Mal and Suzanne turn the page and start writing the next stanza of Heaney's story
Saturday 12 March 2022
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When we last spoke to Heaney Farmhouse Brewery, some two years ago now, we got its back story; how founder Malcolm McCay serendipitously ended up brewing with Boundary for three years before releasing the first Heaney beer in 2016, how the brewery was built from scratch jointly to showcase the working Heaney farm – once home to the late nobel prize winner, Seamus Heaney – and so that it could provide an additional source of income for Malcolm and Suzanne (Mal’s wife, who runs the brewery with him) when they inevitably would have to take over the running of the family farm. But as we all know, a lot has changed in the last two years, a testament to which is the fact that our conversation with Mal and Suzanne this time takes place over zoom.
“To say the last two years have been a test of stamina and patience is an understatement” Mal says from his car; the brewery is too loud and outside is too cold “we’ve got one in P2 and one in P4. It’s been absolutely insane”. But aside from the obvious challenges of isolation with young children, the cessation of trade between, well, everywhere, has meant that over the last two years, Heaney has had to navigate cancelled import deals as well as unexpected ones, making it virtually impossible to plan for most things.
As stressful as the annihilation of all safe business sounds, and is, Mal retains a sense of calm and perspective in his conversation with us; while there is is good-natured annoyance in his chronicling of the fact that he hand-labelled all twenty-eight thousand bottles to feature in the Beer52 box, because the labelling machine he ordered last September never arrived “and there’s no sign of it coming yet”, there is no rage in his voice. “Sure, we’ve been in survival mode,” he tells us, “but we’ve just tried to minimise general life stress, only brew as much beer as we need to pay our wages and keep the brewery ticking over; we’ve had other things to worry about”.
Through a sad and sudden change of circumstances, the responsibility for running the family farm arrived with Mal and Suzanne sooner than expected, meaning they now have all the Heaney farmland, farm buildings, farmhouse and farm brewery to look after. Mal tells us that the ambition now is to integrate these elements; start some small-scale vegetable and fruit farming, outfit one of the farm buildings to be a barrel store and tasting space, and create an environment that people can visit and learn about the history of the farm and its connections with Irish literature.
Mal also mentions that there’s the potential for restaurant space (far) in the future, and while he acknowledges that moving in the culinary direction seems like a natural progression, he is equally clear on what the space at their disposal should not become; “this won’t be a taproom, or a bar where you can just rock up and have a drink, people live here… the tourism thing can get crazy and we want to do this tastefully and respectfully, respecting the Heaney name. It has to be done right, so it might take a bit longer than it would if we were keen to jump on the bandwagon”.
Mal is more level-headed about Heaney’s potential than we are; I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frothing at the mouth thinking about eating and drinking on the land that inspired a Nobel Prize-winner and is so loved by the people that now tend it. But for Mal, Heaney is all about the beer. Over the next year and a half his plan is to focus more on farmhouse ales, and farmhouse yeasts. “We’ve done some saisons, particularly a lemon and thyme saison that did really really well, it’s a style that’s more true to our brand than say, a double IPA, it’s more authentic, it’s more us”.
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