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A Birthday Trilogy. Part 2: Whitewater

Following on from Part 1: Ards is the story of a former Kilkeel brewery that outgrew its original site and moved to a much more impressive setting near Castlewellan. Whitewater Brewery was founded by Bernard and Kerry Sloan in the mid 1990s and 2021 sees its 25th birthday.

Much has happened to Northern Ireland’s beer scene since 1996 but there wasn’t much activity in the 90s or even for a decade and more after that. A tough and barren NI landscape lay in front of someone wanting to start a brewery back then. So, was it initial madness or a passion for the profession?

“I was working in chemical engineering in Oswestry, England” says Bernard, “and discovered golden ale from a cask in 1990. That area of the English/Welsh border was a hotbed for ales and I was hooked. I actively went round pubs seeking out local beer. It was fantastic, so different from back home. I decided that’s what I wanted to do for a living and, after a brief hiatus at a Nigerian brewery, came back to Northern Ireland in ’94 to use the family’s fifth generation farm at Attical to set up a small plant. When I say set up on the farm, it was actually the old potato shed we began in!”

That desire to create the brewery was cemented even more when Bernard and Kerry travelled to California in 1995, drank some amazing beer and visited a few outstanding breweries. “Of course there wasn’t the wealth of breweries then that there is now but it was great being able to rock up to San Diego’s Riptide Brewery, order the huge American Pancake Breakfast and also have a stout. At 11.30am! I think we stayed there for quite a few hours. That was the difference between there and here. It still is, I suppose. It shows you how far behind we are in the world beer scene.”

So setting up a brewery in the 90s eh? It wasn’t an easy task. With the two of them both working full time, they didn’t have the time, money or professional knowledge of how to begin in the microbrewing industry. “We didn’t have a business plan, that’s for people who use figures all day and I had no idea how to do that. The bank manager didn’t have a clue about helping a brewery start-up and even the planning officer looked at me blankly when we met. We had to beg and borrow from friends and family to get capital.”

“But we got the cash in the end and began building the original brewhouse in a project of blood, sweat and tears. And I mean actual blood – on one occasion the filter housing blew off and I had to go to A&E with a split head. It really was flying by the seat of your pants passion and there was a pioneering buzz about the whole thing.”

Photo courtesy of Conor at Whitewater

“Once it was built the problems continued. We were there part-time which meant massive cash flow issues at the start. I was working at Queens Island in Belfast so Kerry did the mash in the afternoon but what kept me going was the smell of the brewery drifting up the hill when you were approaching. It was, and still is, inspiring.”

“Another problem during the 90s and into the 2000s was people thought we were homebrew. Beer to them was Harp and Guinness, made in huge breweries run by professionals. The cask beer market was never going to be the South Down area, we didn’t even get our first keg tap in Kilkeel until 2018, 22 years after officially starting! In the 90s we were sending beer to places like The Crown or Kitchen Bar in Belfast and The White Horse in Saintfield, establishments that had some links to selling cask beer and we had to seriously ask ourselves if there was a big enough market for this stuff?”

“I recall a milestone for us was when a Belfast bar manager said a tourist walked into his pub and quickly left without buying a drink as they didn’t sell cask beer. The manager didn’t want to lose another sale and asked us to supply him with Whitewater cask from that point. So, small but important steps over the years.”

“A deflating time was when we were the only brewery attending a local food and drink festival and people were coming up to us asking for a pint of Harp. We needed to educate customers but people didn’t want to try something different back then. It’s not like now, there’s so much more to be proud of today. It’s not all plain sailing though, just last week I was talking to someone who said “oh you make that funny beer”. There’s a long way to go yet.”

Talking of key moments, a huge one in the progression of Whitewater brewery was the introduction of Maggie’s Leap IPA in 2016. Bernard saw there was a huge IPA wave taking over the UK and Ireland and wanted to make IPA accessible to everyone.

“Maggie’s was launched, it got into a few places around Belfast and people took notice. However I knew that to fulfil that goal of getting Maggie’s to everyone, we needed bigger equipment. We received a huge overseas order but couldn’t fulfil it due to our size back then. I knew we had to expand. One of the companies that was taking notice of us at that time was the Tennent’s/C&C Group. Twenty years on from the official beginning of Whitewater Brewery, we struck a deal in 2016 to get us a tap in Tennent’s bars and the dream of getting Whitewater to more people was edging closer.”

“It’s great having investment on that scale, don’t get me wrong, but it can close doors as well as open them. It’s not all rosy in the garden. You have to fight your corner to get what you want for your business. And this is still our business.”

“That deal has led to more targets and financial pressures but at least we have the right model to go places. It opened the path for a taproom in our new Castlewellan brewery (2018) and it means more people are able to enjoy our beer onsite. Tour operators come to our taproom and tourists from all over the world love it. This is something that needs to be allowed to happen to more breweries across Northern Ireland. Our lack of taprooms is a disgusting state of affairs. Politicians need to rectify this as a matter of urgency. If any of them went to England, they’d see how friendly and civilised the brewery taproom atmosphere is. We need them to understand how important this is for the local brewing industry. There needs to be significant change, it simply cannot just be a token change.”

And what of the future?

“If I stopped brewing tomorrow, I could move into brewery consultation and make a fortune but I wouldn’t enjoy it. Brewing is what I love doing and I love Whitewater. I love innovation but I also enjoy going back to basics and while we’ve just released our new range of hard seltzers (the first brewery in NI to do so), I’d like to produce more lagers and pale ales. So there’s a good mix of both aspirations. I’ve been in this game for over 25 years and I’ve not lost my desire to make good beer. My body keeps reminding me I’ve been in this game that long but my brain keeps thinking it’s 21.”

“I’d love to mark our 25th birthday with some sort of event if it’s permitted. Who knows that we’ll be allowed to do in the coming months but it would lovely to have the brewery full of people again. Then take a few months off and head back the US West Coast again.”

Beer events and foreign travel in the same year? Let’s hope crazy ideas like that catch on. Happy birthday to the team at Whitewater.

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