So Hut right now
From literal garden shed tinkerers, to nipping at the heels of Northern Ireland’s licencing authorities, Robyn Gilmour catches up with Beer Hut
Beer Hut Brewing
Saturday 10 February 2024
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“The brewery was started just by me and my brother in law, Neil. It was a drunken conversation taken too far to be honest," says Andrew McBride, co-founder of Beer Hut Brew Co, immediately acknowledging how stereotypical a story that is in craft brewing. There is, however, something about Andrew’s dry charm and easy-going candour that sets Beer Hut’s story aside from the crowd.
For instance, there’s no shortage of stories about breweries starting in small spaces in the craft brewing world, but I’ve heard of very few instances in which a now-commercial brewery starts life in a space scarcely bigger than a cupboard. “We bought a 100L brew kit and started homebrewing in a hut around the side of my house, which is where the name comes from, obviously. It was definitely pots and pans to begin with, and the space was so small we couldn’t stand in it together.”
The pair eventually upgraded to a 1000L brew kit made from repurposed dairy tanks, and transferred operations into the adjacent garage. There is something amusing, endearing but moreover brilliant about the image of two young fellas in caps and trainers tripping over each other, egging the other through brews and batches, until eventually the beer they’re producing is brilliant. That, of course, was seven years ago now, and while Beer Hut enjoyed a fairly standard, if not an idyllic, coming-of-age trajectory for a growing craft brewery, its evolution hasn’t been short of nuance.
For instance, where most breweries starting out with the hazy pale as their signature style tend to evolve towards the NEIPA and West Coast IPA, Beer Hut has split its time between reliable, bread-and-butter modern styles, and wild, and mixed fermentation beers. “We always had a passion for those types of beers, but we didn’t want to start brewing them until we'd built up some knowledge on how to make them. Anyway, we decided to delve into those just over the past couple of years and released our first wild barrel aged beer, Ebbs and Flows, last year. It was 100% wild, open fermentation, and then racked into barrels, eventually going into 750ml bottles.”
Andrew says the whole thing could have gone horrendously, while also acknowledging that the element of the unknown is half the fun of working with wild yeast. “The beer was in barrels for a year and a half, and we were tasting them the whole way along. At one stage, we tasted them and they weren’t very nice,” Andrew says with a laugh. “Then they just seemed to come full circle and finished up exactly where we wanted them to.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself.Beer Hut would move premises twice more after outgrowing Andrew’s shed, first to an industrial site in Kilkeel, and then into the town itself, where the recent addition of an on-site pizzeria has attracted further footfall.
“We started to decommission the brewery in June of last year. It took a lot longer than expected and so was quite stressful actually. We hadn’t planned to move again so soon, but a number of variables coincided to make us feel like it was the right thing to do. The price of our last unit went up so substantially that it didn't make sense to be there anymore, and this location is actually one we viewed before, but which didn’t work out, so it all kind of felt like it was meant to be. We now have footfall like we never had in our last place, and between the pizzeria and our wee funky cheese counter, we’re in a great position to be applying for our Producer’s Licence.
“There has been licensing reform in Northern Ireland, probably just in the last year and a half, that allows producers like ourselves to open the taproom to the public, and essentially sell on-site for 109 nights per year — so you essentially get your weekends out of it — and then allows you to sell online as well. So yeah, it’s a must if we're going to survive. Those extra couple of revenue streams that we’ve never had before will make a big difference.”
I ask Andrew if applying for a Producer’s Licence is accessible, or if the process comes with a price tag akin to that of acquiring a pub licence. He tells me you can likely apply for £5000, but that price is dependent on who you get to do the legal and administrative work for you; to apply for the licence, he needs an architect to produce as-built drawings of the site’s floor plan, and for a structural engineer to certify the safety of the building.
“It also depends on where in Northern Ireland you’re based,” says Andrew. “Here in Newry, more near County Down, there are two court dates a year where you can apply for an alcohol licence, so you have to be pretty organised, and off the mark. In Belfast, there’s a court date once a month at least, but here, there’s a long line of ducks you have to get in a row to be able to apply.”
I’m absolutely floored to learn that before a brewery acquires its Producer’s Licence, it has to hold what’s called an ‘Occasional Licence’ to hold events, open taprooms, anything that permits alcohol to be sold in any capacity. “At our current facility, we have a taproom on site, but for us to be able to sell alcohol here, we have to know a licencee from say, a nearby village, who essentially lets me borrow their licence to sell alcohol on a selected day between the hours of A and B, so basically I have to go to court every time I open the taproom.”
It’s a faff, but one that Andrew can see beyond. It seems that to run a brewery in Northern Ireland is to be a master both of playing the long game, and savouring small victories for all they’re worth. Andrew says that this spring, the brewery’s pizzeria will open full time, introducing people to the space, even if beer can’t yet be sold there during their visit.
“We see some people come through the door looking for pizza and who aren’t even aware of what we're doing here. It's great, and it repeatedly surprises me when I see people visiting who I might recognise as being local to Kilkeel and who I know would never have visited a place like this before. We had our first taproom event on the 25th of November last year, and the place was packed full of new faces, so it was a great night all in all.”
It’s an exciting time for Beer Hut, which has made remarkable progress over seven years in a slow-moving market. The brewery has become innovative, creative, and overwhelmingly down to earth, a set of characteristics that makes us excited to see what the future holds for it.
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