It might surprise beer lovers to learn that during the heyday of Belfast’s shipbuilding years and world-leading linen production, brewing was also one of the city’s five staple industries, providing vital employment for local workers and helping to keep the turn-of-the century economy thriving.
At a time when Belfast’s ship-building yards and linen mills dominated the industry, there were 13 breweries busy churning out beer across the city.
It was also the era in which Belfast was the biggest exporting port on the island and the second port of the British Isles.
But sadly, competition from Dublin’s mighty Guinness empire eventually sounded the death knell for the local beer makers.
Fast forward well over a century later and as the love of artisanal food products fires a spark in the local food economy here, the craft drinks industry has also experienced a rapid resurgence.
Craft breweries began to emerge in the 1980s and many more have joined the flourishing market in the last decade.
One local man who decided to carve out his now niche in the growing market is Niall McMullan, who founded the Hercules Brewing Company, thought to be the first of those original 13 firms, operating from for just a decade, from 1845-55.
Niall wanted to rekindle the legacy of one of those early breweries whose machinery once thrummed to the rhythm of Belfast’s industrial heavyweights booming all around the city.
Having spent 25 years working for a drinks giant before deciding to revive the brewing company which took its name from its former site, Hercules Street in Belfast, which today we know as Royal Avenue.
Founding the Hercules Brewing Company in 2014, which produce the popular Yardsman brand of craft beers – it is understood to be the first craft brewery to return to Belfast for 160 years.
“I was very keen to get a Northern Ireland craft beer brand together and I’d been looking into the history of brewing in the 1800s when I discovered it was one of the five staple industries in the city,” explains Niall.
“Everyone knows of the shipbuilding and linen industries and less so of the strong rope industry but there were also healthy distilling and brewing industries.
“When I found out about the Hercules Street Brewery I decided to try to bring it back to life so that’s how it began really,” he says.
“Hercules Street is now Royal Avenue and I was able to get my hands on the lease for the Hercules Street Brewery from 1845 and it now adorns our bottles.
“We are now the only brewing company which filters our products through Irish linen like they did in the bygone era, which we thought only fitting for something which is completely free of chemicals,” he said.
The recent upsurge in the number of microbreweries in Northern Ireland has been credited with saving the country’s brewing industry.
It is estimated that from the first emerging in the early 1980s, there are approximately 30 today in 2017.
Studies have shown that stout is the favourite tipple among beer lovers in Northern Ireland, with lager in second place on the palate. A distant third is bitter.