I'll dig with it

Heaney Farmhouse is keeping creativity close


“I love the whole ritual of brewing,” says Mal McCay, of Heaney Farmhouse Brewery.” You know, you concoct your recipe and then you gather everything you need together, and then nurture it and look after it. To me, it’s all about keeping an eye on the details, and when you do that, it becomes a meditative space. I love brewing, because when I’m doing it, I don’t think about anything else. I like how organised everything has to be in a brewery, and how detailed and structured everything has to be. I like everything in order, and in its right place.” 

Suzanne, Mal’s wife and business partner smiles here, and teases him about being a control freak, which he gently concedes to. She says their move from Belfast to the house at her family’s farm — the Heaney Farm — this year was motivated by her husband’s desire to be closer to the tanks at night. The house is next door to the brewery. 

It’s easy to see how Mal fits into a family of great poets — an art that I dare say his late, great uncle in-law, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, might concede can take many forms — after all, if one can dig with a pen, they can also surely write with flavour. It is, however, crucial to note that the brewery is not named after Seamus Heaney, but the land the brewery is built on, and all the history that’s held by the Heaney farm.

Mal and Suzanne’s vision is to one day incorporate the brewery into a bigger project involving an event space in the farm’s old milking parlour, and of course the land itself. It’s through this broader repertoire of tools and points of reference that the pair think it might be suitable to tell the story of Suzanne’s family, but while the brewery exists in isolation, its focus is on producing brilliant, artisanal beer. 

I feel fortunate to catch both of Heaney’s co-founders together. With three young children, a recent house move, the demands of a brewery and the management of an expansive, inherited farm, it has been a busy and at times brutal few years. However, they remain gentle and considered both with each other, and throughout our discussion of the difficulties that have befallen craft brewing since we were last in touch. 

“Of course, there were people who dropped us when we went into supermarkets, and that’s fine, there will always be instances of that,” says Mal. “Part of the deal with this supermarket was that we’d need a very even structure in terms of how things were priced across the independent retailers and the supermarket, and to be fair, they did work with us on that so the price is the same across both. They might do an odd deal where you get a discount on a pack of four, but overall everything is priced very fairly. Anyway, there were still a few outlets that refused to stock us from then on, but that was just the politics of craft beer at the time.”

Heaney has done well to keep the cost of its beer stable over the last number of years. Mal says it’s been a constant battle against the cost of raw materials, paper, printing, and glass, and that he and Suzanne have been working hard to streamline operational processes that have allowed them to keep their team small, just three people, Mal, Suzanne, and brewing and packaging assistant Ayden Cox.

“Our beers are almost always around the £3.50 price point. When we're doing specials, obviously they're a little bit more expensive than that but won’t tend to go over the £4.50 mark,” says Mal. “Our margins are probably narrower than most places, but our overheads are also slightly different; we own our land, we own the building, we don't pay rent, we’ve a small team, so we try to keep everything as minimalist and efficient as possible, which enables us to sell our beer at a very reasonable affordable price.”

Suzanne only joined the Heaney Farmhouse Brewing venture recently, after working in pharmaceuticals for a decade and a half. Like anyone new to the craft beer industry, she says she was surprised by its idiosyncrasies, and at times found it overwhelming. “In a way, leaving the city for this quiet, peaceful spot in the country, has allowed us to focus a bit better, and hear what matters; at the end of the day, our ethos is to make good beer so that as many people as possible can experience it.”

Accessibility is high on Heaney’s list of priorities, and it’s paying off. “These last 12 months have just been like, make beer, sell beer, make beer, sell beer,” says Suzanne, grateful of the business but also keenly aware of what a double-edged sword that demand can be in tough times, and for a small team. 

Ayden, brewing and packaging assistant

“It’s been difficult to make plans, or even just sit down and just have a long meeting when we're so focused on just producing what we need to satisfy our demand,” says Mal. “We’ve one distributor for the whole of Ireland, so they take virtually all our beer, and then for the Lidl contract we do three cans; a double pale, a New England IPA, and a white ale. So that’s been ticking over really nicely, and it’s been great to have that steady business. Everything we make we sell, but to the detriment of my creative itch. I don’t think we did a single special the whole of 2023, but I’m hoping that can change in the next few months.”

But beyond special releases, Mal is looking forward to procuring a producer’s licence later this year, which will allow Heaney to sell alcohol for 14 hours a week, opening the door to ticketed events, tours and tastings, and a pop-up taproom. “We’re looking hard at what we're going to do, but the big vision is that it will be a multi use premises, that allows for a little bit of retail as well,” says Mal. 

“Once we’re able to sell beer, we’d love to do some long table dining events, and just be able to collaborate with other people like chefs or other producers to put on some events, where we talk about our story, have our beer, and then have other artisans present, and talking about their stories as well. So it's a way of bringing the farm to the brewery, but also bringing the people around in this area to the farm, so that everybody can tell their story, I guess.”

It’s not so much the case that after several brutal months and years, things are looking up for Heaney; the business and brewery have been doing well, which makes it all the more profound that growth and progression is now coming in the form of Mal and Suzanne’s pursuit of personal values and priorities. There’s something raw, and powerful in pursuing the means of maintaining creativity, just as there is something strong and honest in seeking out the resources to tell your story well. With these ambitions fueling the brewery’s engine, one can only assume that Heaney’s beer of the future will taste brilliant. 

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