooth whiskey, best had neat or with just a drop of water. It has won best whiskey awards for the last two years. When I put in too much water (five drops), it lost its richness.
I cannot tell you why, but I ended up at Boatyard, another distillery on Enniskillen island, a weekend getaway from the city, before leaving Ireland — this time for gin and vodka. Yet to open its doors to the public, Boatyard promises to be a fantastic restaurant and distillery with views of the vast Lough Erne (lough is Irish for lake) through its big French windows. I spent an hour or so with the excited and nervous Joe McGirr, preparing to launch their distillery in the next couple of months and start producing organic gin and vodka — farm to bottle. He promised me proper potato vodka, did Joe, and I’m going to go back one day and make him honour his word.
The author is a Delhi-based travel writer