When Seamus Scullion and his wife Ann launched Hilden Ale in November 1981, little did they know that Hilden Brewing Company would one day be the toast of beer drinkers across Ireland and beyond.
For the past 35 years the family-run business has been leading the way in the production and promotion of craft beers and ales, and is now the oldest independent brewery in Ireland.
Inspired by independent brewers in the south east of England, where they lived in the 1970s, Seamus and Ann spotted a business opportunity on their return to Northern Ireland. And despite having no experience of brewing, they were passionate about the idea of producing their own beer.
“When we came back here we were looking for something to do and we looked at the beer market and we thought that compared to the very dynamic beer market in the south of England here was just dominated by two big brewers and we thought there was an opportunity,” Seamus explained.
“What brought us to Hilden was opportunity. We were coming back from Kent so we sold our property there and we came back here and had enough money to buy the house and start the brewery.”
The couple set up Hilden Brewing Co. in the courtyard of the historic Hilden House, the former home of the Barbour linen barons. They recruited a renowned brewer from England as a consultant and a young man from Finaghy who had just graduated with a degree in brewing and launched their first beer, Hilden Ale - a product they still produce today.
Seamus, who is originally from Ballyscullion in Co Londonderry, proudly recalls that Hilden was “a breath of fresh air” in the local brewing trade in the early 1980s.
The fledgling brewery’s beer was sold to local pubs and clubs, but life quickly became difficult as within a few years many bars had signed deals with the two big breweries, Bass and Guinness.
“That made life difficult and has driven us to the beer festivals and the restaurants because we wanted to get close to the consumer,” Seamus explained.
In response to the tough trading conditions of the mid-1980s, Hilden made its first foray into the hospitality industry by holding a beer festival at the brewery in 1984.
“We opened the gates for people to come in and enjoy the beers and that was very successful and we have been running beer festivals ever since,” Seamus continued.
Building on that success, the couple opened the Tap Room restaurant at the Hilden site in the late 1980s and extended their business with the opening of Molly’s Yard restaurant in Belfast in 1995.
As their business expanded over the years, so did Ann and Seamus’s family.
Hilden Brewing Co. is now very much a family business, with their son Owen the brewery manager, daughter Frances Maguire the general manager and their other daughter, Siobhan, a key player in their restaurant business before she moved to England to take up a new job.
Hilden started out with just a few employees and in the early days was turning over around £60,000 a year. A great local success story, it now has an annual turnover in excess of £1million and employs more than 30 people across its brewing and hospitality businesses.
In 2014 the company invested close to £1m buying a neighbouring commercial unit and converting it into a new hi-tech brewery, but Seamus is keen to point out that the old brewery is still very much operational.
The new state-of-the-art setup is capable of producing 6,000 litres of beer in a single brew - more than double the capacity of the old brewery - and that has opened up a new world of opportunities.
Hilden now sells cask, keg and bottled beers all over Ireland and Great Britain, supplying many independent bars and restaurants and even big pub chains. The local firm has also supplied a major distributor in the Czech Republic and is now attracting interest from potential customers in China and Mexico.
While welcoming the opportunity for further growth, Seamus knows the timing of any move into larger markets has to be right.
“We have to invest to continue to grow, but we need to ensure when these opportunities come that we can meet them and we need to be confident that we have the capacity to be able to supply them,” he said.
In recent years the craft beer industry has exploded, leading to the emergence of many small breweries, but Seamus doesn’t mind the competition.
“It’s a competitive market, but at least it’s not dominated by major international companies, so really it’s an open market. We rely very heavily on the strength of our branding and the quality of our beers and the reputation of our beers, and that’s really what the craft market is about and I think we are well in the lead in that area.
“I’m not saying that we don’t see scope for improvement, we do. But we don’t think that the advent of the whole raft of craft brewers as competition is a negative thing, in fact we see it as growing the market because the market for beer is so colossal and the vast bulk of it is still taken by the brewing majors, so the little bit that the craft brewers take really can only grow, and the more of us there are the more we can grow it. So I see the competition as competition, but I also see it as partners in growing the market.”
The Scullion family have brewed through the Troubles, battled through tough economic times and overcome personal tragedy. But they have kept working hard, developed and expanded their range, diversified into the hospitality industry and the business is now going from strength to strength.
As they celebrate 35 years in business, Seamus and Ann would be entitled to sit back, put their feet up and look back with great pride at how they seized their opportunity and made it a huge success. But Seamus stresses that he has no plans to retire anytime soon and is looking to the future with confidence.
The 74-year-old is focussed on continuing to grow the business and hopes that redevelopment of the neighbouring Hilden Mill site and restoration of the nearby canal to its former glory will bring new opportunities.
“I see us moving forward on two fronts - the brewing and the hospitality. We have a strapline which is ‘refreshing tradition’, and that’s about being true to our roots, but also not standing still, and that applies to our beers, to our food, to the people we employ, to our customers, our branding, the family links and to our venues here and at Molly’s Yard.”
Seamus, who is passionate about preserving the area’s built heritage, added: “Right now one of the most exciting things that is happening - and we’re not leading it, it’s happening around us - is the possibility of the mill site developing and the canal opening up. We see those as major issues for us in the years ahead. If all the ambition for the mill site is met and the canal opens up then the village of Hilden becomes potentially the most exciting place in Lisburn.
“If the canal reopens and the mill building is still standing there then Lisburn would have something that nowhere else in Northern Ireland has. Very few places have that historic asset and we are right at the heart of it and have a vested interest in ensuring that it’s done.”
• To celebrate its 35th anniversary, Hilden Brewing Co. will be hosting a series of special events and performances over the coming months. The first of them will be a Carols by Candlelight event on December 18.
For further details log on to www.hildenbrewery.com