Beer from another life and time and place
Before embarking on its campaign for affordable, independent pub spaces, Belfast-based Bullhouse Brew Co couldn’t have anticipated the trials, tribulations and triumphs it would face. Today, the fight is far from over.
Bullhouse Brew Co
Saturday 10 February 2024
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When we last spoke to Bullhouse Brew Co’s founder, William Mayne, in early 2020, the team of three was operating out of an old 500 sq foot cattle shed on the rural fringes of the city. They knew then that change was on the horizon, and already had plans to finally move to a new 6000 sq foot facility in South Belfast, in Autumn of that year. What they couldn’t have known then, was that alongside a global pandemic, a cost of living crisis, the outbreak of war and the dissolution of government, Bullhouse would open a bar, expand their team of three by 17 people, almost triple their output, and ultimately grow the business by more than 800%.
By all accounts the brewery is thriving, but if you got chatting to William over a pint down the pub, he’d likely tell you how frustrating it is that in Northern Ireland, success like Bullhouse has experienced over the last few years boils down – in no small part – to luck. The brewery has surpassed all expectations of what was thought to be possible within the narrow confines of Northern Irish licensing laws, and has done so with imitable candour, determination, and hard work. Of course fortune favours the brave, but I’m sure William would argue there are plenty of brave souls in Northern Ireland’s brewing scene that are still waiting on the chance to catch a well deserved break.
“It’s only for the passion of the producers that there's an industry here at all,” says William. “If you were coming from a commercial background, or approaching the industry with a business head on, you wouldn't want to start a brewery because it's such a bad local market.” That owes, in no small part, to Northern Irish legislation dictating the country can only host a finite number of alcohol licences, meaning that if you want to open a pub, you have to buy your alcohol licence from another retailer.
Not only has this private, narrow market driven the cost of licences into the region of £100,000, moving the licence from one venue to another incurs an additional £50,000 in legal and administrative fees. Combined, that would be the approximate cost of acquiring a licence if one were to move it between pubs on opposite sides of the street; if you wanted to move a licence from a bar in the countryside to say, a taproom in East Belfast, that’s a whole other story.
Legislation in Northern Ireland currently dictates that an alcohol licence can only operate in the vicinity from which it was acquired, though the parameters of that vicinity are open to the interpretation of the courts. This means that if a new retailer requests the transfer of its licence – from say, country to city – publicans in the “vicinity” of the new venue can object to the relocation of the licence on the grounds that it creates competition for their business.
“Moving a licence is basically unheard of,” William says. “It’s so difficult to do because the courts have a default position that you can't move a licence unless you can prove that there's a need in the area that you're moving the licence into. So we had to work with a planning consultancy to get a look at population data – you know, how many commuters are in the area, what’s the traffic and passing footfall like – and then build the case as to why the area needs a new pub. Between consultants, barristers and solicitors it's very expensive and after all that, an existing landlord in the area can essentially just veto your application, so generally it doesn't happen that you can move a licence, especially in Belfast.”
As it happens, Bullhouse did manage to acquire and then move a licence, making its taproom home to the first new licence Belfast has seen in 30 years. William says it was a total fluke they managed to pull it off. He reckons that because Bullhouse bought and moved its licence during COVID when pubs were shut, the surrounding landlords weren’t looking out for notices of new licences in the area, and so relocation of their licence saw no objections. “We’d love to open more venues in the future, but our card’s been marked now, and people have their eye on us”, William concludes.
He’s referring to the landlords behind Northern Ireland’s handful of pub chains, the combined estates of which account for almost 90% of Belfast’s pubs. Not only has this monopoly made it easier for chains to tag-team objections to transfer requests made by independent businesses, they’ve driven up the price of a pint. “We've got the least amount of pubs per capita out of any region in the UK,” says William. “That has the effect of pushing prices up obviously. I think Belfast has the highest average price of a pint in the UK as well – that’s higher than London as well – the average price of a pint of lager in a pub in Belfast is £6.10 now.”
And it’s not just consumers that are suffering at the hands of pub chains. Williams says that the finite number of permanent lines in Northern Ireland has seen multinational drinks corporations compete for lines, offering discounts and free kegs to landlords as bargaining tools. With narrow margins, and an emphasis on quality over quantity, craft producers can’t compete with this, but even if they could, it’s landlords and not tenants who cut the deals with multinationals.
With the owners of Northern Ireland’s five or six pub chains benefiting from the rebates and volume based discounts promised by multinationals, it’s to their advantage that all the pubs in their estate sell the same selection of beers. The result is obviously that tenanted pubs have no control over the beers they stock, excluding independent breweries from the running for permanent lines, even if a pub’s GM might be interested in supporting local.
“Outside of our taproom, we’ve got two permanent lines in Belfast, meaning we’ve got more lines in Manchester than we do here,” says William. Statistics like these really bring home the reality of how dire the situation is for independent breweries in Northern Ireland, but it also inspires a much deeper appreciation of the hard yards and heroic amount of work going into changing things for the better.
“When Boundary applied for their licence just down the road from where our taproom is now, our solicitor phoned us and asked if we’d like to object, we were like ‘no, obviously’,” says William with a laugh. “She was taken aback, like the turkey had voted for Christmas, but to us it meant more footfall and places to go in the area, which is what we want.” William also sits on the board of SIBA’s North West chapter, and prior to the collapse of Stormont, rallied support from both SIBA and CAMRA to help to lobby all five political parties for licensing legislation review and reform.
“At first, the politicians couldn’t actually believe that legislation is the way it is, but in a way, that made it more frustrating,” says William. “They were dismissive because they assumed that we just couldn’t be correct, so it felt like we were falling on deaf ears. But we did get some positive change out of it. Four of the parties voted for an amendment in 2021, which commits the department for communities – who looks after licensing – to do an independent review into the licensing system within the next three years. So that review is underway and is being led by the University of Stirling. I've actually got on the panel of that review through my being the chair of the Northwest region of SIBA, so am working with the hospitality trade body, the Public Health Agency and stuff, looking at helping the University of Stirling with review.”
While this in itself is progress, the government hasn’t committed to implementing any changes on the grounds of the review’s findings, so William can only hope they’ll be responsive to independent recommendations. At the end of the day, this battle is only partially about beer, with social health, community and the space it needs to grow remaining a point of critical importance.
“We opened our venue to try and create somewhere that wasn't, you know, tied to anybody. Of course, we want to offer more reasonable prices as well, but that ultimately feeds into us trying to create somewhere that brings communities together, because that's obviously still a big issue here. Even though we've got so few pubs, a lot of them are for one community or the other community, making the amount of available pubs even less. There's an absence of neutral spaces outside of the city centre, which has always been fairly neutral. In the suburbs, you’ve always had traditional community pubs for that section of the communities. So we wanted to try and create a neutral space where it doesn't matter what your background or beliefs are, you’re welcome to come and be completely apolitical.”
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