Silver times for Bernard as Whitewater marks 25th

Master brewer Bernard Sloan and wife Kerry look back fondly to the morning when they fired up their small craft brewery for the very first time.

Saturday, 29th May 2021, 6:00 am
Bernard Sloan, founder and managing director of Whitewater Brewery in Castlewellan

It was back in 1996 when they starting turning out the new Whitewater branded beer in an extensive shed on the family farm at Attical, near Kilkeel. Today, they’ve created NI’s largest, most modern and hugely successful brewery at Castlewellan which exports to Russia, Europe, China and Japan.

“I still remember the distinctive sound and aroma when the crushed malt hit the water for the very first time and the brewing process started,” reflects Bernard as he prepares to mark Whitewater’s 25th anniversary with a series of low-key events due to the pandemic. “We both still get a buzz from the whole process. And we are still passionate as ever about the business especially our beers.”

Bernard had been working as an engineer for Express Dairies in England when he began thinking about starting his own business in NI.

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Whitewater’s popular stout, Belfast Black

“As well as being interested in craft brews which were becoming popular in Britain, I was looking at opportunities then also growing in craft cheese,” he continues. “My role at Express Dairies, then among Britain’s biggest milk processing businesses, had included visits to cheese plants particularly in the Cheddar area.”

A passion for the fuller flavours of craft beers led the enterprising couple to move back home and to set up what was “Ireland’s smallest brewery”. Whitewater has since grown into the region’s biggest independent brewery. “I never thought back then that Whitewater would develop into Northern Ireland’s biggest brewer of a portfolio of successful beers and that we would go on to offer a comprehensive choice of bottles, cans and kegs from a state-of-the-art operation in Castlewellan,” he continues.

He is understandably proud of other notable achievements such as the export of his Kreme dela Kemlin, a strong Imperial Russian Stout, to be enjoyed by drinkers in Moscow and other centres there. The distinctive beer, in addition, was the first craft beer to win the UK Great Taste Award Regional Golden Fork in 2019.

“I developed Kreme dela Kremlin as a bit of an experiment in stronger brews and landed an initial order from Sweden before deciding to pitch it into the Great Taste Awards,” he remembers. “Taste experts loved the stout’s intense chocolatey nose that beckons the drinker and offers a balance of sweet, bitter and spice on the palate.”

The impressive purpose-built Whitewater brewery at Castlwellan

He’s also proud of the success of Belfast Lager, one of his original brews which gained a prestigious International Beer Challenge Award in 2010. “Whitewater was the smallest brewery ever to win International Beer Challenge recognition for quality and taste and the first in Northern Ireland,” he says.

He looks back too at the development of his Maggie’s Leap Indian Pale Ale, named after a landmark in the Mournes, into a flagship brew that’s among the brewery’s biggest sellers. The beer’s name also reflects his love of the Mournes.

“We decided to name the new beer after an almost mythical figure in the area, a daughter of a renowned poacher. She was reputed to have had gold flowing locks, an hourglass figure and an engaging smile, the stuff of legend and the sort of tale of interest to visitors. It gives the beer a distinctive character and personality. It’s an image that has proved particularly popular with drinkers in China,” he explains.

The growth in sales of the beers here, in Great Britain, the Republic and further afield made a new and much larger brewery essential.

“We had been investing steadily in equipment and other requirements at Attical over the years and had simply run out of space. We needed a great deal more capacity and room to spread our wings,” he says.

Bernard and Kerry began the search for a suitable land around the Mournes and eventually found a brownfield site in Castlewellan. He used his engineering skills in the planning, construction and kitting-out of what has become a very striking brewery, an ongoing investment of almost £2 million in the 15,000 complex with a visitor centre, which has been assisted by business development agency Invest NI. It opened in 2017.

The impressive new brewery, which now employs nine people, has enabled him to widen the base of the successful business to include low and non-alcoholic beverages such as hard seltzers for vegans through a greater focus on new product development. The lifting of the lockdown has enabled him to step up production.

Furthermore, Bernard has been involved in a collaboration with Hinch Distillery in Ballynahinch on the innovation of a Craft and Casks Irish whiskey finished in a Whitewater Imperial Stout cask.

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