Are we in a beer bubble, or will the British beer revolution continue to flourish? Nobody really knows, but the 177 British breweries that launched in 2013 clearly felt there was still plenty of room for their beer to thrive. Rather than take yet another look into the post-craft crystal ball, I spoke to some of them about their approach to entering a booming market.
A common theme emerged: the “Class of 2013” recognizes that finding your place in a busier beer scene demands a more tailored strategy.
“Ecologists have this term ‘niche differentiation’,” explains Mat Henney, marine ecology graduate and now head brewer at the New Lion Brewery in Totnes. “To enable biodiversity, everything has to have its niche. Everything is different and they all specialise.”
How are new brewers finding their niches? Product range is one consideration: while American-style IPAs remain virtually obligatory for aspiring craft brewers, new faces are also looking for gaps in the market, whether that be lower ABVs, more malt-forward profiles or relatively neglected beer styles. Packaging and distribution is another frontier, with some brewers betting on bottles and cans as both a quality differentiator and a means of getting their beer into new markets such as restaurants and hotels. Finally, there is the old-fashioned approach of slowly carving out regional loyalty, which some breweries are giving a modern twist by focusing on sustainability and community engagement.
Products: Range And Quality
To stand out in a crowded marketplace, brewers can tweak popular styles or seek to revive less fashionable ones. London’s Fourpure, for instance, launched with a familiar hoppy IPA but chose to make it a more sessionable 4.2% ABV, influenced by Founders’ All Day IPA. Their stout – a style ‘synonymous with London’ according to co-owner Dan Lowe – is based on an old recipe, but altered to make it a little colder and more carbonated. Their core range also includes a malt-forward amber ale and a pilsner, far from ubiquitous styles in the craft scene.
A few arches down in Bermondsey, Anspach and Hobday launched earlier this year with a well-received smoked brown beer and a porter before bringing out their IPA, although the brewery declined to confirm whether this was a deliberate strategy.
While the craft Twitterati’s thirst for rarity and innovation can push new urban breweries to seek out forgotten recipes, some regional breweries are catering to local tastes by breathing new life into more common ale styles such as special bitters.
Totnes’ New Lion, for example, took a two-pronged approach to its core range. While they sought to emulate the past success of flagship IPAs such as Magic Rock’s Cannonball and Thornbridge’s Jaipur, they also wanted to balance their range with a more accessible session beer that would be a reliable local seller. After inviting its members to a blind taste test event in November, New Lion launched with Mane Event, a 3.8% ‘modern session bitter’ that relies on American hop varieties, as well as Pandit, a 4.9% dry-hopped West Coast American IPA named after former Devonshire resident Ravi Shankar.
Ian Bowler, owner-brewer of Carmarthen’s Handmade Beer Company, launched last year with a special bitter and a malt-forward, English-style pale ale. He was already inclined by personal taste to brew more traditional (or as he prefers to call them, “classic”) ales, but acknowledges that there is generally less demand for more experimental beers in rural west Wales than other parts of the country – even noting that that he tends to shift more pale ale in Cardiff and more special bitter in Carmarthenshire.
“Our range is relatively traditional,” says Ian. “I’m not going into fruit or wild yeast yet, but you never know. I need to establish myself with my core range, and maybe at a later date play around and do more experimental beers. I need to make some money first!”
Instead, his approach is to make classic ales and market them “so they are fresh and exciting”, although he does have an American-style IPA in the works. He is keen to stress that it’s not a case of rural drinkers being “behind” their urban counterparts, but that there are simply different tastes. Pubs in Carmarthenshire, for instance, tend to carry a greater range of ales during the summer to meet varied tourist demand, reverting to locally popular styles in the winter.
Aside from product styles, there is also the question of quality and purity. Some are predicting a “post-craft” shakeout of slapdash, semi-hobbyist breweries producing occasionally brilliant but ultimately inconsistent beer.
“A lot of London brewers will brew a pale ale or an IPA and it will taste different every time,” says Dan at Fourpure. “We’ve gone for consistency. For a brewery of our size [20 barrels], there’s a place in the market for consistent product.”
Dan has past experience of launching a business in a frothy market: he set up a data centre business 15 years ago during the tech boom.
“The people who were still there at the end were the ones who focused on product quality rather than chasing massive growth,” he says.
Inspired by this lesson, Fourpure now focuses on consistency and purity. The brewery does not use finings to clear its beer, and its premises include a cold room to keep its beer at optimal temperature before being shipped (managing temperature across the UK distribution chain, where refrigerated trucks and depots are not yet the norm, is a constant headache). Fourpure has also recently invested in its own testing kit in order to analyse its beer on the spot rather than waiting for results from an outside lab.
Some smaller brewers also embrace this trend towards consistency, focusing on perfecting the core range rather than spreading themselves too thinly with seasonal beers and one-offs.
“We were keen to do fewer beers and do them better, and have a real identity behind the beers, suitably and stylishly branded,” says Mat, who is planning to write a dissertation on the implementation of quality management systems in start-up microbreweries as part of his Institute of Brewing and Distilling Master Brewer studies. “That is where the craft brewing scene is now – people don’t just want the occasional good pint interspersed with a load of dross, customers expect it to be very consistent.”
This focus on product quality, as well as environmental concerns, is driving Fourpure’s move into cans. The brewery wanted to be in cans from the start, says Dan, but found that in-house packaging was too much to deal with in the early days. Fourpure has now invested in its own canning equipment and has hired an experienced canner, however, and hopes to launch its canned range shortly.
The focus on canning will differentiate Fourpure ‘hugely’, says Dan:
“We understand it’s going to be a big ask for people to accept that cans are the right thing to do. We’ve got good support from the existing [trade] customer base to go with cans. Even now, Wetherspoons are taking the Sixpoint cans – amazing brewery – and it’s now a common thing to have a can in a pub.”
More established UK breweries such as Camden and Meantime already have cans in the market or are introducing them soon, while European microbreweries such as Hobo and Pistonhead have also made inroads into British bars.
The Handmade Beer Company, meanwhile, decided to focus on bottle-conditioned beers rather than go head to head with local cask-focused brewers.
“I recognized from the beginning that they’ll all be arguing over the same accounts, so maybe I should go down the bottle route,” says Handmade’s Ian, who has always been interested in bottle conditioning. “I’ve always thought it was a good way to go, years and years ago before the craft beer explosion, so it’s nice that it’s taken off. It’s helping me, I’ve been able to find my market quite quickly.”
Ian was approached by a local wine merchant after a tasting, who told him his bottled beers would be well suited to Carmarthenshire’s hotels, gastropubs and restaurants, given the area’s popularity with tourists and retirees.
Handmade beers are now available in several of Carmarthen’s upscale eateries and delis, such as Wright’s Food Emporium, alongside bottles from Kernel and Partizan. Ian also sells to bottle shops in Cardiff (his hometown) and will soon sell online through the Real Ale Company. Given his success in restaurants, he is now taking food pairing into consideration when planning future recipes.
Fourpure is also benefiting from tourist demand, having signed a deal with Marriott to supply its London hotels with their new pilsner.
The hotel’s guests – especially Americans – had been asking to try the local drop, only to find that the Marriott’s draught lager was Peroni. After selecting the Fourpure pilsner to represent the capital, Marriott sent its entire catering team down to Bermondsey for intensive training on the entire Fourpure range. The brewery gained another foothold in the high-end market by winning a competition to supply Michel Roux Jr’s London restaurants with a bespoke beer.
Fourpure’s Dan sees potential for UK brewers to place their beers in high-end retailers such as Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges as well as gourmet restaurants. Here, however, the difference between a 20-barrel and five-barrel brewery may become critical. By making a medium-sized bet on the market last year, says Dan, Fourpure are now in a stronger position to reliably supply larger, more demanding accounts.
While craft beer under chandeliers may be a promising route for some, the bread and butter for most UK microbreweries will continue to be getting their beer into local pubs and bars. To some extent brewing has always been regional, and the success of Kent’s Musket Brewery shows that the old-fashioned approach can still work if the beer is right.
Musket is a traditional real ale maker. Since launching last year, it has found regular pump space in around 55 pubs in mid-Kent. The approach of co-brewer Tony Williams, a long-time CAMRA member and volunteer, was straightforward: canvass pub landlords’ interest, pick a few traditional styles, hire a consultant to get the taste profile just right, make beer, sell beer.
Musket brews unapologetically “safe” beers, says Tony – while he is happy to drink craft beers and unusual styles now and again, his priority for Musket is making sure that local publicans can shift his ales in good time.
“We’re not really into brewing strong, knock-your-head-off beers, we’re into brewing tastier, good sessional beers,” he says. “If we’re brewing beers that the publicans are selling a lot of, then the publicans are doing well, the customers are enjoying it, we’re growing a business so it’s win-win.”
Their first beers –a 3.8% golden ale, a 4.2% best bitter and a 5% Kentish Strong Ale – were launched at a small beer festival in a pub in West Mooring and received instant praise from fellow CAMRA members. Musket is concentrating on the local area, while also looking to tap into the growing network of beer festivals.
“As a CAMRA member I know an awful lot of the free houses and where guest ales are sold, so geographically we are concentrating on mid-Kent at the moment,” says Tony.
Local brewers have been very supportive, he says. Gary Lucas of the Kissing Gate brewery in Horsham provided invaluable advice on the brewing process, and Musket has also shared barrel delivery and pick-up duties with Kent Brewery.
Tony credits beer lovers’ willingness to try new beers (cask versus keg debates aside) with creating space in the market.
“Yes, there are a lot of micros out there, but it’s all about choice,” he says. “[The fact that] publicans rotate their beers, so even their regulars come in and say that’s a bit different, I’ll try a pint, that’s what it’s all about.”
Handmade has also found plenty of local space, says Ian:
“It’s definitely not that busy in rural west Wales. There are a few small breweries here within an hour’s drive, but as a county we’re not saturated. I wasn’t too concerned.”
Ian argues that microbrewing has always been a localised phenomenon, particularly in the US.
“As a five-barrel system I can’t be conquering the whole of the UK and further afield – keeping things regional is kind of inevitable, eventually,” he says.
New Lion takes this local approach even further. Like Cornwall’s Harbour Brewery and Bristol’s Weird Brew and Bristol Beer Company, New Lion fills a gap geographically for new wave beer fans in Devon who want a local champion. But the brewery is also engaging with the community through a membership scheme and its links to the wider ‘Transition Town’ movement in Totnes.
“We want people to feel part of it, to become ambassadors for the brewery,” says head brewer Mat.
So far around 80 local people have paid a small annual subscription to become members of New Lion. This does not yet involve an equity stake a la Brewdog’s Equity for Punks, but it’s certainly more than a free t-shirt. Members have taken part in blind tasting events to help determine the launch beers, and New Lion plans to organise tutored tastings, including tastings of off flavours, in the hope of training up a “flavour panel” of members to assist the brewery’s development.
“At our scale, this is quite exceptional,” says Mat.
New Lion was initially funded by one of its directors, but hopes to undertake a community share launch, linked to the regeneration of a derelict industrial site, that would give members 50% ownership.
Local involvement will extend beyond its members, says Rob Hopkins, a New Lion director and co-founder of the Transition Network, a movement for locally resilient, low carbon economies. For Rob, the key question is how to make New Lion a catalyst for the wider local economy.
In launching a sustainability-focused brewery, Rob was inspired by the example of the New Belgium Brewery in Colorado, as well as by Harvey’s involvement in a Transition Lewes initiative to crowd-source local solar energy capacity. The solar panels went on the roof of the Harvey’s plant and the brewery created its “Sunshine Ale” to help publicise the move.
“I was interested by the idea that a brewery could document and tell the wider story about changes taking place in the community through the beers it brewed,” says Rob.
The idea for a Totnes brewery was pitched in 2012 at a “Dragon’s Den” type meeting of local entrepreneurs, and has received consistent support from other Totnes businesses and organisations. New Lion will return the favour by using its beers to promote other local sustainable business stories, including the forthcoming relaunch of the Totnes Pound. The brewery diverts its spent grains to a local gourmet mushroom company (Funghi Futures), sources its malt from a local maltster, and will soon offer work experience to adults with learning difficulties.
“We’d hope to become a significant employer in the town, as the town desperately needs it,” says Rob.
Rob’s philosophy is that New Lion should not just seek to grow, in terms of volumes sold, but to mature in terms of what it can offer the local economy and community. Perhaps this distinction between chasing sheer growth and carving out one’s own niche in a maturing market holds for all new microbreweries. If the result is a rich and diverse beery ecosystem in which drinkers can wallow, so much the better.
Photos used are from previous CAMRGB articles and with gratitude from the internet.
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