2021 sees a milestone birthday for three of Northern Ireland’s breweries.
Ards Brewing Company in Greyabbey is 10 years old, Whitewater in Castlewellan turns 25 and the oldest independent brewery on the island of Ireland, Hilden Brewery near Lisburn, celebrates its 40th birthday.
The NI beer landscape has altered immeasurably since the inception of each of these breweries and even in the ten years of Ards Brewery’s existence, much has changed. I first met owner and brewer Charles Ballantyne in 2012, a year after opening when there were only five microbreweries operating in Northern Ireland at that time. Yes, five.
With now close to forty breweries, brewpubs and brands across NI, I wanted to get his thoughts about the past, present and future of Ards Brewery.
Situated a mile outside of Greyabbey on the Ards peninsula, you’d never know you’re approaching a brewery when you turn off the country road into a winding, gravel lane. There’s no sign on the Greyabbey to Carrowdore road, there’s not even an Ards sign when you park up at the brewery 15 yards from Charles’ house. I suppose you could say, why bother? It’s so well hidden through the trees that no-one will see it apart from the family, the postman and inquisitive beer bloggers.
What you do notice as you drive down, however, is the fantastic lush woodland enveloping the brewery. I’ve been to Charles’ place numerous times but never had the opportunity to explore the surrounding seven acres. That was about to change.
It was a calm April evening, the sun was still shining somewhere over on the horizon and I was wearing white trainers. Charles asked about my footwear as it could get a big boggy but I didn’t care. Let’s go. Arlow the collie seemed particularly excited at the sight of us emerging from the brewery and armed with his blue squeaky ball we set off.
For the next 45 minutes we meandered through some of those seven acres, picking our way along the tiny trail that guided us past many trees, crossing a muddy stream, marvelling at the stunning views and getting my white trainers less white. I was loving this. We talked about everything from fallen beech trees to the 1798 Irish Rebellion, that’s how we roll. Arlow seemed to enjoy it too. I admit I was a touch disappointed, as was Arlow, when we arrived back at the house after completing the woodland loop as I could have walked it again but the sun had set and darkness was creeping in. Let’s head back inside.
We sat down and Charles, a former architect, began to talk about the brewery.
“It all came about after the property crash of 2008. I realised pretty quickly the building industry and architect work was going to disappear overnight. We (his company) had to lay everybody off and wound up the business pretty quickly. Just like that! Word on the street was it was going to take quite a few years for the industry to recover and I wondered what on earth am I going to do during that time? I thought about baking bread but someone suggested brewing beer. Great, but I’d never made beer in my life! So a quick crash course in homebrew with a friend and I was hooked. When yeast ferments it gives off some magical power that gets up your nostrils and makes your brain turn to mush. That was it really, I started brewing every weekend and gave it away to friends over the period of a year or so.”
“One of these friends worked in the Food Technology department at Loughry College in Cookstown and enjoyed the brews very much. He was way ahead of the curve, he knew beer was going to be the next big thing and had installed a small brewing kit in the college. He took me up, showed me how it worked and how the brewing course operated.”
“Also at this time, now 2011, I asked a local publican in Carrowdore if he’d be interested in selling my beer in the adjoining off licence. He didn’t have a clue about local beer, he was very reluctant at the start but put it on the shelf anyway. It disappeared!”
“By that stage I’d got up to a 100L setup, making about 150 bottles in one go and I couldn’t keep up with demand. I was only stocked in that one little shop beside the (now defunct) Tavern Bar in the middle of nowhere. So I realised there was demand. Then followed the 2011 Belfast Beer Festival in the Ulster Hall in Belfast. I took up two casks filled with Ballyblack stout, I was really nervous but it seemed to be well received.”
“I kept making 100 litres a day, until I realised I could make 200, 500, 1000 litres a day and if I wanted to make any money I needed to scale up or give up. That was the biggest decision because there’s a fair investment in going from small to medium scale. And I needed somewhere bigger to brew. I looked at industrial units in Bangor but really wanted something closer to home. So the decision was made to keep it at home and build myself a brewhouse next to the house. What a commute, 15 yards! It was probably the best decision I’ve made in my life. Yeah, superb.”
As Charles says this, a broad smile breaks across his face, he pauses to look at the floor in a moment of happy reflection and I can easily see how proud he is of that decision to take the plunge and stay at home.
And the benefits of being an architect? Designing your own brewery of course. Over a year and a half, the physical construction of the new unit was very much a family affair with Charles, wife Sharon and sons all getting their hands dirty with various aspects of the build.
“Dirty” is not a word you would ever associate with this man. I’ve visited many small breweries over the years, I’ve visited Charles many times too and Ards Brewery is without doubt the cleanest, most organised outfit I have ever had the pleasure of stepping inside.
This is a man who’s happy in his work, happy with his position and happy with his brews. “I think the beer scene here is very healthy, the more the merrier but I think some of our small breweries may need to find a niche by brewing differing styles such as chilli stouts, wild beers etc. I also don’t think many will grow unless they start exporting. You need good quality but also need a USP. There’s a lot of good stuff out there but you’re up against it if you don’t think differently.”
Ards Brewery is mainly a one man show. The beer is solely brewed by Charles, bottled and capped by him (sometimes with family help), labels are designed and applied by him and boxes delivered by him. It’s a wonder he doesn’t drink it for you when you buy it.
And what of the future?
“I’ll keep going as long as I can,” is his wistful response but suddenly emotion takes over. He pauses, clears his throat and has a tear in his eye. I can feel myself starting to wobble too. Charles was diagnosed with kidney cancer almost three years ago. It’s not something he openly broadcasts but nor is he shy talking about it.
“Within two days of my diagnosis, I’d come to terms with dying – it’s just one of those things that happen. Accept what hits you and carry on. I had no qualms about going but I was asked recently what would happen if I couldn’t brew any more and I that’s when I got really emotional.” At this point he’s on the verge of breaking down and I’m not far behind him. There’s a huge lump in his throat and his voice is breaking. “Not brewing hit me harder than dying, it’s bizarre. There’s no logic to it. I just love it. If I was unfit to brew then that would hurt most. Brewing gives me something to look forward to. I’ve made the 2021 Christmas beer, Quiet Man and Bushmills casks are over there filled with a double IPA. That’s my long term plan, that’s as far as I can see.”
Charles’ chemotherapy and medication regime to keep the cancer stable means that maybe one week in three he’s completely out of energy and won’t brew at all.
“But generally, I enjoy every day as it comes. Brewing gives you something to look forward to, it gives you goals – today, tomorrow, next week, three weeks time. It’s given me milestones and if I didn’t have that I don’t know what I would be looking forward to. There are things needing done in the house or garden of course but it’s brewing that keeps me going, it provides a structure and I always hope I can reach the next step. It’s been nearly three years from the original kidney diagnosis to stage four now and I’m feeling ok. I’m relaxed about going, I’ve no issues. Brewing has allowed me to meet so many lovely people along the way.”
“The past ten years have been a great part of my life but there are still so many beers I’d love to make. This year I’m going to reintroduce a tenth anniversary version of an old favourite, Pig Island pale ale, with a slightly different recipe. There’s a Citra 10 out at the moment, I only bottled about 70 or 80 bottles. Before Brexit hit, I bought new hops from the Charles Faram hop supplier, so new it’s only identifiable by a number. It’s in the fridge and I’m looking forward to using that. There’s so much to do and I want to brew as much as I can before I’m called to the great brewery in the sky…without being too morbid about it.”
He breaks out into laughter which causes me to laugh before he recites some lines of The Flaming Lips song Do You Realize??
“Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes
Let them know you realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last.”
You’ll never meet a more engaging, softly spoken, likeable and welcoming brewer than Charles Ballantyne. He openly admits you’ll never find his beers in the trendy craft pubs of London, Manchester or Dublin but that’s ok because that’s not his goal. Ards Brewery is simply the story of one man who takes pleasure in escaping into his brewery to make relatively small batches of beer. It’s a pleasure and passion like I’ve never witnessed before.
Here’s to many more Ards brews in the future. Happy 10th birthday!