By SAM BUTLER
William Mayne, owner of Bullhouse East bar in Belfast – named the UK’s Best Craft Beer Pub in a national competition – has warned that “craft brewers in Northern Ireland are at a significant disadvantage as a result of our archaic licensing legislation”.
The founder of Bullhouse Brewer combined a celebration of the success of the craft pub with a warning: “Over 99 per cent of beers sold here are imported. As a brewery, we sell more beer in Manchester than we do in Belfast because of the current licensing rules.”
Opened by William last June, Bullhouse East pub, which is located near the Holywood Arches on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast, won impressive recognition as the UK’s ‘Best Craft Pub’ in the annual business awards of the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) in Britain.
The coveted awards recognise excellence within the dynamic craft brewing sector and independent public houses and bars across the UK.
SIBA was established in 1980 to represent the interests of the growing number of independent breweries in the UK and currently represents around 750 independent craft breweries.
Its mission is to deliver the future of British beer as the ‘voice of British independent brewing’. There are now over 30 breweries here. The award to Bullhouse East was the only one made to a local craft beer business by SIBA in this year’s awards.
William originally launched his Bullhouse Brewery in a shed on his family’s farm near Comber in County Down in 2011.
He had developed a taste for craft beer on a road trip around the west coast of the US with his brother and decided to start his own small brewery, buying second-hand equipment from dairy farms and other breweries across Ireland.
Even before launching Bullhouse ales onto the market, the difficulties operating in Northern Ireland, which he says is “the most restrictive beer market in Europe”, became obvious.
But the desire to put new styles of beer on the market and the idea of making a tiny dent in this “ridiculous system” overcame any doubts about the viability of the project.
The huge popularity of his craft beers led him to invest at Boucher Road in south Belfast for more space in which to develop his products, especially for Great Britain.
It also encouraged him to set up Bullhouse East, his own craft pub near the popular Connswater Greenway.
Bullhouse beers are now sold throughout Northern Ireland, Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland, France, Italy and the Netherlands. Around 26 people are employed across the brewery and pub.
Current licensing rules, which are under review by an expert team from the University of Stirling, “create an ‘artificial monopoly” where access to market is controlled by the big four multinational brewers,” William claims.
He explains that the system has created “three distinct areas of concern”. Firstly, breweries in Northern Ireland have a vastly restricted access to the local market. Belfast has the most expensive pints in the UK (higher even than London), and we have the worst levels of alcohol related harm in the UK because people can access cheaper alcohol from some supermarkets and consume it at home in unregulated environments.
“Every time a supermarket opens in Northern Ireland, a community loses its local pub. Independent craft brewers want to see a thriving evening economy where it makes sense to open more small, independent venues,” he claims.
Independent brewers in Northern Ireland, he continues, welcomed the launch of the independent review of the alcohol licensing system.
“Our alcohol licensing system has been subject to much debate over the years and is vastly different to the much more flexible systems in England and Wales, where the Licensing Act 2003 made radical reforms making the huge growth in community-focused independent brewery taprooms possible for the consumption and sale of alcohol.
“In the Republic of Ireland, the Sale of Alcohol Bill has proposed changes to the extinguishment provision, whereby any individual seeking to open new premises must first acquire and extinguish an existing license. In Northern Ireland, this provision is called the ‘surrender principle’ and makes it very difficult for small breweries to acquire a license to open a pub, or sell beer direct from the brewery in a taproom.”
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