Meet East Belfast’s cooperative brewing powerhouse.
Friday 20 March 2020
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The Island of Ireland
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Based around 20 minutes from the city centre in East Belfast, the walk out to Boundary’s small brewery is itself a glimpse into the city’s recent history, taking you past statues, eye-wateringly graphic murals and other reminders that this was, within living memory, a community at war. But for all the martial imagery, there are also visual celebrations of the hard-won peace, which continues to slowly, cautiously embed itself into the fabric of this country. Boundary, and the other thriving businesses springing up around the neighbourhood are not only a dividend of this peace, but also arguably putting down the roots that will help it stand the test of time.
The brewery itself is in a beautiful redeveloped redbrick textile factory, alongside an artisan coffee roaster, architects, design agencies and a restaurant. At the moment, thanks to the vagaries of Northern Irish alcohol licensing (on which more later), the entrance is a grey shutter with an equally grey door, which I walk past several times before a security guard quite reasonably asks if he can help.
I’m met by co-founder Matthew Dick, who greets me by thrusting a plastic cup of uncarbonated black lager into my hand: “Hi, try this”. It’s good – the subtle bitterness of the dark malt complementing the quite distinct bitter snap from the hops, and balanced out by bready malt. Matt and his small team moved in here around five years ago, with a 400-litre brewhouse, some old flat-bottomed fermenters and a tiny manual bottling station, all funded by an (at the time) record-setting round of crowd-funding.
This much I know, but when I ask Matt to tell me about Boundary’s origins in his own words, he takes me back much, much further, to childhood holidays in Europe and how they influenced his view of beer.
“We spent a lot of time in Belgium when I was a kid, and I was struck even at that age by the healthy, social approach to drinking,” he says “You’d go into Leuven and there’s thousands of students drinking; they’re all enjoying it, taking it seriously, using the correct glassware. It’s also where I met my wife, who’s American, so I then lived in the middle of the American craft scene for about seven years. We moved home to Ireland in 2010 and there was no good beer available here, so we started homebrewing obsessively.
“Then one day I was walking the dog, time stood still, and the whole idea came to me in a rush, from the branding to the name, the tone of voice, to the art to the style of beers, the fact that we should do cans, how we’d approach recipe creation… Boundary was there, fully formed.”
Even at this stage, it was important to Matt that the brewery should be based around sharing, cooperation and community, but this side of things remained a little nebulous until he met his co-founder, also called Matt, whose experience in setting up cooperative businesses allowed the pair to crystalise what they wanted to achieve.
“I knew we needed the support for a real community. The money was irrelevant at the time, but I just knew this thing would fail if it didn’t have an unusual amount of local momentum… So we worked on the business plan and sold around 900 shares, raising £90,000. Boundary is run by a board of our members, which rotates every year. It’s given us access to skills and expertise I couldn’t have afforded and certainly didn’t have myself. It could have been an absolute clusterfuck of course, but the people who bought in are without exception so passionate about it.”
The core team is close and compact though. Beside Matt and Matt, there’s brewer Marco, head of packaging Jonny, and Deccy, who helps out part time. Finally, there’s designer Phil, who Matt first met while working out of a coffee shop opposite his office; they got chatting and Phil offered to make Boundary a video in exchange for beer. They’ve been good friends ever since.
A second round of crowdfunding brought in £160,000 and a lot more members, enough to buy an automated bottling line, which gave the team back a lot of time and, crucially, raised the quality of the finished product. Three and a half years later, Matt acquired the neighbouring unit and knocked through, allowing the 400-litre kit and antiquated flat-bottom fermenters to be replaced with a 2,400 brewhouse and modern conical fermenters. This not only increased capacity six-fold, but also made it much quicker and easier to brew the kind of hop-heavy beers that customers were demanding. He also sold the bottling line and switched to cans, as had been his intention from the start.
“Five years it’s taken to get to this point and find our stride. Demand has always been ahead of supply, but when we went to cans the demand really soared. Every step we’ve taken demand has exceeded capacity, but you’ve got to spend money to find out what demand will be.”
Boundary has always kept a diverse range of styles on its books, and has only become more adventurous as its equipment has improved, says Matt.
“Generally we’ll have a lager, IPA, DIPA, stout and something stupid on our sales sheet at any given time. Then five or six different beers a month that are completely new. That’s what distributors expect of most breweries. And I’m the same; I’ll drink a beer and think it’s world class, the best I’ve ever had, but then I’ll want to try something new. Bars here, the owner will say ‘that double IPA was our fastest selling ever, couldn’t pour it fast enough. I don’t need any more though, what do you have that’s new?’.”
Matt says its hoppy styles have probably seen the greatest evolution, as Boundary has worked with and learned from its international peers in a non-stop series of collaborations.
“Collaborating has been one of the best things about doing this. We started with no experience at all, of running a business or running a brewery. The collaborations we’ve done with Verdant, Northern Monk, Cloudwater, even people in the States… we’ve learned so much, particularly about how to get the best from our hoppy beers. It’s crazy how much people share. We’re only five years old, but that’s quite old in some circles, so now we’re the ones that people are coming to with questions and advice. That’s class, we’re happy to help.”
Despite most of its members being local, Boundary only sells around 20% of its volume in Northern Ireland, because the market there is currently very tough. “We have the most tied market in Europe on draft, and it’s tough to build a market without draft handles. Access to licenses is impossible too. And for us, with 1,400+ members, most of whom have a postcode a couple of miles from us, we would probably be sustainable just with off sales to our members if we were allowed to do that.
“There’s hope though. Our government has just come back after three years of bullshit, so hopefully we’ll be able to lobby for a change in the law. We’re also at a size, because the market’s so young here, that we’re about to hire a sales rep just for local stuff; we’ll be the first brewery here to do that. So we’d love to shift that 20% domestic figure up a bit. We know how much demand there would be for a taproom.”
It's been a great morning with Matt, and I’m just packing up when I realise I’ve completely forgotten to ask where the name came from. Was it something about pushing brewing boundaries, was it a reference to beer’s ability to break down old barriers? I should have known it wouldn’t be anything so obvious.
“It’s actually from a philosopher called Gustave Flaubert, who said you must be orderly in your life, so you can be original in your work. That idea of having boundaries and rhythms and patterns, that are regular and orderly in your life, help you to your best at work and in relationships. That was something I wanted to build into the business, though haven’t always succeeded. To be honest though, the first two-to-three years of any start-up are insane. Nobody should have to do that, but that’s what it costs to get up on your feet as quick as possible. The past four or five months, I’ve never seen my family more, which is ultimately how I measure success.”
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