Hello and welcome to our 2022 year in review!
We’ve done brief recaps of previous years, but as this has been a pretty momentous year for us here at Bullhouse I thought I’d try to put together a more comprehensive round-up.
Some figures to start with:
- In 2022 we sold just under 1500HL (over 264000 pints), that’s an increase of 139% from 2021, and it equates to 30 pints of Bullhouse being consumed every hour of the year.*
- We produced 27 different beers across 149 batches, including launching two brand new core beers, SUDS and Rolling Papers. Between them, these new core beers accounted for 50% of our production for the year.**
- We collaborated with: Cara Friend, Sunflower Public House, Exale, CAMRA NI, Belfast Women’s Beer Collective, Top Rope, Beer Hut, Bailies Coffee Roasters and our good pals at Hopfully, twice!
- We donated money to Cara Friend (our charity partner for the year) and the Ukrainian Humanitarian Appeal. We also donated beer to several local charities for raffle prizes.
- Production wise, we installed 6 x new 25HL unitanks, a new glycol cooling system with control panel, rewired the entire brewery and put in new LED lighting, bought a new brewhouse, upsized our gas meter and installed a new gas line to the brewhouse.
- Packaging wise, we bought a new air compressor and upgraded our canning line with a new in-feed and out-feed conveyor system along with a new date coder and labeler, we also bought a keg washer.
- We’ve got a whole new production team, moving from a team of 2 to a team of 4, with Head Brewer Mark joining from Boundary, Gary joining us from Diageo, Mark Doak joining us from Hilden and James ‘Junior’ Roberts joining us from SALT Beer Factory. James Sr and Jonny who were doing all the production moved into new roles in management and logistics respectively.
*Volume wise this still pales in comparison to most other independent breweries in the craft beer market, the likes of Deya, Cloudwater, Verdant etc are all well in excess of 10,000HL per year, but it’s a figure we’re really proud of as a bootstrapped small brewery from Northern Ireland given the unique challenges we face, and it’s a testament to Mark and the rest of the brewing team to brew that amount of beer, at a world class standard, on a brewery we built ourselves out of old dairy tanks. To put it in context, Diageo package double that amount of beer (3000HL) every day JUST INTO CANS at their Marshall’s Road site.
**Credit to James McBride for developing the recipes on these.
So it’s been a busy year by any stretch of the imagination, given we also opened Bullhouse East on the 13th June.
The original idea behind Bullhouse was to bring new styles of beer to market in Northern Ireland. Back in 2015 that sounded like a good idea, but now we’ve got such a diverse local offering and such a wide variety of beer available on shelves across the country, we’re now completely focused on working to create more independent licensed premises and transforming the evening economy.
This time last year we were preparing for a busy year ahead, a team of 3, me, James and Jonny. Recovering from Explosion Soundsystem‘s Christmas Reggae Party at the brewery, we’d just brewed a collab with Andrew and Neil at Beer Hut, and Bullhouse East was still a good bit away from being finished. We managed to secure national distribution with Cave Direct which shifted our focus from predominantly selling small pack beer to predominantly selling draught, something that took us a while to adapt to but is so much easier than producing small pack.
Moving into February we brewed our collab with Belfast Women’s Beer Collective, launched our new nitro stout, Big Fish and launched our new can designs, expertly put together for us by Stuart at Quayle Design. We threw a little research trip to Dublin into the mix.
March saw us gather up a load of local beer in cask format for Seamus’s St Patrick’s Day festival at The Dog and Bell in Deptford. We also took a trip over to Liverpool for the UK’s largest beer trade show, Beer X, where we managed to pick up a Business Innovation Award for securing the first new license in East Belfast for 20+ years.
May saw final preparations underway at Bullhouse East. Some bribes in beer form were offered to get it over the line as quickly as possible.
June saw the launch of Bullhouse East. Saturday 18th June has been our busiest day to date! We quickly realised we’d need a van as the kegs were being drunk thick and fast with daily runs required from the brewery. We also squeezed in a little trip to Yakima Chief‘s facility just outside Brussels for some hop focused seminars.
The crowds kept coming in July. We’ve been overwhelmed with support since we opened and it’s been far busier than we ever expected. We had a hiccup in July when I managed to close the back shutter on a mop brush which derailed it. We also attended Manchester Craft Beer Festival, with Karson and Ross seeing some old pals and making some new ones.
August saw the return of London Craft Beer Festival, a truly sweaty affair in the cave and big up to Connor and Junior for holding down the fort in some pretty challenging conditions. We also did our first company wide away day, hiring a bus and taking in the sights of the Ards Peninsula. Snuck in another trip to Dublin to launch our collab with Hopfully.
September came and we launched our hand pull in Bullhouse East, allowing us to join the very very very select club of venues serving cask beer in NI. We also hosted a very busy Oktoberfest at Bullhouse East, and got our fermentation control panel fitted in the brewery. Before that, everything was controlled with remote chillers and Inkbirds. Big up to Kat and Liv for making our chalkboard in Bullhouse East look like something decent all year as well. The first few weeks the handwriting it was pretty much indecipherable.
October began with us lagging all the new glycol pipework. We also hosted Hopfully for another of our regular collabs and made it up to Portrush for a welcome return to the beer festival.
November saw us head to Leeds for yet another TTO at Eat Your Greens. We’d rented a van and drove over as we were picking up a keg washer en route. We didn’t have time to check in to our Airbnb before the event, but unfortunately both of our (me and Junior) phones had died by the end of the night, so we went back to the van to charge our phones and ended up falling asleep in the van till 6am, wick. We also ended up filming something for TV in the new year!
That brings us up to December. We’ve had another busy month, Exale collab and TTO and another tap takoever in London, this time at The Cock Tavern in Hackney, taking in a trip to Deptford for a game of bar billiards, should we put a table into Bullhouse East? We rounded off the year with the production team staff do in Bangor, Holywood and East Belfast. Bullhouse East staff do will happen in the New Year, where we’ll close for the day for a well deserved break.
All in all it’s been a busy year. I’d like to thank all of our team for all their hard work this year. We’ve grown from a team of 3 to a team of 26 in 12 months. To be in a stronger position now than we were last year and to have achieved all we’ve achieved this year wouldn’t have been possible without a great team working exceptionally hard.
Big thanks to Stuart at Quayle Design for another year of hard graft, he’s the reason we’ve been able to up our game on socials and release all the new beers with great looking labels.
Production wise, we’ve worked hard to improve our infrastructure at the brewery with the ultimate goal of increasing batch size with minimal extra effort required. Any time processes are automated it brings challenges, and we’ve had plenty of challenges this year with equipment malfunction and breakdown and all the usual fun stuff that comes with manufacturing.
Despite all those challenges, we’ve consistently brewed world class beer on a kit no better than a big homebrew kit.
We’re still continuing to export our beer, although we’ve done less this year as we’ve focused on the local market. Our friend Michele at Sofismi Birra in Italy is our fifth biggest customer and we’ll look to continue to expand our exports as our volume grows.
I’d like to thank all of our customers, both trade and public, for all your support this year, as well as our suppliers who continue to supply us with world class ingredients despite all the challenges we’ve faced in the past few years. Big thank you to AES Marconi for the Bullhouse East fitout as well as Katie and Ian at Hall McKnight for the architectural expertise converting a building that was falling apart.
I want to sign off with some reflections, having now operated both a brewery and a bar, followed by a look ahead to 2023.
Running a brewery in the current economic climate is tough, really tough. You just need to look at the amount of brewery closures in GB this year (around 90) to see what’s happening in the market due to the energy crisis. Our energy bill has gone up from around £1500 a month to over £6000 a month at the brewery. That’s even with the government support being applied (without it our bill would be about £15k a month, which would be unsustainable).
We also pay about £6000 a month in beer duty. That’s despite receiving Small Brewers’ Relief, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.
From my perspective, manufacturing should be receiving support far in advance of retail and hospitality. Throughout Covid, hospitality businesses in NI were propped up to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds, while manufacturing received peanuts in comparison.
Manufacturing contributes massively to the economy in NI yet is always the last to receive support. People are proud of products manufactured here and passionate about supporting local. Running any manufacturing business is a challenge. They are complicated businesses as you’re making something from scratch, the margins are generally lower and you generally have to give credit terms to wholesalers. Compared to hospitality, it’s a more complicated product to get right, it’s more energy intensive, it’s got a lower margin and it’s got worse cashflow.
One of the ways we’ve been able to mitigate the challenges faced by the brewery this year has been opening Bullhouse East. There’s a myth peddled by Hospitality Ulster and the large pub groups operating in Northern Ireland that brewery taprooms will compete with local pubs. It’s a rich analysis to make given NI has the lowest amount of pubs per capita out of any region in the UK.
We like to think we’ve created another venue in East Belfast to give people another reason to come out to the area, eating in local restaurants, visiting other pubs nearby and creating another local community gathering spot in a country with fewer and fewer every year as Tesco, Asda etc snap up all the licenses.
Breweries need taprooms, it’s becoming an increasingly essential part of the business plan. To that end, as Chair of the North West Region of the Society of Independent Brewers, I’ve joined the Reference Group on the Independent Review into the Surrender Principle in Northern Ireland, to continue to lobby for its removal. One of the major successes of our lobbying campaign in 2021 in that an amendment (proposed by Matthew O’Toole MLA and supported by all of the Executive parties other than Sinn Fein) was made that mandated the Department for Communities to conduct an independent review of the surrender principle within three years. The Reference Group is a small group of government departments and trade bodies, weighted heavily with people who have a vested interest in maintaining the surrender principle, so it will be an uphill struggle but you can’t effect change if you’re looking in from the sidelines.
At some stage in 2023, we’re likely to hit the new cap of 2100HL for Small Brewers Relief. As things stand, when the new rates of duty come in this February (yes in two months) the UK is diverging from EU legislation on alcohol duty. This means the new rates of duty won’t apply to breweries (or distilleries) based in NI. I was elected to sit on the Board of SIBA to fight the case for all the breweries in NI at a national level. However, the treasury are still not sure what’s going to happen come February in relation to breweries in NI. It’s a hard enough time trying to run a business in the current economic climate without having the added complexity of not knowing what our duty rate will be next year. Around 40% of our beer is sold in GB and that’s likely to grow next year.
Please continue to support local breweries in Northern Ireland who are facing unprecedented challenges in the most challenging market in Europe to operate in.
To summarise, we’ve come a long way in a year. We’ve brewed truly world class beer, and we’ve opened a great community gathering spot in the heart of East Belfast. Thank you also to our investors for supporting us this year and my wife Christie for all of your support and advice.
Thank you to everyone who’s purchased a Bullhouse beer, visited Bullhouse East or supported us in any way this year. Here’s to 2023!