I know we always harp on about it (pardon the pun) but here in NI we’re the isolated little cousin of the GB craft scene and the ROI craft scene, and without having a thriving industry of our own, sometimes it’s a lonely place to be.
The usual model for a recently opened brewery in GB is: start producing (keg only), selling at a high margin directly to your consumers at your taproom, with 90%+ of your income coming via high margin, cash sales. Once an established customer base has been established, go to the bank (or investors) and secure funds to grow into a bigger unit, invest in quality packaging equipment and start distributing beer outside the immediate vicinity.
The NI model: gather together whatever cash you have (fat chance getting anything off the bank with no local market) to cobble together a brewhouse and packaging equipment. As there’s no good packaging equipment available on a budget, it generally involves cobbling together pretty basic kit.
There’s no such thing as a taproom available to the majority of new breweries in NI, there’s also no draught taps because remember, 99% of taps are tied to the big 4. Even when the new legislation comes into force in April 2022 (or maybe not even in 2022 given a recent press release from the Department!), most breweries will be unable to comply with the red tape that will no doubt be put in place.
As a result, NI breweries are thrust into the cut-throat world of beer distribution from the get go. What does that mean? It means packaging beer without having any way of measuring the key parameters of packaged beer. A dissolved oxygen meter is around £6k, a CO2 measuring device is £1500, any kind of semi automated canning equipment is £30k+. You can see how you’d need pretty deep pockets to get started in any meaningful way.
In the GB model, by the time you’ve established your taproom as a profitable, cash positive business, the bank is willing to lend you a bit of cash to invest in adequate equipment which allows breweries to have confidence in their product on the shelf, as well as the economies of scale to hit the price that retailers demand.
In the NI model, as a very, very small start up brewery, you’re directly competing against these much larger businesses. When a customer walks into a shop to purchase beer, they don’t know that two beers beside each other on a shelf, both seemingly from small breweries, could be so different.
Anyway, moral of the story is, we’re only here thanks to the support of the local beer scene, who’ve supported us since the first bottles of El Capitan hit the shelves back in the day.
In March 2021, we received a call to submit beers for We Are Beer’s Raise the Bar competition. This is a competition to find the UKs most exciting new breweries. Previous winners include Vault City, Unity, Turning Point and Dig Brew Co.
Covid delayed the festivals, but we managed to make it to all 5 in the end, taking in Manchester, Bristol, London, Edinburgh and finally Beer Central in Birmingham.
Being on the Raise the Bar programme was a great experience for us, we met some great likeminded breweries and we don’t feel like the isolated little cousin over in Belfast anymore.
It wouldn’t be a Bullhouse trip without a bit of last-minute drama.
In Bristol we arrived on the Friday afternoon to the news that our kegs hadn’t been delivered. Big shout out to Rob at Bristol Beer Factory who had a pal with a van who picked our kegs up from the transport depot otherwise we’d have had no beer.
Big thanks to Chris at Cask and Craft also for sorting out some last-minute logistics at Beer Central too.
Finally thanks to Greg, Jim and the team at We Are Beer for inviting us and for all the work that goes into these festivals much to the joy of the craft beer community in the UK.
Once our bar opens you can expect some of these guys to be over in Belfast for tap takeovers, not long now!
Here's a few snippets of the summer.
Nice quiet moment during Bristol Craft Beer Fest
Bristol Craft Beer Festival
Tobacco Docks - London Craft Beer Festival
Our view for most of the summer:
James actually helping at a collab - makes a first.
Collab at Attic
End of the night at TTO in Cask and Craft, Boldmere.