In the fast-paced world of modern beer, it’s easy to forget our roots. On a recent trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, I received a stark-but-comforting reminder of the place from which today’s craft beer culture emerged. These days, the brewing industry feels a bit like a densely packed forest—it’s full of intertwining old growth, but fresh, green shoots are still managing to break through.
Northern Ireland’s old growth consists of roots laid down long ago by the likes of Diageo—particularly with its Guinness brand—and mainstream Lagers like Heineken. Even Belfast’s hippest bars have taps owned by at least one of these giants, and which, under the correct circumstances, is perfectly legal here in Europe. But as a direct result, the development of the craft beer scene is a long way behind other UK cities such as London, Manchester, or Edinburgh.
This is perhaps because Northern Ireland is, in fact, the most tied beer market in Europe. The all-prevailing popularity of mainstream Lagers and the ubiquitous Guinness is instilled into several generations of beer drinker. Stubbornness and stoicism are two hallmarks of the Northern Irish character, after all. Even pubs and bottle shops that are free of any sort of tie are reluctant to refuse the sums of money offered by these industry giants when it comes to stocking their beer.
And so, craft beer culture in Northern Ireland has been stunted for longer than the rest of the beer drinking world. It’s a landscape that is perhaps similar to how the U.S. might have looked before craft came along in the early ‘80s and slowly began to alter that precedent. However, the beer industry doesn’t move slowly any longer and the prevalence of modern U.S. craft beer culture is now a global phenomenon. Here in Belfast, Boundary Brewing Cooperative is one of the first to have picked up that torch for Northern Ireland.
[Editor’s note: Boundary Brewing covered a portion of our writer’s travel costs from London to Belfast in an effort to expose our audience to the Northern Ireland craft beer scene of which they’re a part. It was an open invitation with no particular strings attached. We are grateful for their help in making this and subsequent articles about Northern Ireland craft beer possible.]
“So one day I was out walking the dog,” Boundary Brewing Cooperative brewery and co-founder Matthew Dick says. “Time stood still. And pretty much everything about Boundary came to me at once.”
“I had just moved home from the States,” he continues. “I lived near the West Coast for about five years—my wife is from there. And in 2010, I had moved back to a really, really sad beer scene here in Northern Ireland. America had been electric. I hadn’t fully appreciated it until I had left. But I saw an opportunity to open a brewery here in Belfast.”
Just more than a year ago, Boundary began to make its home in East Belfast. The area is famous for the murals that cover a multitude of walls along its streets and recall a darker, more troubled time that scars this small nation’s history. The brewery sits in a former linen mill, composed of towering red brick and gaping windows with cast iron frames. The converted units are now home to a variety of creative industries, including a design and printmaker, a baker, a cheese maker and Boundary itself.
But before his brewery sprang into being, Dick found other ways to satisfy his longing for the U.S. beer culture he dearly missed. “I couldn’t find the beers I wanted to drink easily or cheaply, so I started to brew them myself,” he says. “In the following months, I helped start a homebrew club in town, and then a beer club.”
It was through these activities that Dick got himself noticed by a company called Brewbot. This Kickstarter-funded, Austin, TX-based company which is developing a fully integrated, smartphone controlled brewing system had set up its European HQ in Belfast. “Brewbot offered me a job as a ‘Brewing Evangelist’, whatever that meant,” Dick says. “So for just over a year I got to constantly brew on this robot that brews beer and is controlled by an app on your phone.”
As well as being able to constantly tinker with the Brewbot system, this also gave Dick the opportunity to spend time in Texas, where he discovered one of his all-time favorite breweries, Jester King. Dick would regularly visit the farmhouse brewery in the Texas Hill Country, where he would reap inspiration from its Brettanomyces-led ferments and oak-aged beers. It was something he couldn’t quite replicate as an avid homebrewer, but this certainly didn’t prevent him from trying.
“For a year I got to brew loads and I eventually became pretty comfortable with recipe formulation and ingredients,” Dick says. “We also all moved to Austin for a few months and were part of the best tech accelerator program in the whole wide world. That gave me the confidence and some of the tools I needed to make the jump.”
Dick’s vision for Boundary was clear from the start, and included everything from its tone of voice to the artful beer labels designed by Dick’s close friend John Robinson (who also uses a small part of the brewery as his studio). Developing the brand was the easy part—the difficult part was turning people on to it. “The biggest sense I had was that trying to do anything new or different in Northern Ireland is extremely difficult,” Dick remembers. “Maybe that’s the same everywhere, but I don’t think so.”
He was worried that the local populace wouldn’t be interested in the U.S.-style IPA, Imperial Stout, and a host of wild, barrel-aged beers he planned on producing. He knew that his fledgling business would need to gain momentum. And that quickly he’d need to win not just customers, but fans. “I knew it was something that needed to be shared from the beginning,” he says. “I just didn’t know what that meant.”
It was shortly after Dick came up with the idea for Boundary that he was introduced to his would-be co-founder, Matt Scrimgeour. The pair was introduced by mutual friends who knew Dick was looking to launch his own business—the relationship began with a simple phone call. Scrimgeour was keen to put his enthusiasm for the cooperative business model to good use, his knowledge and passion for this idiosyncratic model only matched by Dick’s love for idiosyncratic beers.
“As we first spoke on the phone I literally had to Google ‘What is a cooperative?’” Dick says. “It turned out Matt was able to put language to how I had wanted Boundary to be—a brewery that is run and owned by its members.”
Dick quit his job at Brewbot in November 2014 and the following month Boundary launched its first community share offer. The pair set themselves a target of raising £70,000 over a one-month period. Investors were able to spend between £100 and £20,000, which, regardless of the amount laid down, gave them one vote as well as the ability to run for the board of directors. The inherent nature of a cooperative is that you can’t simply buy yourself more of a voice should you intend to. In just eight days, Boundary raised over £100,000 (about $145,000) from more than 400 investors.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Dick says. “We had this crazy long marketing plan ready right through to the second week in January. We didn’t need it. I cried, laughed, and drank some beer. Then I took the rest of December off with my family.”
Boundary moved into its space in January 2015. Barely a month later, they were making beer.
At the back of a large, airily lit room with tall ceilings sits Boundary’s compact 400-litre brewhouse. Alongside it sits a hodgepodge of fermentation tanks of varying sizes, stacks of kegs, empty glass bottles waiting to be filled, and a handful of former wine barrels—the latter a sign of the brewery’s ambition to produce wild ale.
We rest ourselves against a makeshift table, constructed using a stack of wooden palates and Dick opens a beer. It’s a Wild Raspberry Saison, fermented with a variety of yeasts and bacteria, some of them even salvaged from the dregs in bottles of lambic. It’s not as refined as the beers that yielded this one their yeasts, but it’s certainly tasty. Boundary’s name, Dick tells me, “comes from a quote from Gustave Flaubert. Be regular and orderly in your life so you can be violent and original in your work.”
He continues excitedly: “I’ve found boundaries can be a good thing in life. We so often think of boundaries, or disciplines, or limits, to be bad. But my experience in life, love, relationships, study, fatherhood, all that stuff, is that the more routine, habit, rhythms you develop in your life, the more efficient and driven you can actually be.”
To Dick, the look and feel of his beer is every bit as important as the way it tastes, so using Robinson’s art on Boundary’s labels was an instinctive reaction. Many instances of his work hang proudly on the brewery walls. “Every time we do a new beer, I sit down with John and chat about the beer,” he says. “We drink and talk. He takes notes, tastes, and does some quick sketches. Then he goes off and does a new piece for the beer—and we trade him rent for the work.”
Boundary’s core range would be familiar to any craft beer fan. There’s a flagship IPA, redolent with notes of lemon pith and grapefruit flesh over chewy caramel. The Export Stout is a highlight with notes of stone fruit, dark chocolate, and a wave of espresso bitterness rounding out the sweeter flavors. Push and Pull is an American-style Pale Ale with an ever-evolving hop bill, usually spurred by Dick only being able to formulate recipes with the hops available at the time.
Beyond this, things get a lot more interesting. Dick has something of an obsession with some of the States’ more experimental fermentationalists such as Philadelphia’s Tired Hands, Asheville’s Wicked Weed and the aforementioned Jester King. I taste a raspberry-infused Berliner Weisse that somehow packs in all the jammy, tart flavors of the fresh fruit used to make it, while balancing them on a knife-edge of acidity. It’s streets ahead of his core range, perhaps because this is the kind of beer he’d rather be brewing full-time.
After a subsequent share offering was made available so Boundary could purchase bottling equipment, the membership was pushed to more than 1000 people. As a cooperative, collaboration comes as second nature, and to mark the business’ first anniversary, Dick had two big brews in the works.
The first was with Dick’s good friend, Declan Nixon, who brews both for Yellow Belly and his own imprint, Otterbank, which makes its home at the Simon Lambert and Sons Brewpub in Wexford, Ireland. Like Dick, Nixon is obsessed with unusual ferments, so their collaboration was to be, in their own words “some kind of fucking Saison” which would then be emptied into a vacant wine barrel, marked with the words “dreg me.”
So dreg they did. As we drank our way through bottles of Farmhouse Ales and Oude Gueuze, the dregs eventually found their way into the barrel, along with a combination of Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and various strains of Belgian and sherry yeasts. The resulting beer, if successful, should be interesting to say the least.
The second collaboration also featured Nixon, along with the team from Ireland’s The White Hag brewery, who just opened in 2014. Despite not having a contract for it, Dick landed himself a highly sought after bag of Citra pellets, which he admits he paid way too much for. That entire bag went straight into a big double IPA.
Collaborating with other breweries has been a key part of Boundary’s early existence. “For someone with no professional experience, collabs are an awesome way to learn from other people who are way ahead of you,” Dick says. “Other brewers can really help tweak your processes and give advice. And going to other breweries to brew is one of my favorite pastimes.”
The kettle spits and cracks as it boils, with green-tinged, hop-infused wort occasionally spilling over the side of the small vessel. In the adjacent mash tun, a second brew is already underway so they can make full use of the available fermenter. On the other side of the room are three brand new fermentation vessels recently purchased from Ireland’s Galway Bay Brewery.
“We’re not going to break even on this beer,” Dick says of the Double IPA, smiling. “But that’s not really the point—this beer’s a celebration.”
There’s also a darker story behind these new vessels. Dick brews at Boundary all by himself and when moving the new fermenters into the building, one fell on his foot, breaking his ankle. Thankfully one of the cooperatives members, Mal McCay, was on hand to help out as assistant brewer while Dick directed him from his wheelchair.
“I didn’t sleep the night before his first brew,” Dick recalls. “I never told him that, but he nailed it. He wants to start his own brewery, and he’s going to do some awesome things.”
Perhaps it was that injury that made the board realize how Dick’s the company’s biggest liability. Expanding his team will be one of the first steps Boundary takes as they begin to grow. It’s also clear that the young business’ goals will not be fulfilled using a 400-liter brewhouse. Dick isn’t too phased by this, though. “It’s not so much the size of the kit that creates the difficulties really,” he says. “We can brew enough as we are now to remain sustainable.”
What are the challenges to that sustainability, then?
“Sales, mostly,” he says, frankly. “We’re in the business of selling beer. I’ve no sales experience and it’s a challenge, but one that I love. Locally, it’s frustrating—holding the hand of a bar owner who wants to put his big beer margins on our 7% IPA. But selling beer outside of Northern Ireland has been awesome. It’s basically about making friends with other beer geeks. Who doesn’t enjoy that?”
Those sales are what’s driving Boundary forward. Although the scene is picking up in Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole, in part thanks to the work of people like Dick and Scrimgeour, Boundary needs to sell to larger, more sustainable markets, in order to support its growth.
“We’re not in any rush to take over the world,” Dick says. “We currently have beer in England, Scotland, and France, and we’re about to be in Wales and the Republic of Ireland. My personal goal is to keep making great beer and be the best employer in the city.”
He might sound humble, but to my eyes there’s a crackling ambition in him that will see both Boundary and Northern Ireland’s craft beer industry grow way beyond the standards set by industry giants decades ago. Maybe that ambition is a liability, too.
“Knowing when to put our foot on the accelerator and when to break is difficult,” he says. “The Board help a lot there. I’m not very patient at all. They manage me very well.”