Every brewery’s origin story is unique to them, but so many start in a vaguely similar way. Perhaps a disillusioned beer drinker yearns to make something better than what’s available to them. Maybe a homebrewer takes a chance and builds a career out of their passion. Hillstown Brewery’s beginnings, on the other hand, are unlike any other; they started out by brewing stout for cows. I spoke to co-founder Jonathan Mitchell about the Northern Irish brewery’s journey from beef to beer.
“The brewery started very much by accident,” says Mitchell. “My friend Nigel and I always had an interest in beer, and I had a homebrew shop called Get ‘er Brewed. He had a farm shop, on a working farm, where the brewery is now based. He said that he had heard of Wagyu beef where they fed the Japanese cattle beer, they had massage brushes and music played to them in the cattle house; he wanted to add a bit of extra value to the meat that he was selling in the farm shop by doing the beer-fed beef on the farm.”
And so, the two began their journey to produce Northern Ireland’s taken on the Japanese delicacy; but not just any beer would do. In 2014, when the beer-fed beef project began, the craft beer scene there was very much in its infancy so access to a consistent supply of high-quality craft beer wasn’t an option. Nigel and Jonathan had no intentions of compromising on quality by buying in mass-produced, inferior beer so there was only one option… They’d have to do it themselves.
“The farm is a fifth-generation farm, it’s always been done the hard way or traditional way,” Jonathan explains. “Everything is looked after personally. I guess we wanted to take the same approach with the beer; we wanted control of the quality. We didn’t want mass-produced beer. We wanted it to be a craft beer that we knew was only made from four ingredients; water, malt, hops and yeast.”
While the operation began small – “We started of using small plastic buckets with extract homebrew kits,” Jonathan reminisces – the quality of the meat it produced saw demand for the product grow, and so the need to produce more beer came quickly.
“The impact it had on the meat was incredible,” remarks Jonathan. “The marbling of the fat throughout the steak loins was much more visual than it would be in a normal cut of beef. We wanted to make it a Northern Irish delicacy so we used a rare breed shorthorn cattle that are native to Northern Ireland, not Wagyu cattle that are native to Japan.
“We went from plastic buckets to, I’d say, about a thousand litres a week using repurposed dairy equipment.” While the success of the beef saw the pair upping their game on the brewing front, it wasn’t until the press came calling that the penny dropped that humans might like to try the beer too. Jonathan tell us: “It was actually a news presenter who came to do a feature on the brewery who said ‘look, that beer’s incredible, you should bottle that.’ And that’s what triggered us to start looking at the option of selling the beer commercially.”
And thus, Hillstown Brewery was born.
“The beer we feed the cattle is a stout,” says Jonathan. “Initially we launched it as a 12% beer but people in Northern Ireland don’t know how to drink sensibly so we had to tone that down a bit to a 7% stout. So, the beer that we sell today – the Horny Bull Stout – is the same beer that we feed to the cattle.”
The commercial release, and success, of that first beer ignited a passion at Hillstown; a passion that has seen their core range grow into a gorgeous set of seven unique beers (six of which are proudly featured in Flavourly’s Craft Beer
Club this month) including the stout, a wheat beer, an IPA, a lager, a red ale and, rather interestingly, their interpretation of a Belgian tripel.
“I was always very passionate about beer and liked beer from different parts of the world,” says Jonathan. “I had travelled to Belgium to buy from a homebrew distributor and started drinking beers over there while we were touring about like Tripel Karmeliet which is one of my favourite beers, and I wanted to make a Northern Irish version of that.
That’s how the Spitting Llama came about, it’s a Belgian tripel style. It’s German pilsen malt then candy cane sugar, some coriander, and we use an abbey yeast to really bring through those yeast eaters.
“We had the beer entered into the Irish Craft Beer Championships and we took a gold medal for the Spitting Llama; that gave us quite a bit of attention. We had literally just been messing about with buckets and old dairy equipment and, all of a sudden, we’d won a best in category gold medal for a Belgian beer.” It’s a testament to Hillstown’s commitment to their craft, doing things differently and doing things the right way. Every aspect of their brewing is considered, well thought out and has a goal in mind. Their red ale, for instance, was brewed with for a very specific purpose.
Jonathan explains: “We wanted to do a traditional red ale to try and pull people into craft. Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole is dominated massive, macro brands – and one of them makes a red ale. We wanted to show people that you could make a red ale with flavour so we hopped it a little bit more than would be normal for that style. We have a toffee, caramel sweetness in it. That’s how Massey Red Ale was developed.”
Beyond the core range, Hillstown is committed to “being innovative and pushing the boundaries of craft beer” with special, seasonal releases. Their latest innovations include a very on-trend brut IPA and an out there blueberry sour infused with the same botanicals that make up Frankie & Eileen’s Gin. Jonathan promises more to come throughout the rest of the year so be on the lookout for Hillstown’s latest and greatest in the near future.
While their beginnings are unlike any other, Hillstown’s output is reminiscent of all the great craft breweries who are shaping this exciting revolution in the beer industry; delicious, quality and exciting beer. Now, who fancies a beer-fed steak and a bottle of Horny Bull Stout?