Whether you be new to the world of craft beer or a seasoned pro, you may not be aware that Hilden Brewery near Lisburn is the oldest surviving independent brewery on the island of Ireland and turns 40 years young in 2021. Hilden brews, including the likes of Twisted Hop, Headless Dog and Belfast Blonde, can be found in many supermarkets across Northern Ireland but there’s been a lot of toil to get to this point.
“It’s been a long and winding road since 1981,” says Owen Scullion, when we chatted recently.
“My folks (Ann and Seamus Scullion) were in Kent and my mum is an entrepreneur at heart. Being immersed in English pub culture, real ale was all around us and when we moved to Northern Ireland they wanted to start a brewery that could try to replicate that culture.”
Ann and Seamus set up the brewery in the 19th century courtyard of Hilden House, an historical building that once homed the Barbour family, owner of Hilden Mill and Barbour Threads – a family that has connections to Thomas Andrews, the naval architect in charge of RMS Titanic plans. And just like the liner’s voyage across the Atlantic, the were also big problems with Hilden’s beginnings, thankfully not as catastrophic though.
“Of course there was, and still is, a very different beer market in Northern Ireland compared to England” continues Owen. “My parents naively didn’t understand the barriers to trade and all the obstacles that would stand in their way. Obstacles that probably wouldn’t have been faced across the water. But they persevered and initially had good trade, until the bigger players flexed their muscles. That’s still the story now. The real ale market wasn’t tolerated by the big beer organisations here.”
Looking through old newspaper articles I noticed a great quote from Ann in 1982, “If we could get 1% of all the beer sold in Northern Ireland, then we would be on to a winner., And surely we can get 1% of drinkers interested in a decent beer.” You’d think so, Ann.
“It’s always been a tough gig” says Owen, “especially over the past 25 years, but opening Molly’s Yard (restaurant in Belfast) gave us our own outlet and people loved it. I’ve met so many new converted drinkers who wanted something different, something that wasn’t one of the big lagers or stouts as well as a brewery tour. In the past, no one here knew there was different beer – all that was available to them in the pubs were American lagers, European lagers and Irish nitro stout.”
“When I started brewing in 2005, we’d head to the Franciscan Well cask beer festival in Cork, where there would be 8 or 9 breweries in attendance. It was great craic, a superb social occasion and a chance to see that there was different beer throughout Ireland. Choice, albeit limited, was there but events like that spur you on to continue brewing and re-ignite your belief that people want more than what they’re being offered across the land.”
It’s a belief that continues to drive Owen and the Hilden team, a belief that they’re doing things well.
“Since lockdown hit last year, business has never been better. More people than ever are enjoying our beers, we installed a new canning machine and are now producing more beer in cans as well as traditional bottles. I want to do more different styles of beer. We’re a big brewery and can have 18,000 cans in one run. So let’s crack on.”
“I don’t want to produce all beer for all people, though. I want to have time to do things differently and gradually bring in other employees with different ideas of working in a brewery. I don’t have a lot of time to drink, ironically. I would drink socially with friends but not by myself.
“I’d like to get a subscription mixed case and try different styles more often. There’s a huge amount of heritage in European beers, I’d like to explore that more. It would be great to visit Germany and drink their styles.”
More immediately, before Owen manages to head off to Europe, there may not be a Hilden festival as we know it this year but this week they are running a Pizza and Hilden Beers night in their Tipis. Live music too, all happening every Wednesday and Sunday. Normality is on the horizon people.
It’s not how the Hilden gang had anticipated celebrating 40 years in the business but I’m glad to see they’re making a decent fist at entertaining the public while continuing to celebrate locally brewed beer.
Happy 40th birthday Hilden Brewery. We all have a lot to thank you for.
To read more from the birthday trilogy, head here for part 1 and here for part 2.