Ed Bullen jokes that his business, Drinkswell Service Co., could be a reality TV series.
“It could be a funny reality show,” he says. “We end up in a lot of predicaments.”
Drinkswell’s main focus is setting up brewing systems for restaurants, breweries, venues and more – it’s the only business of its kind in Kentucky, in fact. Bullen has been a beer enthusiast since he began homebrewing at age 16 while growing up in Canada. A former professional brewer for the now-defunct Hops chain of brewpubs, among other breweries, Bullen opened Drinkswell in 2005 because, “I think I realized I wanted to stay in the beer business, but I wanted to work for myself.”
In addition to the never-a-dull-moment installation and repair work, Drinkswell also is home to a cozy craft beer taproom — open to the public Wednesday through Saturday — in its headquarters inside Butchertown Market Building. Not that Bullen gets to spend much time there, given he’s on the road so frequently; his car is less than a year old, and there’s already 20,000 miles on the odometer. One of the two Drinkswell service trucks has 300,000 miles on it – and it’s a 2011 model.
Between plenty of all-night jobs and bouncing back and forth between sweltering crawl spaces and 35-degree walk-in coolers, the job can take a toll.
“It’s not just for anyone,” Bullen says “Physically, it’s pretty demanding.”
And then there are the “predicaments,” which range from dropping his phone inside a wall, to nearly falling through a ceiling or getting trapped in an attic.
He tells a story about one job in Bowling Green, Ohio, in which he got trapped between a walk-in cooler and an outer wall. He was trying to pull a line through to the cooler and decided to climb down into the narrow cavity between it and the wall.
“I climbed down, and then I realized I couldn’t get out,” he says with a smile. Embarrassing? Well, it might have been – except that it was on a Saturday, and he was alone in the building. And he didn’t have his phone with him to call for help. For a few panicked moments, he wondered if he might be trapped until someone came to the business and found him.
“It was touch and go for a while,” he says. Moving his arms as if scaling, he says, “I did like Spider-Man and eventually got out.”
Another one of his famous predicaments involved an install at a private home in Lexington. Bullen says the owner was setting up a private bar in the enormous house, and during the installation of the tap system, the man asked him to work on his soda system.
“He had a brand new Irish bar,” Bullen recalls. “It was actually Christmas Eve day, and it was freezing cold outside.”
Bullen tried to fix the problem with the soda system, but a line came off, unleashing a high-pressure water spray into the room. The only shut-off was in the basement, and Bullen was left scrambling to turn off the water. He finally did, ending up in a crawl space under the house, where he banged his head.
“It went from bad to worse,” Bullen says, laughing. “I basically put three inches of water into his new bar. Turned out the damn [soda] tower was defective. I won’t do soda now.”
And while installing the tap system at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati a few years back, Bullen was cutting a Co2 line while standing on a ladder, when he lost control of the line.
“The line whipped back and it shot me right in the eye,” he says. “It almost knocked me off the ladder. It took a while to get my vision back.”
“There are a lot of weird situations we get into,” John Kerley, a Drinkswell employee says. “I was never big on heights, and I’m on ladders all the time now. It was one of those sink-or-swim sort of deals. Our motto is, ‘We’re under every bar in town.’”
That they are: Drinkswell has installed or repaired beer tap equipment for plenty of area breweries such as Mile Wide Beer Co., West Sixth Brewing, Rhinegeist Brewery, Taxman Brewing, and Holy Grale and Louisville Beer Store, but it doesn’t stop there; many more bars, restaurants, and even race tracks have enlisted Drinkswell’s services.
Bullen feels fortunate to have launched the business when he did, in 2005, because prior to the craft beer boom, distributors were doing most of the installation work. Now much of that work falls to him, and the demand continues to grow with craft beer’s popularity. And when there’s time between travel and all-night installations, there’s always the inviting Drinkswell taproom, where Bullen and his crew like to relax when they can.
Bullen set it up as a sort of old-fashioned tavern, a place with free hot dogs and popcorn, and no TVs, to encourage conversation. Ten taps pour an ever-rotating selection of craft beers, and a small cooler also holds a few cans and bottles. It makes all the long hours, physical challenges, and predicaments worth the effort.
“The best thing is, at the end of the day, we can relax with a beer,” Bullen says between sips of an IPA. “Beer is kind of our friend. And I love what I do – I can’t get enough of it.”