THE BBC foreign correspondent turned ale brewer Alex Brodie talks to Alistair Gilmour about the quiet revolution he is leading from a converted mill in Cumbria.
FOR Alex Brodie, economic recovery does not bear green shoots – buds of optimism burst in every shade of brown and the indicator of growth isn’t actually shoots, it’s imperial measures – pints, halves and barrels.
The future is bright if you’re an ale brewer according to the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) and one of its leading lights, Brodie, of Hawkshead Brewery in Cumbria.
Hawkshead is part of a beer renaissance driven by the country’s smaller breweries bucking the national trend of declining beer sales. SIBA’s annual Local Brewing Industry Report shows its members’ sales volumes increased by an average 10% last year, in marked contrast to the 5% decrease in the total beer market. Sales of Hawkshead’s, meanwhile, grew by more than 20%.
“I keep proclaiming there is a revolution in British brewing,” says Brodie, “and this report proves it. All over the beer industry it is doom and gloom with pubs closing and declining beer sales – except for good local real ale breweries and the pubs that sell our beer.
“Hawkshead Brewery continues to develop and the public wants what we make. This gives us the confidence that we can ride out the recession and contribute to recovery.”
Alex says people increasingly want to buy local products – local beers appeal to the ethical consumer because they are buying into genuine provenance, low food miles and sustainable production while contributing to the local economy.
The phone interrupts several times as we talk in the brewery at Staveley near Kendal. There’s a hitch with the ingredients of a new pure-brewed organic oatmeal stout and conversation goes along the lines of nitrogen levels, boil temperature, coagulation and protein drop. Brewing is a science and though not a scientist – Alex is a former BBC journalist who covered trouble in Pakistan, Iran, Jerusalem and El Salvador – brewers need to know the rudiments.
He says: “The local brewery industry report is a hell of a good news list. SIBA had nearly 200 responses from 200 brewers – we’re holding the pub industry together.
“The downside is that recent increases in duty make it difficult for us to hold the price – 17.8% in two lots last year. I didn’t pass the last one on. It’s so competitive out there but our publicans buy our beer because they get a consistent product, they don’t get any problems in the cellar with it – and their customers like it.”
Hawkshead Brewery is part of a visionary “industrial village” created at Staveley Mill by local businessman David Brockbank which features various manufacturers, a cookery school, a copper engraver, wine merchant, several creative companies, a huge biking centre and Wilf’s Cafe, a South Lakes institution.
Behind the brewery’s sliding doors, five 20-barrel (720 gallons) fermenters and six similarly-sized conditioning tanks shimmer and gleam. A 60-barrel fermenter is in mind that will soon take capacity up from 100 barrels to 140 (5,040 gallons).
The beer hall’s bar fittings and furniture were commissioned from the neighbouring furniture designer; solid “fat-arsed” benches and wonderfully contoured stools invite all-day sittings while suspended lighting panels banish the corrugated iron angles above.
Twenty four beer lines coil down from behind the bar into the cellar where an impressive racking system allows quick change artistry and easy access.
The bar is regularly forested by two dozen hand-pulls at beer festivals, a cash-generating opportunity too good to overlook. The brew plant – German-manufactured – was designed by York-based consultant David Smith who was also instrumental in setting up micro-breweries at Jarrow, South Tyneside, and High House Farm in Northumberland. His was the voice on the phone.
“We got some help when we set up, about 19% of our start-up costs,” says Alex. “We got £64,000 from Cumbria Vision and £15,000 from Defra towards plant and premises. Our budget was £400,000 and we went over by about 15%, so it cost £470,000 – which came from me, that’s why I can hardly afford to wear clothes.”
He started Hawkshead Brewery in 2002 in a former milking parlour at Town End Farm, part of a 17th century estate near the eponymous village which has connections with George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (aka Quakers).
“When I started the brewery in the barn in 2002 it was never a hobby, it was always a business,” says Alex. “It was my way of living here in the Lake District and I needed to earn money. I’d been a journalist all my life and as you know we don’t stash it away.
“I’ve had a very interesting life and I’ve seen a lot of the globe, many parts of which I never want to see again, but it was time to settle the family down. I knew there was a niche – I knew that I knew enough about beer, having dedicatedly consumed it since the age of 16.
“I’ve always been passionate about beer so I knew the beer industry in that respect and I knew pubs. I know pub companies, I understand the politics of pub ownership and the politics of small brewing – real ale and all that. I was convinced that if I could brew something halfway decent it would sell. I then got the first huge pick-me-up in the 2002 Budget where SIBA’s long campaign came to fruition and we finally got progressive beer duty, basically small brewers’ relief, which cut our costs by 50%.
“With hindsight, I couldn’t have succeeded without it. You can see the effect since then; there were 220 breweries if I remember rightly when we began and there are now, what, 700?
“I’m at risk of being tedious with the message, but I always say ‘do you bloody realise how much of a revolution is taking place?’ Middle-aged folk like us who have wandered the country with the Good Beer Guide desperately looking for a decent pint don’t have to desperately look any more.”
Brewery consultant David Smith is on the phone again. This time it’s about yeast culture and flocculation. Alex understands and makes his own suggestions.
He continues: “That is such a big difference and it’s why we’re seeing amazing results. It’s localism, it ticks all the boxes. Our feeling in SIBA is that if the Chancellor will just let us, the recovery will come from where it should – at grass-roots level. Local breweries, local beer and local pubs create a culture that encourages moderate drinking in congenial social surroundings where young people are observed by older people. It’s socially cohesive.
“It’s actually good news – here is something that’s actually growing not shrinking – but which part of that does the Government not get? We have the equivalent of ten full-time jobs, slightly over-staffed but staffed for where we’re going rather than where we are.
“It’s a cliche but a business is only as good as the people who work for it. We have a stunning – and I’m happy with that word – staff here in all departments.” Beer-making is one thing, but getting the cash in is something that can sink even the most proficient of producers. Alex Brodie has that avenue well covered, employing an astute business adviser and a four-day-a-week book-keeper.
“The reason we are successful is that a lot of small businesses don’t keep a track of their finances,” he says. “We try to be extremely tight on getting the money in so we don’t have a lot of aged debt.
“We’re all home-grown, so we’ve all learned the trade together. There are no ‘that’s not my job’ attitudes around here. One of the brewers is pushing for his International Brewing and Distilling qualifications so we’re as strong as the people in it.
“The amateur’s me. Being in a tourist area is a tremendous advantage. The pound is very good for us at the moment; people are staying at home for their holidays and we hope a lot of Europeans will come this summer – and the Americans who haven’t been back for a while.
“What foot-and-mouth taught me, although it happened before we came on stream, is always to have a foot in the cities. We’ve always made sure we have trade in the Lancashire towns, down the M6 and across to Darlington and Yorkshire.
“The first thing tourists ask is ‘what’s the local beer?’ – and quite rightly. I don’t want to go to Bristol and drink my beer, I want to go to Bristol and drink Bristol beer and if I came to the North East I’d want to drink Jarrow or Mordue. Vive la regional difference!
“We’re looking at export through the UK Trade & Industry Passport to Export scheme. We’ve just done a deal in principle with a customer in Sweden and I’m interested in the Far East. You can’t afford not to look at export with the state of the pound.
“But the thing I find most difficult in small business is employing people. I came from the other side of the tracks in that I was an active trade unionist in the National Union of Journalists and my instincts have always been contra to capitalism and to business, so it’s quite a change to become an owner.
“The debate now has moved into pubs. There are a lot of them for sale, it’s the perfect time for us – the new brewers – to start picking up vertically-integrated estates. The pub companies are loaded with debt and are over- reached to the hilt, so how long can they last?
“We’ll see a return to the proper way of doing things with the brewery directly involved with the pubs, where the people who run the pubs feel they’re part of the brewery and, like in the old days, they stick together through thick and thin.
“Personally, I haven’t got the money, but I’d go into it if I had an investor who had the money and a manager who could run the pubs.”
A five-bar wooden gate was installed in the brewery’s grain store right at the beginning. It’s functional but is also a reminder of “the old days” when Alex Brodie brewed his first batch of beer at Town End Farm.
Glass in hand at the end of each day he would rest his elbows on the top rung and stare over the fells with thoughts in head and satisfaction in soul. Even the phone couldn’t disturb the reverie. “If this gate wasn’t there, I’d have had to invent it,” he says.
Page 2: Questionnaire
What car do you drive?
A Mitsubishi pick-up. I’m a hard-working brewer and it can carry 12 casks.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Any pub serving good food and good beer at lunchtime.
Who or what makes you laugh?
You do with these stupid questions.
What’s your favourite book?
The Good Beer Guide (Campaign For Real Ale).
What was the last album you bought?
Nigel Kennedy Plays Jazz.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Retirement. I’ve done all my ideal jobs and my current one is the last one.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Let me out of this bloody cage.
What’s your greatest fear?
I’m not very fearful, I haven’t got one.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Don’t buy that pub (I ignored it).
What’s the worst piece of business advice?
Buy that pub.
What’s your poison?
Real beer in a real pub.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Guardian and Observer. I’m a fully paid-up Leftie.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
Something like 17/6 for washing up in a restaurant.
How do you keep fit?
What’s your most irritating habit?
Far too many to list – and far too embarrassing.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character(s) do you identify with/admire?
Oliver Cromwell for chopping off the king’s head; the curmudgeonly Detective Inspector Rebus (in the Ian Rankin novels); my father, and Nye Bevan.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Nigel Slater (as long as he cooks), Michelle Pfeiffer, Nelson Mandela and Emmylou Harris
How would you like to be remembered?
Fondly and with amusement.