That Hilden Brewery is one of only two independent brewing companies in Northern Ireland and the longest established business of its kind still operating on the island, says a lot about the challenges micro breweries in this part of the world face. But the tiny firm has big plans, with its sights set on overseas markets and on growing
the business at home.
Hilden Brewery was founded in 1981 by Seamus and Ann Scullion when they returned to Northern Ireland after a period living in England, which boasts hundreds of micro breweries. Today it is managed by their son Owen, who supplies a range of independent bars and off license outlets as well as a number of regional and national beer wholesalers. With only three employees, it remains a tiny operation, but it continues to battle hard in a market dominated by the big drinks companies.
The business is based at the historic estate once home to the Barbour family who ran the world leading linen mill nearby. In addition to the brewery, the Scullion family also own and run an adjoining restaurant, which sells Owen's brews, and the popular Molly's Yard micro brewery, pub and restaurant in Belfast.
Growing and Brewing
Owen grew up in the family home beside the Hilden Brewery and went on to gain a degree in Brewing and Distilling at Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University. He has managed the brewery for three years, bringing in two university colleagues to work with him, and he has introduced a range of new brews. “With all of our employees being degree-educated brewers, in theory, we're probably the brainiest brewing business in the world, so we do feel under pressure to come up with some creative products," he jokes.
Amongst the brewery's offerings are cask and bottled pale lagers, red ales and stouts. A recent introduction is the Belfast Quarters range, which includes brews named after the city's Cathedral and Titanic Quarter areas. Hilden also produces a beer named after historical Belfast businessman Barney Hughes.
“We do everything on site, including the bottling, labelling and packaging. We also market the products ourselves," Owen points out. "On average we brew around 4,000 litres per week, but it could be more, depending on what orders we have from J D Wetherspoon, which is our biggest client."
Against The Big Boys
The company gained a very high profile when it first opened in the early 1980s, being Northern Ireland's only micro brewery at the time. Initially very successful, it soon began to feel the squeeze from the big boys of the drinks industry.
"The large brewing companies are dominant in Northern Ireland and tend to have a significant influence over the pubs. As a result, my parents soon found that their customers were coming under pressure from the big boys; and there was really only going to be one winner. A number of very tough years followed," he says.
As a result, the family diversified with the restaurant at Hilden, 'The Twisted Hop' portable bar, brewery tours, summer barbeques, a summer beer and music festival and Molly's Yard in Belfast.
"Today we have a successful business, but the challenges associated with big brewery dominance remain. Our beers are in some of the best pubs in Northern Ireland like the John Hewitt in Belfast, The Dirty Duck in Holywood and The Plough in Hillsborough, as well as in a number of specialist off licenses. But expanding the customer-base locally remains difficult," Owen continues.
Fighting The Corner
"We are in the process of developing a bottling and distribution arrangement with a brewer in Dublin and we are talking to a party in England about a similar arrangement over there. We'll keep fighting the corner for micro brewing in Northern Ireland but we also think we have a product good enough to take to and succeed in other markets.
"We want to further expand our customer base in the rest of Ireland and the rest of the UK. We'd also like to make our product available internationally. We think there are opportunities to do so. Niche beer brands are extremely popular in many countries, driven by consumer preference for seemingly innovative, locally sourced foods and drink. This is leading to a renaissance in craft beer brands in a number of European markets. Added to this, we know that Irish brands can do well internationally," he adds.
Dr Bernard Toal, chief executive of NORIBIC
The target market can be neatly segmented into two sectors: university campuses and professional men and women aged 25-35 living in urban areas. Hilden should consider the demographics of these two communities and develop a growth strategy both within Northern Ireland and beyond. Because of the small size of Hilden Brewery, and limited resources, they should take advantage of below-the-line marketing. Part of the process of ensuring year-on-year sales growth must be educational. Targeting the next generation of higher earners at University can begin that process. Placing the beer in the context of other activities, such as an accompaniment to food, or linked to music and art, moves the beer into the area where perhaps a premium price can be levied. Hilden should develop a beer-food combination menu. Stout with brie and seafood? Ale with lamb? Hilden might consider other specialist beers such as wheat beer or fruit beer and develop similar combinations.
Ron Immink, co-founder, www.smallbusinesscan.com
First of all, I would say to make contact with other Irish companies that have been there before. Hot Irishman whiskey, which has featured on www. smallbusinesscan.com, is also a niche Irish drinks company. It began selling domestically through niche markets such as the gifting sector, catering, airlines and speciality shops, with consistent focus on the brand, before successfully targeting markets overseas by focusing on its Irish roots and its history. Hilden should also focus on the various brewing awards. Winning some of these would significantly enhance the credibility of the brand and gain profile for the company internationally. This has worked very well for some other micro brewers. In order to capitalise on the enthusiasm that there is in niche markets, I would suggest trying to develop an interaction with enthusiasts online. Maybe post some brewing recipes on the site and invite customers to post suggestions. Build an open source brewery where clients actively get involved in product development and brewing new types of beer. And then sell those beers back to the community who helped develop them.
Gary Barr, Head of Lisburn Business Centre, Ulster Bank
As Ireland's oldest independent brewery, Hilden has a unique selling proposition that should stand it in good stead in international markets. But the company should take advantage of every means of support and advice available. And there is a lot. Invest Northern Ireland is an obvious place to start with regard to exploring exporting opportunities. There is the potential to apply for grants to research opportunities in overseas markets. There are also trade missions organised by various support organisations, which can be invaluable. With regard to planning for expansion, Owen should speak to his bank early on to inform them about the company's aims, presenting a clear business plan. The Enterprise Finance Guarantee scheme is something that Owen should definitely bear in mind. It has been set up as a guarantee facility for small businesses intended primarily to improve the availability of working capital through term loans and the consolidation of overdrafts. Selling bottled beer via its website direct to consumers should be an aspiration. Also, as the island's oldest brewery, there is perhaps the potential to sell Hilden Brewery merchandise.