Taprooms are craft brewers' future - if politicians support them

William Mayne

IF you've ever visited a small brewery elsewhere in the world in your pre-pandemic travels, you'll no doubt have enjoyed sampling one of their beers freshly poured in the on-site taproom, or bought beers to takeaway from the brewery shop. During lockdown, many were even offering free local delivery of fresh beer to keep regulars in supply of great-tasting beer.

But if you tried to do the same in Northern Ireland, you'd be sadly disappointed. Unlike in most of the rest of the western world, small brewers here can't easily sell directly to the public at the brewery due to our outdated licensing laws. It means that tourists are turned away, visitors are forbidden, and business is lost.

Our politicians in Stormont now have a historic opportunity to level this playing field when they debate changes to the Licensing Bill this week. They have the chance to allow our fledgling craft brewers to operate taprooms where people can visit, learn about our craft beers and try a variety of different styles at the brewery.

Did you know that 99 per cent of all the beer we drink is produced outside Northern Ireland and imported by global mega brewers? Imagine that was the case with beef or milk or any other product we can make locally to a world class standard.

Because our small brewers can't sell directly to the public we end up sending most of our beer outside Northern Ireland. We want to reverse this perverse system so that drinkers in Belfast have the same choice as those in Bristol or Glasgow. Every single small brewer in Northern Ireland would like to see more of their products sold here and people want to try them. The key to this is to allow taprooms.

Across the world, taprooms have become a vital part of a small breweries' business. With most beer brewed and controlled by a handful of global brewers; it is often the only way for small brewers to make ends meet, becoming an increasingly important part of their turnover.

Taprooms allow small breweries to offer a unique experience where people can enjoy various beers and learn about the traditional process of brewing, providing them with a closer connection to the production process. Many taprooms serve their beers in smaller glasses (such as thirds or two thirds of a pint) allowing people to try different beers, from punchy IPAs, to complex saisons and stouts.

Taprooms create new jobs and also act as a draw for other businesses, encouraging them to locate and set up locally. This is what Tiny Rebel Brewery found when it opened its new site on Wern Industrial Estate in Newport – it created a destination where people wanted to travel to and visit the brewery. The same was true for Wild Card Brewery in Walthamstow in London, where art and food businesses have opened up around their Barrel Store taproom.

It would also mean that Northern Ireland's brewers are able to respond to the growing demand for beer tourism. Instead of turning away buses full of visitors, we could welcome them with open arms to share our passion and enthusiasm for our locally produced beer.

There are some who have argued that taprooms threaten our community pubs. We love our pubs and know the vital impact they play for their local communities. No one is looking to replace pubs which are at the heart of our towns and villages. Taprooms offer a different experience and allow small breweries to grow their business and support local pubs. In fact a visitor to a taproom is more likely to search out and visit local pubs, helping to support the economy.

And after the past 12 months, where small brewers lost ten years of growth and have become hugely indebted, taprooms would enable us to bounce back from the impact of the Covid pandemic.

The experience elsewhere has shown that taprooms encourage more people to visit local breweries, providing a vital source of revenue, employment and tourism. They do not crowd out local pubs but strengthen their relationship.

Now is the opportunity to safeguard the future of craft beer in NI. Our politicians have this future in their grasp by allowing taprooms under the new Licensing Bill. We only want to offer the choice and variety that consumers demand and taprooms will let us achieve it.

:: William Mayne is owner of Bullhouse Brew Co in Belfast and a member of the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA)

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