Beer without the bull

Brewing small, but dreaming big.


"Don’t come by bus,” advises William Mayne. “It’ll drop you in the middle of a dual carriageway and you’ll be trapped there for ever.” Sounds advice, as it turns out, and it’s a good job my cabbie has a good sense of humour, because what looked like an innocuous trip to the suburbs on Google maps turns out to be an odyssey into Rural County Down. Once we’re out of Belfast proper, the A road quickly gives way to a winding private track that takes us past a farm, a house under construction and, eventually, to a cottage with a handful of tiny outbuildings on top of a hill.

We’re just making a three-point turn to have another go when Will jumps from a low doorway waving cheerfully. Bullhouse, it turns out, is in a literal 150 year-old bullhouse – a tiny stone shed with a concrete floor. Stepping inside, we join assistant brewer Mick, wearing apron and boots; I’ve arrived in the middle of one of ten separate brews needed to meet Beer52’s order of 28,000 cans.

“Just to put that into context, last year we produced 30,000 cans in the whole year,” says Will. “We use a four-head manual canning machine, and it takes three of us do to it with any kind of efficiency. We’ll usually brew and can at the same time, so we’re always kept busy. To be honest though, it’s obviously a lot more effort, but in terms of speed there’s not much difference between this and a linear canning line.”

“Plus it’s a great USP,” says Mick with a grin. “The brewers have hand-packaged every single can.”

This is the farm where Will grew up and where his parents still live (his dad drops by to offer us a cup of tea at one point) and his passion for brewing was ignited by a family trip to California; specifically a tour of San Diego’s Green Flash brewery. 

“It was inspiring and I became immediately obsessed. I got a home brew kit for Christmas that year and would be out here brewing batch after batch. We’re still glorified homebrewers really, it’s just that the kit has got better. I got my license in March 2016, and was still working full time in another job at that point. But then I was suspended from work for doing too much brewing stuff on the clock, and I just never went back.”

“I joined a couple of years later, in March 2018,” says Mick. “I’m a musician, which actually works really well alongside brewing in terms of the hours. And both involve drinking of course.”

Perhaps partly as a result of its small scale and organic evolution from homebrewing, Bullhouse didn’t exactly play to the gallery with its first releases, opting instead for more niche beer styles.

“Our first beer was an imperial stout, then a potato-infused saison. The fields all around here are famous for their spuds. But we quickly realised those weren’t very popular; they were great for a hobby, and interesting from the brewer’s perspective, but we had to brew something that would actually sell. Our third beer was a session IPA that’s still part of the core range. We still brewed 13 new beers last year though. 

It's very hard for new breweries to get started here, unless they already have money

The gleaming new Chinese conical fermenters are a testament to how successful this strategy has been, and replace two vessels that a friend of Will’s uncovered in a pile of scrap metal. A lucky find, which helped Bullhouse get off the ground.

“It’s very hard for new breweries to get started here, unless they already have money,” he says. “Because of the tied system and the licensing laws, there’s pretty much no domestic market, so nobody will lend or invest in you unless you have decades of industry experience and channels set up into mainland Britain. That clearly wasn’t us.”

Things are on the up though, and Bullhouse is planning to leave the shed in around August next year, for a larger new home just down the road from Boundary. It’s being supported by a local charity called the EastSide Partnership, which is working to make the working-class loyalist neighbourhood of East Belfast a better place to live and work. The organisation is led by 60 year-old craft enthusiast Maurice Kinkead, who is passionate about breweries’ role in bringing in other desirable businesses and jobs.

“When Stone was looking for a European base, Maurice was right in there pitching East Belfast, and they definitely considered it,” says Mick. “In the end they chose Berlin of course, so maybe they wish they’d listened to Maurice.”

Will continues: “It’s a great site, though – like everything in Northern Ireland for the past few years – it’s been a struggle to get everything moving in terms of licenses and services. When you’re a small brewery, you really shouldn’t have to get so involved in the minutiae of getting a building’s drains connected. It’s all being funded by private investors, and the landlord is covering the building work as a low-interest loan and adding it to the lease. The dream is for a brewpub-style brewhouse with two 20-hectolitre unitanks. We’ll keep the 1000 litres here… maybe use it as a sour site – we could call it Overworked!”

There certainly seems to be something special coalescing around the east side, with new hotels and a cool shipping container restaurant, run by one of Dublin’s top chefs. “And then you have two breweries and a craft beer bar within 200 meters, and it starts to become a destination,” observes Will. There’s also real cause for hope that the law will finally be changed to allow small, ambitious, community-oriented breweries to thrive, despite the entrenched objections of the licensed trade lobby. I honestly expect the next time I see Bullhouse, its circumstances will be very different.

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