Matthew Dick is Head Brewer at Belfast’s Boundary Brewing Cooperative. Having honed his brewing at home, in brewpubs and for US beer company Brewbot, Matthew took on his own challenge in 2014 - creating the Boundary Brewing Cooperative with co-founder Matt Scrimgeour. We meet Matthew at the brewery, a unit set within the Portview Trade Centre, all red brick and broad windows. He talks us through his path into brewing, the challenges of the beer market in Ireland, and his aims for Boundary.
“Growing up, I had a very responsible introduction to alcohol. There was no taboo around drinking socially, and I was allowed to have a drink with my parents at home. When I turned eighteen that meant that drinking alcohol wasn’t so much of a big deal. I had friends in Belgium that I used to visit a lot, and the way that people there enjoyed their beer was so different than what is normal in Ireland. I think that there isn’t the same sense of drinking as a means to an end there, you drink more for flavour and interest, and serving a beer in the wrong type of glass is its own type of heresy. That gave me an appreciation for beer, and when I started going out with my mates in Belfast they were getting smashed on shit beer while I was looking for the Hoegaarden and the Leffe.”
“I was always interested in beer that was different. My wife is from the United States, by far the best place in the world for beer, and I moved with her to Reno in California where I worked in a brew pub for a year. The brewing scene is so established there, there’s a lot of variety in the kinds of beer that people are brewing, and I didn’t fully appreciate that until we returned home in 2010. What we came back to Belfast it was a pretty sad scene, and in terms of beer, there was nothing, no good beer to buy in shops or pubs that served good beer. So I started homebrewing, working out of the kind of brew kits you can order online with some friends. I’m kind of obsessive and I started to get carried away with it - even when my friends lost interest I kept going. At that time I was doing a Masters in Theology, but brewing started to take over. I began to get pretty geeky about it, and found that I was spending more and more time doing that than working on my MA.”
“One day I was out walking my dog and the idea for Boundary instantly formed. Time stood still, and pretty much everything about it came to me at once; the branding, the style of the beers, the packaging and marketing. It was just one of those moments when you can very clearly visualise something. I felt there was a gap in the market for Boundary so I went home, wrote out a very rough business plan, and then went and got in way over my head.”
In December 2014, Boundary launched its first community share offer. The initial fundraising target was £70,000, with investors able to purchase between £100 and £20,000 worth of shares. The offering was an immediate success, and in under two weeks Boundary had raised over £100,000 from over 400 investors. When a subsequent share offering was made available so Boundary could purchase bottling equipment, the membership was pushed to more than 1000 people.
“Starting as a cooperative was a strategic plan as opposed to a philosophical one. We aren’t allowed to sell directly to the public, and due to the influence of companies such as Diageo and Heineken, we knew that supplying wholesale to pubs was going to be a challenge. So we needed some momentum to create a buzz from the start we thought that a cooperative would be a great way for people to feel involved from the beginning. My co-founder Matt Scrimgeour has a lot of experience in opening co-ops up and down the country, so the idea to push for a co-operative really came from him. I remember googling what a co-operative was the first time that we spoke on the phone, and Matt put language to the sense that our idea needed to be shared from the beginning.”
“Working as a co-operative has its pluses and minuses, but we wouldn’t be here without it. It can be difficult sometimes to manage the expectation of two hundred people. I try and leave the co-operative side to the board and the members club and focus on the brewing and business side of things. In many ways it’s one of the things I regret most about how we’ve performed so far; we could have engaged more with the members. We are trying to get more out of being a co-operative and pass that value onto the members. They deserve more, and I’m trying to figure out what that means. We had lots of plans about how to involve the members from the start, such as crafting beers made from their designs, but it has been hard to implement these initiatives as we have been trying to grow and develop the business. We do have a monthly taproom at the brewery, where members can come to the Brewery and try the beers we have been making at a discount, but we want to develop this further. Now that we are starting to turn profits and can breathe a bit, I want to step back and have a think about our direction and identity as a business. A big part of that is how we involve the members. When you consider how we started and where we are now, we’re doing great. We jumped off a cliff and had to teach ourselves to fly, but now we have the chance to make some important decisions.”
Northern Ireland is Europe’s most tied beer market, and with 94% of taps being owned by brewing conglomerates such Diageo and Heineken, the independent breweries are squeezed. Despite this, a growing desire for authenticity and traceability in the products consumers are buying has driven growth in the market for most local artisanal products. While the rise of craft beer across the UK and Ireland has been well documented, Matthew believes that the onus is on the independent breweries to continue to improve their offering in order to stand out.
“In terms of Northern Ireland, I think there has been an uplift in the craft beer over the last five years, but it is definitely happening much more slowly than the coffee culture has developed. I think it comes down to the slim opportunity to sell into the Irish market, and ultimately those in the industry not making the most of the opportunities as they come along.”
“Beer lacks the same retail market that something like coffee has. Due to our licensing laws and tied draught taps, it is very hard for us to get our beers out in front of new customers here. Only 20% of the beer we produce is sold in Ireland, which means that 80% of our sales are export with customers in Europe, East Asia and the United States. In terms of taste, that domination by Heineken and Diageo of what is being served in pubs has created a culture where people only think of a fizzy lager when they think of beer. Imagine if the restaurant scene was like that; if you went into a restaurant and there were only three dishes on the menu. That how things feel for us. That being said, responsibility lies with the breweries too. There are around thirty breweries in Ireland now, and while that is encouraging, the quality of what is being produced isn’t always great. We’ve tried the beer from other breweries that has been infected, but the retailer hasn’t noticed when it should have been sent back. It’s the story far too often here unfortunately, if you had corked wine you would know to send it back, but at the moment people don’t really realise when their beer isn’t the intended finished product. I think it’s an education problem that needs to be addressed.”
“But we can definitely learn together. The craft beer market is about 1% of the total beer market in Ireland, so there’s no point in enmity with the other breweries when we collectively occupy such a small percentage of market share. We’ve done collaborations with lots of other breweries and we try to get to as many events as possible up and down the country. We have other breweries come in here and critique what we are doing; their knowledge can really help fine tune your processes and it’s good to make friends, as at the end of the day we are all driven by the same passion.”
When talking to Matthew, it’s evident that Boundary remains a passion project. While he makes it clear that there is still a lot of work to do in realising his dream for Boundary, he is able to recognise how far the project has come.
“Having a brewery to play with has given us a lot of room to experiment and make new beers, and so far we have made in excess of 150 different beers. The process for creating each beer usually involves us seeing a gap in the market in terms of what people are drinking and we try to satisfy that. Otherwise, it can come from tasting a beer that we really like and then trying to recreate it with our own spin on the flavour.”
“When starting out I used to do almost everything; all the brewing as well as dealing with all the sales and other administrative parts of a business. Brewing is an interesting process, but it is routine work and at times can be monotonous. I was putting in 60-70 hour weeks, and using so much time brewing made it hard to do all the other elements of work that a business needs.Since having brought Mark and Mal on board to help with the brewing, I’m getting the chance to step back and think about who we are and what we want to be as a business going forward in a sustainable way.”
“I spend a lot of time travelling to beer festivals all over the world in order to help promote Boundary, and the reaction to our products wherever we go is very positive. We are proud of where we come from, but Belfast has until recently had a very bad reputation for brewing beer so it has taken some customers a while to get interested and I hope we can change their perception of the city that way.”
“We try to let our beer speak for itself in terms of what we are doing here. I think that starts with quality, so to achieve that we are going to invest in a new kit, a canning machine so we can start selling tinned beer, and an industrial cooler for better quality storage. Our branding is also a big part of our identity and my friend, the artist John Robinson, makes our labels. Although it is a logistical nightmare, each beer has a beautiful label that is a bespoke design which people seem to really like.”
“My personal goal is to keep making great beer and be the best employer in the city. I want to be able to pay people really well and to give people jobs for life with us if they want them. I didn’t do this to make millions of pounds and retire early, otherwise, I wouldn’t have started Boundary as a co-operative. I think what we are doing is about something bigger than that.”