If, like me, you work a lot and sleep a little, but still try to have some sort of functioning social life; which means going out you hope for a good nights craic and limited heartfailure when purchasing drinks.
It’s been 6, yes 6 years since the inaugural Beer Club Belfast took place in the Hudson Bar, notably one of few places willing to give ‘craft’ a chance. A monthly event that would showcase the diversity of what beer can offer. Throughout this time, we were introduced to some of the (now more established) breweries in the scene, such as Tiny Rebel, Kernel, Beavertown & Magic Rock.
A simple but effective format: pay a small fee (£10 ish) for a chance to sample some great beers that we may have never heard of or had the opportunity to try, chat amongst friends or like-minded individuals and gain some insight that could be fed back to our own circle of friends, favourite pubs, restaurants or off sales.
It offered us the opportunity to try new beer, but also allowed us the environment to form friendships, insights to how complex the world of beer is and to bring back the art of conversation to the pub scene.
Since 2013, a lot of things have changed for Beer Club; it moved to Sunflower/American Bar when the Hudson decided to go in a different direction (the less said of Peaky Blinders the better, for everyone’s sake). In this time the folk behind it have created and established one of the most exciting beer festivals in the UK & Ireland, the ABV festival. Something I argue and have discussed at length at being the linchpin to the modern beer scene here in Northern Ireland.
Although since 2017 Beer Club Belfast, there hasn’t been any monthly meet ups. Something that, sadly I feel, shows the current state of play within the Northern Ireland market and beer culture.
The Ulster Sports Club feels like a time capsule with dim lighting and décor to match the 70’s vibe that meets you. Combining an offering of macro/micro beers with pub grub, the whole aura of the place reminds me of The Hudson and not because some of the staff are former Hudson Employees, but because of the environment you are in.
I’ve attended two ‘Beer Clubs’; one for YellowBelly a couple of weeks back, and to this weeks Heaney tasting. Both of which I must add I thoroughly enjoyed, but I do have some thoughts on their variation of ‘Beer Club’….
Free entry, a space to relax and chat to the producers or employees of the brewery and sample a few beers from that night’s chosen brewery. Sound’s great right?
Personally, I think they are missing a trick with what their ‘Beer Club’ interpretation is; it feels very disjointed and arguably likens to that of a promotional stunt that you would associate with a nightclub pushing the latest cheap spirit/mixer concoction. It seems to me that they have taken a concept they have seen work before and left it at that - just a concept! It gives the impression that they are putting on an ‘event’ in the hope of increasing their footfall on a Thursday night.
Yes, yes, I know this is a new bar, so why am I nit-picking?
It’s owned by one of the cities most recognised pub groups, Beannchor, they own a lot within the city and have some of the most recognised hospitality sports in Northern Ireland (The Merchant, The Cloth Ear, Dirty Onion etc.). Something that shines through is their ethos of pricing and their understanding that margins are there to be made, however they are ignoring the fact that margins between macro and micro are considerably different and should be rationalised accordingly. Price sensitivity is something we are still aware of, and buying a can of beer at £3.29 retail at Vineyard, with the same can costing £6.50 at Ulster Sports Club shows the level of ‘understanding’ of the market demographic. I do not begrudge anyone making a fair margin on their goods as they have taken considerable risks and have overheads to pay. However, having the same ethos of micro/macro margins is unrealistic – as macros, they are able to subsidise costs and have considerable marketing budgets to promote said brands, whereas the craft or micro producer creates small batch and is less likely to push the same volume as the likes of Guinness or Heineken.
Anyway, pricing aside, I believe that Ulster Sports Club still have an opportunity to re-establish Beer Club.
If they are able to invest in some marketing that is more than just an events page, by adding tailored content such as; introducing the brewery, its wares and engage on social media between the brewery and them would be great. Offering a space in the bar that isn’t associated with football or any sporting event would be great, providing the opportunity to be able to ask questions comfortably and not fear you’re interrupting someone else’s evening. This leads on to giving a platform to incorporate more interaction from the brewers or their employees. This, in my opinion, would help the community thrive, draw interest from the scene and arguably increase interest in the bar from a wider audience and add value to their experience.
I did state that I had good experiences at the two events I attended, and this remains true, but it was because I was amongst friends having the opportunity to catch up and share a few drinks which doesn’t happen too often, and not because of the event itself.
With all that said, I do hold hope that it will get better but know it will take time and interest from key individuals, after all the craft drinker is only one part of their business model.
What are your thoughts or experiences on the new beer club at Ulster Sports Club? Let me know!