Business

Craft-beer tourism another casualty of north's political impasse

There are currently over 30 active microbreweries operating in Northern Ireland, producing a wide range of beers, ales and stouts for domestic and export markets
Linus Murray

THE popularity of craft alcohol has increased dramatically in recent years.

There are currently over 30 active microbreweries operating in Northern Ireland, producing a wide range of beers, ales and stouts for domestic and export markets.

Research indicates that one of the top most desirable experiences for holidaymakers is visiting a craft brewery or distillery.

However as it stands, with present licensing regulations frozen thanks to the ongoing political stalemate, local craft breweries require a full pub or restaurant licence to sell alcohol or to offer and operate tasting tours or tap rooms in a restricted setting.

Even with a restaurant licence a brewery is only allowed to sell their alcoholic beverages with a main table meal purchased by a customer in a restaurant setting. Alcohol cannot be purchased on its own or brought off site.

A pub licence allows the customer to buy alcohol in a pub setting within the brewery and also bring purchases off site. However, premises cannot obtain a new pub licence in Northern Ireland without the surrender of an existing licence, the purchase of which can be substantial, potentially in excess of £100,000.

That is a lot of money for any small business but without such a licence, microbreweries are prevented from offering tourists the full visitor experience.

Our current legislation also and unfortunately blocks independent brewers selling products at a plethora of farmers' and food markets including the very popular Balmoral Show and Good Food Show.

It's clear that with the unabating surge in tourism in Northern Ireland and the corresponding high demand for craft alcohol, for many in the industry the current laws are restrictive and archaic, not to mention having a hugely detrimental effect on business.

Such prohibitive legislation is not echoed in other jurisdictions with brewers in England, and most recently the Republic of Ireland enjoying relatively free trade. In September 2018, via The Intoxicating Liquor (Breweries and Distilleries) Act 2018, the Republic of Ireland introduced new legislation enabling breweries and distilleries to sell alcohol on their premises.

This move has been greatly welcomed in the south and will enable young and upcoming brewers to enter the market and take advantage of Ireland's tourism offering.

The call for amendments to Northern Ireland's liquor licensing legislation is of course not limited to brewery and distillery owners.

Our local hospitality sector has for some time rallied for change to the Easter holiday alcohol restrictions. This year saw the relaxation of licensing legislation in the south over the Easter period, a change viewed by many in the industry as a progressive one.

Similar, modernised legislation would be most welcomed here in Northern Ireland, delivering a much-needed boost to our economy, but unfortunately doesn't look likely any time soon.

:: Linus Murray (linusmurray@oreillystewart.com / 02890 321 000) is a director at Belfast law firm O'Reilly Stewart.

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