In Conversation with Owen Scullion, Hilden Brewery

Flavourly’s Rob Gilmour chats to the founder of Ireland’s oldest independently-owned craft brewery about the brewery’s roots, the change in craft beer over the past 30 years and the range he’s curated for Flavourly this month.

Running fifteen minutes late and frantically punching numbers into the phone screen is not quite how I would normally envision my first steps for an interview but, in the current world, needs must. I get a couple of rings in and a familiar voice answers the phone. A Northern Irish accent that is wisped and cut by the wind rushing in on a beach on the North Irish Coastline.

“Hey Rob, how are you doing?”

I have my man – Owen Scullion of the family-owned Hilden Brewery, Ireland’s oldest independently-owned craft brewery.

Two Irishmen having a natter is usually the pretext for one of two things; a delightfully silly joke, or a long story. This turned out to have the cut of both.

Hilden Brewery was founded back in 1981 by Owen’s parents – Ann and Seamus Scullion, arriving back from a stint living in Kent where they had developed a taste for one of England’s fine traditions, well-kept cask bitters. They arrived home, to find a place with little in the way of beers they loved to fill the void and began to think there was an opportunity.

In 1981, craft beer as we know it today was taking its baby steps around the world, Sierra Nevada was only recently established in 1979. So, Ann and Seamus set out, opening Hilden as one of the first people to set out the stall of Irish Craft Beer, and to show people, as Owen says: “There was more to life than Smithwicks, Harp, and Guinness”

It turned out, that would be somewhat of an uphill battle.

Now, roll a short hop and Hilden is now the oldest independent craft brewery on the island of Ireland, and Owen is at the helm.

Making my own bed, and ensuring that this was going to be a good long walk down memory lane, I started at the beginning – what was it like to grow up in what was the first brewery to open up in Irish Craft Brewing?

There is a lovely sense of happy humble oblivion in Owen’s reply: “It’s a bit like anything, you take it a bit for granted. Your parents have a brewery in the back yard and I thought it was perfectly normal. When I was at primary school, I knew there was a degree in brewing and distilling before I knew what a degree was.

“In a way it’s kinda cool, and in another way it’s a bit like – oh god, my future was laid out for me from about the age of seven.

“It’s not just having the brewery there, but just growing up somewhere a bit different and then, as you get on, older with it, it’s all different aspects come through you know –  where the house is located , so it’s in the outbuilding of a very big house.”

The house casually mentioned by Owen is Hilden House, the former residence of the Babour family, who ran the Linen Mills nearby. The house even has a tie to one of Northern Ireland’s most famous industrial outputs – the Titanic, with Helen Barbour marrying the designer of the ship, Thomas Andrews on the site. Owen casually playing down of the history reinforces Owen’s view of forgetting how special the location and setting of the brewery is because, while a bit odd, it’s just what you grow up with.

“Why did my parents open a brewery in Northern Ireland in 1981, so many questions that raises,” Owen ponders.

“They weren’t following any other kind of leadership – other than they had just lived in England and they had a taste for cask ales, and when they came back home there was nobody doing it. It just wasn’t a tradition that had survived.”

The opportunity had just seemed right for Ann and Seamus, they’d met some other people who lived in Ireland who had a similar experience. Owen follows on from his point about the three big brands of Ireland and says: “Surely, everyone else must realise this, but no … they haven’t realised quite what an uphill battle it would be over the intervening 30 years.

“No… 35 years,” Owen corrects himself, and there’s a wonderful sense of what it’s like to get caught up in life. “No, sorry, nearly 40 years now.”

Talking ourselves through the journey, Irish craft beer really only kicked off again in the mid-nineties with breweries opening in the South, which quickly fell silent again. “And then nothing until the financial crash kinda time,” Owen adds, joking the idea that maybe craft beer requires crisis and that maybe we are on the verge of another leap in terms of people wanting to drink smaller brewer’s produce.

With the mood feeling ponderous, I tongue-in-cheek ask what it’s like to be the old man of Irish craft beer, the steady hand of the scene, and what’s it like to interact with the trends in the industry right now.

“It’s definitely an experience for myself. I have been aware of what is going on but not necessarily tuned into it ‘cause I have grown up, like I said, since the age of two, with a brewery in the back yard. Everything we did, still, in Ireland was real out there and then for someone else – some new people come along and say you’re the establishment.”

Knowing Owen and Hilden, we share a laugh over this. Owen’s relaxed tone is no act and comes from a place of genuine curiosity in beer – Hilden are no sort of establishment.

“We realised what we had been, and are, successful at doing was the beers of 20 years ago. And to grow up with that, we thought we need to keep up with the times. So it’s an adjustment, but it’s good, you learn just how much there is to learn every time – you throw a new ingredient in, try a new process, suppliers come out with something that changes it all up.”

Owen’s excitement listing the possibilities of brewing leaves me needing to ask one question, what is the biggest learning from the last five to ten years?

He begins with a hesitated groan, almost giving verbal release to what must be a rush of information: “It’s hard to put your finger on one thing. It’s maybe that the craft beer market isn’t just one thing, it’s so many different shades of beer drinker really. People who love session beer, people who want a new beer each time.

“What I used to tell people on brewery tours – craft brewing isn’t about having the same beer each time, it’s about having the best beer each time.”

It’s a simple and unpretentious philosophy that seems to have an inclusive message at its heart, that each time Owen and the team enter the brewery, the goal is not to come out having done less than they wanted to in a brew.

He laughs as he admits: “It’s trying to run those expectations alongside a profitable business. It’s realising you have to be innovative, fashionable, and stay current, but at the same time as having a viable business model that all these things work together.

“So, I think the thing I have learnt is it is difficult and it is always going to be difficult. Even all the breweries that are doing really well right now, they are just working really damn hard at the minute making really good beer and getting it to people.

“It’s definitely not a one-man job. So, what I have been trying to do is get people’s opinions and getting people involved. Get people at the brewery to take a stake and managing the expectations and reality of working at a brewery.

“You know you say what have you learned – well, how many things are there to learn? After, personally, doing this for about 20 years, it’s that realisation you cannot sit still. You think right we’ll get to this point and we’ll sit still – well no.

“As an older brewery, you think it’s about core brand and they stay the same – not really, they keep evolving but at a slower pace. And if you are evolving those core brands that you sell all the time, there are so many skills in there… and I don’t have them all,” Owen adds with a self-deprecating laugh.

Embarrassing Owen, I remind him ten years ago I first encountered Hilden working in a wine merchant while at University. We talk through the evolution of a core Hilden beer, Belfast Blonde, and developing that house style of blonde into the Hilden x Flavourly Collaboration Blonde – side note: if you haven’t tried this – you really should – it’s such a wonderful beer.

Owen’s reflective on the point saying that that the blondes are a good example of developing Hilden from its cask ales, to College Green Brewery Brand (from which the Belfast Blonde hails), to the beers Hilden have aspired to make now.

“That’s kind of it in a tactical sense, we had to learn to move away from brewing ‘balanced beers’. It’s difficult to get outside your comfort zone, and frustrating as well, because I really appreciate those other beers as well so I want to be able to make beers that aren’t so ‘balanced’ really well.

“I want to be able to make more hop-forward beers, and newer styles that come out there and have the skills to evolve with that, and finding out what the brewery can do. So, doing these beers for you, brewing with and Get ‘Er Brewed and Framageddon has been hugely beneficial.”

As we discuss the idiosyncratic and less classically-balanced styles, we get talking about Owen’s New England IPA and what it has been like for a brewery versed in Cask Bitter to tackle the new darling of the beer world.

“The New England was good, we developed it a while ago,” he says. “We are really pleased with the style, there is some kind of some hard and fast things about it like the chemistry of the water, and the hopping process is entirely back to front from what we were used to ,and one of the things we struggled with was the haze, having a hazy beer for the sake of it, so ours isn’t that hazy.

“The hopping was back to front, we kept putting the hops in at the boil, and we kept ending up making really hop forward bitters,” the laugh that punctuates this statement carries the implication that Owen might not have thought that was the worst case scenario.

“Then we slowly realised the bitterness is a perceived bitterness, that you’re not getting the bitterness from putting the hops in at the boil but just from the sheer amount of hops that you but in the beer. The character of that beer was an entirely different thing.

“When you are doing a New England, it takes that level to an extreme with virtually no hops in the boil and then you are putting hops in during the fermentation. And the water chemistry, the water chemistry is very important to the character of the bitterness of your beer, and your balance is flipped, and it give a mellowness to the beer that cuts down the bitterness.

“That’s a lot of dry talking there but it gives us the beers name, Hopended, because it was hopped at the end.”

Probing at Owen, we go over the good, the bad and the ugly of beers Owen has produced on this run. Owen was full of praise for the straightforward process for producing the Farmageddon beers, having worked with the team previously to make the beers, and having been in his comfort zone. The Get ’Er Brewed beers on the other hand proved the beers that needed the most learning on the job.

The Kviek was a beer that stole the limelight for attention grabbing reasons – raising the fermentation temperature from 22 to 40 degrees. Working with the hop suppliers and aiming to get the hop profile amplified was a challenge and the beer seemed to keep eating hops as they chased after a bitter profile.

One of the beers our team have been most excited was the Chairman Chevalier, and Owen reveals it proved to be a nice and clean run through despite some of the exciting variables – including heritage barley variety Chevalier, and some really exciting yeast from Lallemand, the yeast supplier. The yeast in question is their first attempt at producing a commercial strain of Verdant’s house yeast.

It is obvious that the joy for Owen comes from the constant evolution of beer and processes. The remark that embodied his approach the best was: “And there are still things there to learn, 20 years and still learning.”

Leaving him on a final question what would you love to come back into vogue?

He replies: “It’s hard, that is a hard one. because your tastes evolve, your palate evolves and I love what we do now but in the back of my head, I still tell people on the tour, it’s really hard to beat a well-conditioned cask bitter, you know.”

Try Hilden Brewery’s beer here!

Words: Rob Gilmour

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