Red Tape and Black Stuff: Northern Ireland's first tap room
As a Northern Irish person living in London for 10 years, I would like to put a myth to rest, we don’t all know each other. Yet it seems anytime I meet someone, and they hear my accent, they ask if I know someone, to which I often reply, “we don’t all know each other, but yes, I do”.
The rule of 6 degrees of separation is reduced to 2 when you’re from Ulster and that’s how a box of beers landed on my East London doorstep in 2019 from a small brewery in Newtownards, 5 miles from where I grew up. William, the founder’s neighbour said he had a friend who worked for a beer importer ‘on the mainland’ so he decided to send me a selection. The beer was good and a hell of a lot better than anything I’d had from home before. We had a chat, and after I realised the brewery's (tiny) capacity I told him to keep in touch. Fast forward 2 years and a global pandemic later a second box of beers arrived, with great new branding and filled with even better beer. Bullhouse had just picked up the ‘Raise the Bar’ award from the team at We Are Beer and had upped production, so we decided to get some in and see how it went... and it went, fast.
As a distributor, we have always wanted to represent every part of the UK and Ireland, and Northern Ireland had always been the missing part of the puzzle. So, when it came to curating our core list for 2022 they were the perfect fit, with their amazing hop forward IPAs, smooth stouts and on-point branding. Our customers seemed to like the new addition too, particularly SUDS, their 4.5% DDH Pale, it was going out the door faster than Bullhouse could make it. Brewing and ensuring you were all stocked up with SUDS wasn’t the only thing keeping William and the team busy though.
Photo by Kristi Campbell
When I met with him in December 2021, he was showing me the plans for Northern Ireland’s FIRST tap room, in an old XXXXL clothing store (for the larger gentleman) in East Belfast. Now, this might sound like a quite a straightforward and even obvious step for a brewery, but this isn’t the case in NI. With their strict licencing laws, a divided government, add some paramilitaries into the mix and you have a mountain of red tape and expenses to manoeuvre around to pour your own beer. In England and the rest of the UK for that matter, if you open a brewery, you’re granted a production licence to sell alcohol, which means as soon as you open, you can sell your beer to guests visiting your brewery. Northern Ireland doesn’t grant such privileges. This means the 30 breweries in the country can’t sell their beer on site, unless they get a licence, which is extremely difficult to get as there is only a finite number in the country. Currently, there are 1800 which covers everything from pubs, restaurants, off licences and supermarkets.
The only way a new licence is created is for hotels with more than 16 rooms. To get a new venue licence, another one must give theirs up. The more depressing way to look at it is every time a new pub opens another one has died. This means licence holder knows their worth and when it comes to retiring, they can sell theirs to the highest bidder often for prices in excess of £100k. Sadly, most small breweries don’t have that type of capitol and supermarkets often are the ones who have the finances and the manpower to buy them up. What this has done is make it nearly impossible for independent businesses to prosper as they simply can’t afford it. That’s not to say it’s straightforward for those with deep pockets, Lidl has opened supermarkets without any booze sales and Aldi has refused to enter the market due to the complications.
Despite all this, Bullhouse had managed to secure a licence, with the help of some local councillors wanting some positive change in East Belfast. A small boozer in Rasharkin, Ballymena was closing its doors for the final time and Bullhouse were going to buy their licence and transfer it to their new site on the east of the capital. When I first went to the brewery at the end of 2021 I was amazed they had time to do anything else other than getting this licence over the line, with non-stop barrister, council and architect meetings, constant objections, government lobbying and the physical planning to opening NI’s first taproom on June 22. Luckily for us, the brewery continued to churn out the beer alongside all this bureaucracy and we had a steady supply of great beer for all our customers.
Photo by Kristi Campbell
Six months on and an invite arrived for the opening of a taproom, at the beginning of June and I naturally jumped at the chance to go and see the first of its kind in my home country. Many of my fellow colleagues had heard me banging on about Northern Ireland enough over the years and they wanted to see it first hand too, so we headed over the Irish Sea to see what the fuss was about.
We started off proceedings at the brewery on a typical June afternoon in Belfast with intermittent showers and brief glimpses of sunshine. William and James welcomed us at the brew house in the south of the city and showed off their new FVs and brew kit, that had been installed the previous month to keep up with production. After a spot of lunch on Lisburn Road, we let the lads get back to work as we set off in search of the best watering holes the city has to offer, to which there are plenty.
First stop, the infamous Crown Liquor Saloon, opposite one of the city’s main stations Great Victoria St and Belfast’s Europa Hotel (the most bombed hotel in the world, racking up a whopping 36 bomb attacks during the troubles). The Crown has a slightly more positive claim to fame, being the country’s oldest pub and it really is worth the visit. Dating back to the 1880s this National Trust-owned boozer is clad in beautiful mahogany and filled with small, private drinking booths and stained-glass windows. The ornately tiled bar, which matches the tiles on the outside of the building is truly stunning and feels like you are stepping back in time. Unfortunately, licencing isn’t the only struggle when it comes to running pubs in NI. “Big beer” rules the roost, so the beer selection is not the country's strong point, wherever you go. Thankfully there is always Guinness and it was tasting on point in The Crown, barely touching the sides.
Photo by Kristi Campbell
The next stop was Bittles Bar, located just below the City’s main shopping centre, The Victoria Centre. The first thing you notice about Bittles is the unusual building, its Belfast answer to the Flat Iron in NYC, only much smaller. A narrow and long corner building dating back to 1868 (they copied us). Inside is covered with pictures and artwork of Ireland's most celebrated heroes like Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and our no.7 Georgie Best. Bittles has bags of character and slightly more ‘exotic’ beer than most places in town, with 2 Beavertown beers on draught. Once again, we opted for Guinness, because I love it and this place is famed for how they keep it. We were visiting on a Friday Afternoon and unsurprisingly, the place was packed to the rafters, so we had to leave the bustling atmosphere inside and stand outside only to be interrupted by yet another rain shower.
Another Guinness was inhaled before setting off to my favourite pub in the city, The Duke of York. As we ran down the narrow streets of the Cathedral Quarter, past the Spaniard and Merchant Hotel (some of Belfast’s other fine drinking establishments) we took a sharp turn onto a narrow, pedestrianised street covered in lit-up neon umbrellas and a neon sign reading “There is only 7 types of rain in Belfast: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday….”. This place is made for the Instagram tourist, although plenty of locals spill out onto the street when the sun does decide to rear its head. As we walked in, I could see my colleague's faces light up as they took in the golden décor of the pub. No inch of wall is bare. Filled with old whisky mirrors, vintage posters and retro bric-a-brac from Irish drinking heritage. Bushmills, Jameson, Powers, Guinness, Caffrey’s and Bass are just a few brands that are represented on these walls. Red leather mushroom stools surround low tables that are filled with the after-work crowd unwinding after a week in the office. Luckily, we manage to grab a table as a crowd leave, so while the others secure it, I go and get the beers in. The rest of the team are playing it safe with another Guinness, but I decide to go off-piste with a Beamish, Cork’s answer to the black stuff. I’ve never seen it outside Cork, so I decided to remind myself of the taste, for market research purposes. Firstly, disclaimer alert, this stuff isn’t a million miles away from Guinness, but it does have a more roasty, dark chocolate quality and it was tasting superb. Yet again, the pints didn’t last long, and it was time to grab some grub before heading to the opening of Bullhouse East.
Photo by Kristi Campbell
We popped next door from the Duke of York, into Bunsen, a simple no-nonsense burger joint that has their entire menu printed on a business card. 4 burger styles, 3 fry styles and 3 Milkshakes. Simples. Like the pints before it, the burgers didn’t last long. They were top notch and exactly what we needed before embarking on a tap room opening.A 15-minute cab ride east dropped us outside 442 Newtownards Road, the new home of Bullhouse East. It was great stepping out of the cab and seeing the glass-fronted pub, filled with local industry enjoying the finest beers Belfast had to offer. As we walked inside, we see the large, exposed brick bar with a tap wall pouring 20 different beers. The green polished concrete floor, slick wooden furniture and exposed lighting would be commonplace in a Scandi tap room, but it felt so new and fresh in this new Irish setting. We quickly said hi to the team before getting stuck into a selection of beers. Core favourites like Rollin’ Papers and Road Trippin’ and specials “Yer Ma” and “Yer Da” all featured, but I couldn’t resist continuing my stout voyage and opted for Big Fish, a nitro stout. I can only assume this is yet another Belfast colloquialism, referring to the large mosaic fish sculpture, that can be seen when driving into the city. More flavoursome than its macro counter parts this stout was as smooth and creamy as they come. It's been a long road for William and the team to get to this night, but as busy crowed enjoy the fruits of their labour it must all feel worth it for Bullhouse. The place looks great, the beers are amazing, and the people of Belfast seem happy to welcome an independent tap room into their community.
Most trends seem to start in London and spread throughout the country. I have often felt it’s taken far too long to hit Belfast due to its distance from the country’s capital, a large expanse of water and a devolved government that are stuck in the dark ages. This is definitely the case when it comes to the beer scene, which is somewhat reminiscent of London in 2011. I could get down about this, but 2011 was a great time in the London beer scene with breweries likes Beavertown, Pressure Drop and OG’s The Kernel all starting up and creating a community around beer. We had to search high and low for something we considered “craft” before it hit the mainstream. The future looks bright for Northern Irish beer with more great breweries popping up like Modest and Beer Hut, but it’s Bullhouse who are leading the charge with the quality of their output and now with this landmark event: Northern Ireland first Tap Room.
WORDS BY ROB YOUNG PICTURES BY KRISTI CAMPBELL