As I drove up to the old farmhouse where Bullhouse is based I had to stop on the lane as my way was blocked by a squirrel, a pigeon and rabbit huddled together in what looked like deep discussion. The squirrel lifted his head and shot me a look like I’d interrupted an important meeting before they quickly dispersed allowing me to approach the house. It was definitely the most surreal start to a brewery visit so far.
I parked up and saw William come out of what I’d knew from his website to be an old cattle shed where they’d once kept the bull of the farm, hence the name Bullhouse brewing.
William was dressed in shorts and tshirt as it was that rare thing in Northern Ireland, a sunny day. He had in his hand a pump that he was busy trying to fix. After quick introductions he showed me into the brewery.
Now bare in mind I’d just came from Ards brewing company (see: Brewers of the north: No.2) that same day, the contrast was striking. Where as Ards was white and clinical in appearance, this was much more rustic. William pointed out the difference himself but to be fair this is exactly what I think of when I think of a farmhouse brewery. And having tasted the beer coming out of that little brewery I was even more impressed.
William is younger than most the brewers I’ve met so far and that probably explains his energy and passion. Not only is he running the brewery on top of a full time job but his belief in perfection and going beyond the standard brews is admirable. He happily admits that he often has smaller profit margins because he refuses to compromise on his ingredients and his quality control is ruthless too, if he’s not 100% satisfied with the finished beer he dumps the entire lot. Now, that’s not shocking in a large brewery but in such a small one it’s very honourable as each brew would account for a considerable percentage of his overall profit and any lost batches would be very costly. In fact the company motto is:
We brew great beer, at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always great beer
The reason why Bullhouse was started is a familiar story among craft breweries. After spending time abroad William developed a taste for craft beers that he was unable to satisfy when he returned home. He saw this hole in the market and decided to scale up his home brewing and try and establish a full size brewery. He began by ringing round local craft breweries and asking if they were selling any equipment, eventually acquiring some vessels from Farmageddon Coop Brewery to get him up and running. It took him a year of hard work from start to finish with a lot of long nights and favours from friend to make that a reality.
Bullhouse has now been brewing for just over a year but it’s gained a strong reputation and definitely punches above its weight. This is because William realised early on that to have any chance against the bigger names in craft beer he’d have to come at them from a different angle. That meant brewing beers that others weren’t, such a Uber Tuber, his Saison made with comber potatoes or his Notorious P.I.G. a maple, bacon and coffee Porter.
He also teamed up with local designers Andy Hamilton and Chris Ellis to create a bright and distinctive series of labels that are modern and funky and really make his beers stand out on the shelf. Personally I think his cans of Small Axe IPA are the best looking beer containers of any NI brewery, and the beer inside then is pretty damn good too.
He’s also one of the few NI brewers to can some of his beers. This is done in England and returned to him, where it is sent to pubs and shops all over the country by a local distributor, as opposed to delivering from the boot of his little Renault Clio as he’d originally done. By outsourcing the canning and distribution, William has been able to use his valuable time to concentrate on what he calls “the fun stuff”, the brewing.
William doesn’t plan on brewing from the old Bullhouse for long. He told me of his hopes for reform in the NI licensing laws that would allow brewers to sell direct to the public as they do in most other countries. Ideally he’d then move to bigger premises where he can have a taproom on site.
I certainly hope he’s successful as that sounds like a place I’d very much like to have a pint.