Three Bullet Tuesday – 21 March

Bude, where’s my beer? Gipsy Hill Brewing Company, and why don’t more craft breweries contract brew?

  • Bude, wheres my beer? A funny thing happened. Like anyone else who is into beer twitter you will have heard of the phenomena that is #CraftBeerHour. The premise is simple, get online between 9pm and 10pm on a Tuesday and share a drink and interact with fellow beer enthusiasts. It has built such an audience that it now features breweries, festival organisers and other beer folk who use the hour like an online Q&A. To further enhance the experience, Tom arranges with the feature brewery for free samples to be sent in advance of the tasting. Back to my story. An email popped into my inbox asking people to enter the draw for free samples for next week’s brewery, Bude Brewery from Cornwall. Rather than wait until later I entered straight away. I must have been the first as it triggered a response from Tom on twitter. To keep it democratic Tom pulls the names from a hat and broadcasts the draw live on twitter. This is how far down the craft rabbit hole I have gone – I, along with around 20 others, watched the draw live. And whose name was deftly plucked from the hat first? Yours truly! Phoa! I never win anything, I said. Now to wait for the beer to arrive. Sadly it didn’t turn up in time for last Tuesday’s #CraftBeerHour, however did arrive in time for the weekend. I have managed to have at least one of the beers, the Black Rock Porter, which came in a 500ml bottle. Beautiful dark colour, with relatively thick head. Nice dark chocolate and roasted malts with just enough sweetness. Stay tuned for the Pale Ale.

You too can sign up for #CraftBeerHour samples right here

  • Gipsy Hill Brewing Company: I attended a meet the brewer event with Gipsy Hill Brewing Company at the shiny new Micro Beers craft beer shop in East Sheen, South West London. Micro Beers is relatively new and follows the trend of drink in / take away with four rotating keg lines in addition to well stocked selection of beers. East Sheen is in a bit of a no man’s land between Putney and Richmond and while it’s on the train line, the regular express services don’t stop here and its serviced mainly by the less frequent ‘all stations’ services. Regardless, and to my surprise, this suburban enclave drew a rather large, interested and educated crowd curious about Gipsy Hill and craft beer more generally. I first encountered Gipsy Hill at the now defunct Winter Brew Festival in November 2014. Their signage stood out, three white guys in coloured shirts holding a Gipsy Hill sign. Given we were at a craft beer festival, my initial reaction was that the Gipsy in Gipsy Hill referenced the fact they were Gipsy brewers. It only highlighted my lack of knowledge about the suburbs of South London. MBA educated Sam McMeekin gave up a promising career in venture capital micro-finance after becoming disillusioned with a new job. Rather than handing over cash to driven entrepreneurs, he wanted a challenge of running his own business front to back; branding, marketing, financials, really making and building something of his own. He teamed up with Charlie Shaw, who was working at 5 Points Brewery and Gipsy Hill was born. Sam explained the brewery, his story, walked through 4 beers including core beers Hepcat (Session IPA) and Southpaw (Amber Ale) and new beers Day Tripper (American Pale Ale) and Nomad (Milk Stout). Their beers are named after groups of people, with previous beers including Bogan (NZ Pale Ale), Drifter (IPA) and newly released Walloon (Belgian IPA) which pays homage to the Belgium region known for its cycling and brewing heritage and released right in time for the Belgian cobble classics. Sam also reflected on the challenges of scaling up given their recent expansion as well as their plans for improving quality and output with investments in water treatment and a canning line. All in all it was an enjoyable experience and great, as always, to hear from passionate craft brewers.

  • Why don’t more craft breweries contract brew?: I watched this very funny video parodying things Australian craft beer drinker say. You can watch it here on vimeo.

One thing I got a chuckle out of is the ‘contract brewed’ gag. But openly talking about contract brewing seems rare in the UK, or is it that it’s just not that common? Five Points Brewing Co announced in their year-end blog that they were contract brewing some (only Kegs, cans are brewed and packaged at Five Points) of its Pils beer to a ‘family owned, independent brewery in Belgium’, in an arrangement reminiscent of Camden Town’s. I can understand their rationale too, which is outlined in the blog, but can be summarised as “At Hackney Downs we are hemmed in on all sides, and after several months of (currently unsuccessful) negotiation with our neighbours and with Network Rail, sadly it looks like we’ve run out of expansion options at our current site”. But surely 5 Points aren’t the only ones with this problem? That sounds like any typical craft brewer, in an industrial estate or in a railway arch – hemmed in – waiting for an opportunity for a close or woe-betide adjacent lot to become available. Often this leads to inefficiency, such as taking an hour to unpack assorted brewery paraphernalia only to spend the same amount of time repacking it that same evening. A quick google search of contract brewers in the UK reveals a number of options, namely traditional brewers with extra capacity to spare. But again, it’s unclear whether, when faced with barriers to expansion, craft breweries seriously consider contract brewing as another way to grow in the face of barriers to scaling up quickly to meet demand.

Three Bullet Tuesday – 31 January 2017

Cloudwater kings of Ratebeer, Brewery Growth Models, and the Ealing Park Tavern, Home of Long Arm Brewing 

  • Cloudwater: the Manchester-based craft brewer are the kings of Ratebeer, the popular beer rating site/app after picking up a swag of awards in a ceremony in Santa Rosa California on Sunday 29th January. Full details of the results will be released throughout this week, but according to their twitter feed they picked up at least 8 awards including best brewery in the UK. To be fair, I am unsure of who makes up the Ratebeer community here in the UK, but the award does carry certain weight, especially in the US where Ratebeer is more popular. Critics however compare this to a popularity contest. Either way, it’s a global awards ceremony that comes with a certain gravitas and I’m sure for them to pick up these awards in from a room full of their global peers gives them great satisfaction. As a result, I believe it should be celebrated.
Paul from Cloudwater doing his best Michael Phelps impersonation
Paul from Cloudwater doing his best Michael Phelps impersonation
  • Brewing growth models: the ‘year in review’ blogs of a number of craft breweries opened the kimono on the growth curve some find themselves on. I’ve been reflecting on the challenges these breweries are likely to be considering, plus those on different growth profiles using a bastardised version of the BCG growth matrix. The BCG growth matrix is a strategic tool designed for large corporations with a portfolio of businesses to use to determine strategic direction. In my growth matrix, the x axis is relative size of the brewery and on the y axis is the growth the brewery is experiencing.

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If we start in the bottom left, I’ve dubbed this group the Ateliers. This is breweries that are relatively small in scale and with a low growth profile. The archetype Atelier for me is The Kernel Brewery. I’ve interviewed Evin from The Kernel in a previous podcast and he makes it clear he believes the brewery could be capable of growing to be 15-20 times the size but is happy with the current size of the brewery, the quality of the beers they are making and the conversations he can have with his customers. The key challenge for Ateliers is finding a sustainable differentiator and for The Kernel, this is the stunning quality of their beers. The Stars are those breweries that are relatively small but are going through significant growth. Think Cloudwater, Five Points and Beavertown. Interestingly, they are all going about that growth in slightly different ways. Cloudwater are streamlining beer dispense to just can and keg and focusing on maximising the efficiency of their brewing. Five Points are facing growing pains in their current site and have started contract brewing to increase capacity. Beavertown are maximing their brewing schedule and expanding their current presence with one eye on moving to a big new premises in the near future. For these breweries the key challenge is likely to be managing the financials. When making capital investments a sharp eye on cash flow and expense management is critical. Ensuring the quality and consistency of their beers don’t suffer is another key challenge. The Cannonballs are those that have relative size and are also going through significant growth. BrewDog are the ultimate Cannonballs. They continue to expand their brewing capacity in Ellon, have set out plans to create Overworks, their Sour facility, expanding their bar network both domestically and abroad as well as launching BrewDog USA.  That is a huge agenda and good management, governance and control is critical to ensure they are delivering against all their plans. And finally the Cows. These are relatively large breweries experiencing low growth. Their challenge is how to push the business back into growth mode (or restructure). Whilst I wouldn’t put Fullers into this category (they seem to be focused on expanding their range of pubs), many appear to be responding to this challenge by doing things like rebranding or creating craft ranges to try to tap faster growing segments of the market. Some feel like half-hearted attempts at change given that authentic and sustainable cultural and strategic change takes more than some new packaging.

  • Ealing Park Tavern: after many aborted attempts, I finally made it to the Ealing Park Tavern for an early dinner on Saturday with the family. Its been on my to do list for some time, given its relatively close to where I live. Its also the home of Long Arm Brewing, the winner of RateBeers best new brewery in Greater London. For those unfamiliar, Long Arm Brewing is a new brewery that is part of the ETM Group, a restaurant and bar group with 12 venues across London and one venue in Suffolk. To date, I believe they only sell their beer in their venues. They also previous owned The Gun in the Docklands, which they sold in June 2016 to Fullers. The Ealing Park Tavern is a lovely pub, adorned with taxidermy and open fires, separate formal and informal dining areas, a beer garden, and a long bar with around 12 keg lines (including Beavertown Gamma Ray and Four Pure Flatiron Red), 6 cask lines and an extensive can and bottle selection (I recall seeing Moor cans and bottles of Wild Beer Co). We sat in the formal dining area where the ambiance was lovely, the menu engaging and the service attentive. I had a pint of Thornbridge Lord Maples, a 4% cask bitter to start and a bottle of Wild Beer Millionaire with my braised Herdwick lamb serviced with sautéed sweetbreads, smoked aubergine, chick peas, chilli and apricots. My one criticism is that while they have an extension wine list to accompany the food menu, they don’t extend the same courtesy to their beer. All in all The Ealing Park tavern is pub with a pedigree beer and wine selection, excitable food menu and enjoyable ambiance.

Brew Talent Time

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Towards the end of last year I noticed that two of London’s best craft breweries were on the hunt for new brewers; Hackney’s Five Points Brewing Company (I’ll call them Five Points in the rest of this post) and Bermondsey’s Brew By Numbers.

I thought it was odd two craft breweries would be looking for brewers at the same time as they would likely end up competing for the same talent. I reached out to the breweries to get their views on this to help determine whether or not my views were unfounded.

Doreen Joy Barber from the Five Points gave me an insight into their recent hiring activity. ‘Last year, we hired two new brewers into the Five Points fold. One came from another brewery in England, whereas the other had previous brewing experience in the UK’, explains Doreen.

Looking at their existing pool of brewers it’s clear they have appointed talented people with relevant brewing experience. ‘Our former Lead Assistant Brewer who worked with us for two years previously worked at Nogne O (the Norwegian brewery) and BrewFist (the Italian brewery)’ says Doreen.

They have also hired people without brewing experience that are willing to learn. This could be in the form of attending training at the Institute of Brewing and Distilling or through an apprenticeship. Doreen expanded on this, ‘Our new Lead Assistant Brewer went through our apprenticeship that we started with Hackney Community College’. Not only is this a very sensible and structured approach to developing talent, it is a great example of how a brewery connects with it local community and Five Points deserve top marks for an initiative like this.

Chris Hall’s insights on Brew By Numbers indicated a slightly different approach. In their search for brewers, relevant experience with the beer styles they brew is important, as is someone who could bring ‘a fresh perspective, unique insight or otherwise bring a new set of ideas and creativity to the team’.

This is important as it links to Brew By Numbers brewing philosophy. As Chris says ‘It’s a team after all and you want people to think differently, so we can express as best we can the full range of flavours that beer than achieve’.

With so many craft breweries in London, either starting up or facing rapid expansion, it would seem London is as an attractive location for any aspiring craft brewer. Chris again provides further insight on this; ‘We now have employees from England, Canada, United States, Finland, Norway and Italy. People with a brewing background seem to be moving to the UK almost every week’.

And it looks like there continues to be plenty of opportunity for people interested in forging a career in the burgeoning craft beer industry. Since I reached out to Doreen and Chris both Redchurch and Beavertown have also advertised for new brewers, with Beavertown also looking for a host of other roles. Being able to draw not only from talent within the UK scene today but from, as Chris calls it, ‘a diverse melting pot of backgrounds, experience and ideas’ should ensure continuing innovation and creativity in the UK craft beer scene.

One of the big challenges for craft breweries when they do scale up is when the founders or co-founders, who are often used to being very hands on in the brewing side of the business, hire a brewer to help free up their time to enable them to work on the business side. Handing over control for recipes they have designed, and responsibility for producing the beers they have been making for some time can be very tough – in reality it’s a real test their leadership capabilities. Building the right culture in a brewery is almost as important as brewing the beers and crucially is linked to the breweries ability to attract and retain the right talent in the first place.

As it turns out, my initials fears were completely unfounded. London is attracting an array of diverse talent that is helping to drive the innovation, creativity and growth of the UK craft beer scene. Getting some clear, timely and accessible statistics on craft brewery employment to help tell this story would be even better.