Digging with beer

Siobhan Hewison meets the Northern Irish brewery that’s making brewing poetry.


The family farm in Bellaghy, County Derry, that was previously home to the late poet Seamus Heaney and inspired him endlessly, is now also home to an on-site microbrewery. Heaney Brewery was set up by Malcolm McCay and his wife Suzanne, who is a niece of Seamus, in early 2019, after Mal had been working for several years at Boundary Brewery (see page 10). 

It’s still a working farm – and Seamus’ brother Hugh still lives and farms there, following the farming legacy of their father Patrick Heaney – so preserving its history is important to Mal. He hopes to bring attention to the farm in a new way, using produce from the land, and bringing the local community together through the brewery. “We took a plot of land between the farmhouse and the farm, and built the brewery from scratch, which was quite a stressful process, dealing with planners, contractors and raising finance.” It’s a source of income for when Mal and Suzanne eventually take on full responsibility for the farm, but also a great way to utilise the land’s very own spring water, as well as whatever crops they can harvest from the farm to add into the brews.

When Heaney Farmhouse Brewery first opened, it had a small portfolio of beers, brewed and perfected at Boundary. Mal describes his time there as stressful, and full-on but valuable and rewarding, saying it was “the best education I could have had in brewing.” Funnily enough, he never intended to work with Boundary, and it all happened by chance; he was a musician who had previously been working at a large musical instrument store, but had quit to focus on home brewing. He had an idea for a brewery in the back of his mind, and went to chat about it with Matthew Dick at Boundary. While there, he picked up a shovel to dig out the mash tun, just to help out, and ended up staying at Boundary for three years. He worked on all kinds of beer styles, from pale ales, to mixed fermentation beers, to barrel-aged saisons, and in December 2016 the first Heaney Brewery beer was released. 

Heaney’s core range is very strong, including a pale ale, a red ale, a blonde ale and an Irish stout, all of which have been fine-tuned over the last few years to firmly captivate the local market. Mal comments that “there is nothing wrong with impeccably-made session-strength ales like Irish Red and Irish Stout. […] I believe in affordable go-to beers, as well as highly-hopped IPAs and big pastry stouts.” This is something we can all agree on - in Northern Ireland, a market that is saturated with macro lager and a certain drink known as ‘the black stuff’, it’s great to see a small brewery putting so much emphasis on the staple beers that it makes well. 

That’s not to say that Heaney Brewery doesn’t experiment with more modern styles of beer; Mal explains that the brewery’s first nine months saw some special recipes developed, including West Coast IPAs, hazy, heavily-hopped juicy numbers, a rosemary IPA (a collaboration with YellowBelly brewery from Wexford, ROI), robust porters and yes, pastry stouts. 

This is a big accomplishment for such a small team, as Mal puts it: “I work at and deal with pretty much the entire operation. It’s truly a lifestyle right now and not just a job.” His wife Suzanne helps out with admin when she isn’t working at her full-time job, and he has two other part-time colleagues: “I have some part time help with brewing and packaging from Aiden – she’s from California and had some valuable brewing experience in the US – and Stephen runs events and tastings for our friends and customers. But mostly it’s just me and the sheep, chickens, and random visiting tourists looking for Seamus Heaney's old house.”

This coming year is all about brewing beers, of course, but also showcasing them when possible. Heaney Brewery is going to be taking part in Jubilate, a beer festival hosed by Boundary to celebrate its fifth birthday. Mal is pleased to be involved in this, since Boundary has done great work on raising the profile of Northern Irish beer. It’s also a chance for him to pour his beers alongside the likes of Verdant, Deya, Cloudwater, Finback, Other Half and Mikkeller.

The brewery also has big plans for the future, including exporting beer overseas as soon as possible, which will enable it to finance adding more capacity to the brewery - and hopefully, a taproom, restaurant, and artist exhibition space on-site. Mal comments: “We’re obviously very proud of the history of our farm, and are pleased to have it be the site of Heaney Brewery, which is our personal focus. We realise Seamus Heaney fans will want to share that history too though, and we hope to be able to one day welcome visitors who are fans of poetry and Irish literature as well as beer.” 

Watch this space - Heaney Farmhouse Brewery is certainly going to make big waves in the up-and-coming world of Northern Irish craft beer.

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