Q&A with Mourne Mountains

Tom Ray
Mourne Mountains Brewery

 Tom Ray (right) pictured with Mourne Mountains owner Connaire McGreevy

Tom Ray (right) pictured with Mourne Mountains owner Connaire McGreevy

Please introduce yourself and your brewery...
Tom Ray is my name, and I'm the Brewer at the Mourne Mountains Brewery. We are a new microbrewery based in Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland, and we've been producing our lovely beers since May 2015. The company was founded by local entrepeneur and all-round good-guy Connaire McGreevy who is not only a successful businessman already but also loves his beer and really wanted to put that passion into his own operation.

Where do you brew from and what is your set up?
The Mountains of Mourne are one of the most beautiful and dramatic landscapes in the world, located on the Irish Sea coast of County Down and rising quickly from sea level to 800m. You might have heard the Percy French song about them? They provide us with plentiful soft water which is perfect for brewing with. The brewery building itself is perhaps not quite so beautiful but what it lacks in aesthetics, tucked away in a humble unit on an industrial estate, it more than makes up for in practicality. We have a simple set-up, brewing all our beers using traditional single-step infusion mash, with whole hop cones in the kettle. Currently all our beers are filtered, except for the odd cask or two, and packaged into kegs and 330ml bottles in the brewery.

What was your path into the world of brewing?
I've been in and around the brewing industry for 21 years. Man and boy. This makes me feel incredibly old, which apparently I am. Growing up in Essex I used to do a lot of cycling and frequently rolled past Ridleys' gorgeous red-brick Victorian brewery at Hartford End (now closed - thanks, Greene King). We had to do some work experience at school, and when all my mates headed off to estate agents and solicitors I decided I didn't want to do filing and photocopying all day and wrote to Ridleys to see if they'd have me in. George Roe, the Head Brewer, arranged three weeks for me working around all departments. And I was hooked. I spent most of my time digging out the spent grain, scrubbing fermentation vessels and making the tea. Which, coincidentally, is pretty much what I do today. Since then I studied brewing and got certificates and stuff, worked for micros like Mighty Oak and Crouch Vale, as well as a slightly larger global purveyor of Irish Stout. And now I'm here.

What’s the single biggest challenge facing the UK independent beer market?
Access to market is a huge issue for all small brewers, but in Northern Ireland we have a couple of specific problems. Firstly, the current NI licensing legislation does not allow us to sell our products direct to the public from the brewery door. This cuts off a key element of our marketing strategy - showing people what we do, the ingredients we use, how we develop different beer styles and where different flavours come from, in the brewery itself. Secondly, the draught market in Northern Ireland - almost exclusively keg - is largely tied up by two national brewers, so getting taps on the bar is a difficult process. Fortunately there is a growing number of licensees who recognise the value that offering locally brewed beer brings to their business, and an ever-growing band of beer drinkers demanding fresh, tasty, local beer in their favourite bars.

What was the first beer which altered your perception of beer?
My Dad once gave me a box of Belgian beers. I worked through a few fairly hefty ales before I came to the bottle of Rodenbach. At first I didn't believe it was beer - or rather, if it was beer, there was something seriously wrong with it. But as I sipped away, the tart acidity and sheer depth of flavour started to taste, well, right. A copy of Michael Jackson's "Beer Companion" was swiftly purchased, and the wonderful world of beer suddenly opened up.

What beer do you wished you had brewed?
I have been lucky enough to brew some cracking beers with some very talented brewers over the years, although I do sometimes wish I was still working for them when their beers won Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival.

Which brewery, other than your own, do you most respect?
I have great respect for anyone who invests their skills, time and money into brewing good beer.

What’s the strangest ingredient you’ve ever put in a beer?
I'm a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to beer. Conventional, obstinate, if you will. Dull, if you like. For me, the best beers blend specialty malts and aromatic hops with the right yeast strain to produce the perfect balance of flavours. That said, since we started brewing at Mourne we've made a Pumpkin Porter with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, and First Noel - our spiced winter lager with orange peel and cloves. All strange ingredients for me, and I happily admit they worked really well. So there will be more stuff like that in 2016. Perhaps I am progressing after all. Sprout and bacon gose, anyone?

What's your desert island beer?
It's so hard to pick one beer. But if I had to, I'd choose Amber Ella by Eight Degrees Brewery down in Cork. It's a superb American Amber ale with a stunning hop aroma balanced with seriously juicy malts, which beat off the transatlantic competition in their own back yard to scoop a bronze medal at the World Beer Cup in 2014.