Friday, 11 January 2013

Step up young man

I have often spoken of how my journey into brewing so far has been blessed with good fortune and good timing and with many happy coincidences. Resources, advice, opportunities and chance meetings have just appeared before me exactly as I needed them. But perhaps the greatest of these chance meetings was the day I pitched up at Brendan’s brewery, ostensibly to buy a corking machine for my home brewing, not knowing about his crusade to raise a new generation of brewers or the Barley to Beer Project (funded by the Leader Programme). It was mid October in 2010 and late in the day when on a whim I decided to detour to Ickburgh and see if the IceniBrewery was open. On arrival just before dusk Brendan Moore was characteristically on the phone. When he got off we fell to talking about brewing and I let slip that I was going to be redundant soon and had been contemplating a new start in microbrewing. I knew enough that I was determined not to compete head to head with the established breweries but that was all. Maybe I would brew premium beer, possibly Belgian style beers and IPAs and sell them in bottles, as opposed to casking it for the pub trade.

Two hours later Brendan was still in full flow, telling me how I should not follow his own career trajectory, brewing as much beer as possible, delivering it all over the country, selling to pubs for relatively little gain and arriving home exhausted, only to get up the next day and do it all again. All this was reinforcing my own notion to brew better beer, so the customer gets an amazing experience and the brewer can get a just return for the time and financial investment. This notion is something of a mission with Brendan. Some brewers are dismissive of this approach and sceptical too of the prices that Brendan claims could be charged for beer, if it is done right. Don’t follow the traditional British brewing model, he said. Look to the Americans and the Italians who are reinventing what beer can be: innovating, experimenting, pushing the boundaries, astonishing the public and winning new admirers who are willing to pay premium and super premium prices. Brew from the till backwards, he said. Make the best beer you can, take infinite pains but decide what profit you want to make and calculate your selling price accordingly, taking all your fixed and variable costs into account. The beer might be £10 a pint, or £20 or even £30 but if you put passion and commitment into brewing this beer you will find the customers. And with good margins you won’t need to find so many customers, because you’ll be brewing beer that has impact and will keep for a very long time, so you will not need to brew so much to satisfy the drinker.

This is a hard business model for the average brewery to take on board. Beer has been traditionally considered as a cheap drink for the working classes, a thirst quencher, a provision that is sold in pubs and supermarkets. Volume counts and price is important so the brewers have to work really hard just to keep up the output. This was not the model for a one-man-band brewer like me, who is entering semi-retirement but at the same time starting out on a new part-time career. The trend in beer sales is downward. Pubs are closing every week. The brewing world is changing. Craft brewing on the other hand is steadily growing, taking market share from the big industrial brewers. But craft beer needs to be different to the traditional brewing trade. Despite the number and diversity of beers and breweries in Britain, many are simply variations on a theme, not all that different from each other, crow-barred into a session beer format and frankly sometimes rather dull. Appealing to a mass market can mean finding the lowest common denominator, within a tight envelope of flavour, style and price. There should be nothing that would frighten the horses and recipes, ingredients and processes are pared to the bone for maximum efficiency. Many make beer that is merely adequate; optimized to make the best profit, not the best beer. This is industrial beer and it has been this way since the early 19th century. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are amazing ingredients out there and processes you can employ to make unique and satisfying beers - extraordinary ales. This is the way to go he said. Look at the Slow Food movement, look at bakers and cheese makers and other artisans who take immense pride in their work and who are cultivating niche markets for their extraordinary products. Look for new ways to market beer and innovative places to sell it.

I was persuaded to join the East Anglian Brewers Cooperative and encouraged to help establish this new model. Membership also opened up the opportunity to buy the best Maris Otter malt from Teddy Maufe at the Branthill Farm at favourable prices. I have written elsewhere about the pleasure I have in driving from Cromer to Wells with a boot full of beer to sell to the Real Ale Shop and returning with a boot-load of prime malt to turn into another batch of beer.

Members of the East Anglian Brewers Cooperative debate the issues of the day at West Lexham.

I was also able to benefit from a series of workshops, briefings and seminars that Brendan has organised with Tastes of Anglia. Funding from the Barley to Beer Project has brought about training days in 2011 and 2012 that were just heaven-sent for a start up microbrewer like me. They have given me knowledge, business insights and skills that have eased my passage into professional brewing. I went to training days on malt, hops, making extraordinary ales (slow brewing), marketing with video and social networking, building a luxury brand. On those days I networked with other brewers, both established and newcomers and was briefed by professional tutors, maltsters, brewers, hop-factors, media experts and management consultants. They were good fun. I recorded many of the presentations on my tiny digital sound recorder and I have been able to play these back at will in order to fully absorb the wisdom they imparted. With help from the media experts I set up a website, a Twitter account and use Facebook to network with my customers. These courses inspired me and provided practical knowledge. The subsidy from the Barley to Beer Project has not only made it possible to stage these events but also made them affordable. I am very glad that I came on the scene when I did and was able to benefit from them.

Paul Corbett of Charles Faram, hop factors brought and introduced 70 samples of hops from all over the world
Inside the old piggery at West Lexham brewrs get to handle and smell the hop samples.

East Anglian brewers enjoying lunch at Tony Hook's pop-up restaurant at West Lexham, the venue of several training seminars.

I have made a few mistakes along the way and still have a lot to learn but I would have been making many more and much bigger mistakes without the advice and guidance from the Barley to Beer Project. Above all however I think it is the support and encouragement that stops me wondering off into the wilderness. Over the past few months I have found that Brendan was right. There is a market for super premium extraordinary ales. Every now and then I look at an email he sent. It explained why some of the courses didn’t tell me exactly what I was expecting to hear – practical, technical advice on how to brew. He retorted with this:

“It is not you (who has used more hops than any other brewer and has studied more beers) that needs help. It is YOU and me who can break the cycle. Look to real innovators like George and Neville (who gave us the miracle of Maris Otter - set less seed and get 50% more yield, and it is the best malting barley ever) and Teddy Maufe (who turned a small chapel on this farm into the saviour of his farming life).
“The reason you are not getting any technical advice on brewing extraordinary ales is because there is none where you are expecting to find it. You are our expert. Step up young man, your way is clear, your stage is empty, burst in and fill it! The rest of us still have these Fuggles to use up and I know a brewer who decides on what he brews by the number of labels he has left to use up because his printer gave him a good price on fifteen thousand.”

So, stand back, here I come… I am about to burst in.