Attention all beer drinkers in the UK, especially those living outside of Northern Ireland. How many brewery taprooms do you have nearby? One? Maybe two or three if you’re in a city?
Unlike any other British brewery, Northern Irish breweries are gagged from having their own permanent taproom alongside the brewhouse. The archaic licensing law in NI says so.
Can the law be changed? Well, not yet. A political stalemate at Stormont since January 2017 means we don’t have any representatives in our local parliament and as a result, no meaningful decisions have been made for a mind boggling two years. A few weeks after the Stormont collapse I had a bit of a rant about the local licensing scene and the painful lack of desire from many politicians to assist Northern Irish breweries.
Hilden and Black Mountain near Lisburn as well as Walled City in L’Derry have their own restaurants so can get round this inconvenience by having a restaurant licence. However, all other breweries in Northern Ireland cannot sell their beer directly to the customer on a regular basis.
Some breweries such as Boundary in Belfast or Lacada in Portrush do have an occasional taproom, set up every so often for the weekend only and makes use of a special time-limited licence. It’s not a permanent licence like many breweries in GB hold.
Bullhouse near Newtownards and Farmageddon near Comber have also expressed a desire to potentially enter the taproom scene but are being hindered by the licensing laws. And with no politicians to make changes to the law, where do breweries stand and how long will the taproom/sales issue be left to stagnate? Of course I get that for most of the NI population there are bigger political issues to sort out but we’re talking about people’s businesses and livelihoods here. After I wrote my rant in Feb 2017 I was informed that change could be on its way and may take up to 18 months to come into force – that’s all well and good but there’s been no action at Stormont now for 24 months. That is a disgrace. While local assembly members have been prevented from making positive and meaningful change since 2017, breweries, business owners and every hard working Joe in the street have been getting on with day-to-day life.
My mind was focused on this issue again last weekend when I paid a visit to Seven Bro7thers Brewery and taproom at Salford Quays. A great set up where you can wander in past the mash tuns and fermentation vessels, as we did on a Saturday afternoon, rock up to the bar for whatever takes your fancy, before planting your bum on bar stools, kegs/casks with cushions or a comfy leather sofa.
I imagine that almost every major town from Inverness to Penzance has a permanent taproom of some sort, yet all sorts of hoops have to be jumped through in this part of the UK. That’s something that greatly frustrates brewers in Northern Ireland.
Helen Troughton from Armagh Cider has been campaigning on the licensing issue since 2005. “Next year I have over 120 groups booked to come here and I cannot directly sell any of my product. Alcohol businesses in GB can sell to tours but not us here in NI. Our politicians see Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom only when it suits them. They’re holding us over a barrel and we don’t get a fair crack of the whip. The whole issue is holding us back.”
Lacada head brewer Laurie Davies shares Helen’s frustration. “We had brewery tours during the summer with loads of Americans coming through the door but they’re left scratching their heads and can’t understand why they can’t buy the beer from us. It curtails employment too. We could do a lot more than we currently are doing if only we could sell our beer directly. The current laws prevent breweries from expanding, simple as that. But there aren’t any politicians in a position to change the laws right now so everyone’s in limbo.”
Farmageddon’s Eoin Wilson is also furious at the political vacuum. “MLAs need to get back into Stormont. We’ve been hearing a load of Brexit talk from politicians saying we’re part of the UK but when are we part of it and when are we not? Why are there licensing laws helping breweries in England, Scotland and Wales but not in this little evangelical statelet? I know of a guy in Yorkshire who set up what he thought would be a very small brewery but in a couple of months it became so popular with the locals, he had to employ four people and the taproom in an adjoining portacabin is rammed Thursday to Sunday.”
Bullhouse brewer William Mayne confesses the issue is driving him insane. “NI is the hardest place in Europe to start a brewery. Small breweries in GB sell most of their beer at their weekend taprooms. They can make healthy margins and reinvest quickly to grow the business and create jobs. Brewery taprooms have the potential to become hubs of the local community in NI, where people can converse, enjoy quality over quantity and engage with each other. Will we see a Bill passed in NI? If Stormont ever gets back up and running I fear they will try to fob us off with a similar deal in the Republic of Ireland. If the politicians are serious about supporting local manufacturing and encouraging social cohesion, then allow breweries to be on a par with our counterparts in GB.”
That recently-made deal in the Republic (Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2018) now allows breweries to sell directly to the public but there are quite obvious problems contained within. There’s a 7pm cut off time and bizarrely, you can only drink on-site if you’ve done a tour of the brewery. However, consumer organisation Beoir – which promotes Irish breweries – has cautiously welcomed the Bill’s introduction. Chairman John Duffy says he’s not yet aware of any brewery applying for an off or on licence in the past couple of months, but believes the Bill is a positive step and hopes brewers take advantage of it, noting that breweries such as Rascals and Dead Centre are creating taprooms using other licensing methods. However it’s good that there’s another option.
So a mixed reaction to a Bill in the south but at least there has been movement. Here in Northern Ireland we don’t even have local assembly members in a functioning Stormont to move the issue along.
One point that is always mentioned by everyone that I talk to about this issue is the attitude and behaviour of local politicians – so here’s a message to Mr and Mrs MLA:
Wise up, get your act together, start talking and resolve your differences. It’s a disgrace that you’re being paid a salary but haven’t been held accountable for two full years. Any member who has the potential to bring Stormont back into action should do so immediately. Stop behaving like children (even they don’t behave as poorly as you do). This isn’t the school playground – although watching you all constantly bicker, it often seems like it.
While Stormont lies empty, Northern Ireland is suffering and it’s your fault.