Craft beer brewing is traditionally seen as the domain of retired, grey-haired men in bobbly cardigans.
Having escaped the rat race they make it their life’s mission to concoct the perfect real ale.
Like most stereotypes, that of your average microbrewer is now hopelessly out of date, however.
The latest generation of artisan brewers are more often than not young, ambitious and highly experimental when it comes to their malty offerings.
Brothers David and John Gilfillan certainly don’t fit into the old-style mould.
John’s background is in the City of London in what the 41-year-old describes as “a cross between fund management and corporate finance.” Younger brother David, 39, is into website development and graphic design.
He also happens to be a beer enthusiast and, in 2010, after a eureka moment (more on that later), launched Delavals Brewers Ltd from a shed at the bottom of his garden in Whitley Bay.
Now just three years on, the Gilfillan siblings have signed a remarkable deal that will undoubtedly make both them and their still fledgling company the envy of not just fellow microbrewers but the UK’s big beer brands.
Delavals has joined forces with the National Trust and launched a beer club.
The first deal of its kind in the conservation charity’s 118-year history, the innovative and unique licensing agreement will not only generate much-needed income for the National Trust, but also help raise awareness about its work and the historic places it safeguards. For Delavals, the chance to tap into the current craft beer revival and a growing trend for consumers to drink at home could be even more lucrative.
The link-up is a chance for one of the North East’s newest brewers to make its presence felt beyond the region and hopefully open commercial doors that might otherwise have remained shut.
The National Trust is seen as a reliable and dependable brand that doesn’t give its patronage lightly. Where it leads others tend to follow. And the deal should, perhaps, come as no surprise. The two enterprises have been linked since Delavals first came into being.
A clue is in the brewer’s name. The inspiration for the company was the purchase by the National Trust of Seaton Delaval Hall in south east Northumberland at the end of 2009.
The Sir John Vanbrugh masterpiece whose magnificent central hall was devastated by fire in 1822, had a working brewery on the estate about 200 years ago. In fact, the Delaval family owned a number of breweries in the region. Most have now been lost, but the one at Seaton Delaval Hall survived.
David was an early visitor to the property, saw the brew house and, in John’s words, “the light bulb went on”.
Having spent many hours researching the brewing traditions of the Delaval family, the Gilfillans approached the trust with a view to working in partnership to recreate an ale based on the “small beer” that would have once been made on the estate.
In October 2010, Seaton Delaval Hall Pale Ale was launched.
Since then, Delavals has produced three more craft ales based around North East Trust properties: Souter Lighthouse Best Bitter, Lindisfarne Castle Dark Ale and Washington Old Hall Honey Beer, available in bottles and on draught.
They’ve also developed a National Trust Great British Beer Collection of a best bitter, golden and amber ales, and stout.
But it is the launch of the tie-in beer club that will hopefully push the ambitious Delavals from being seen just as a regional player into the national market.
The club has come about because of John and David’s difficulties in selling outside the region. The propert-specific beers – while greeted with enthusiasm by the big multiples were – seen as too North East specific to stock anywhere other than local stores.
In response, Delavals came up with what John refers to as the “more generic” Great British Beer Collection, that isn’t defined by a trust property or a region.
But having found the aggressive pricing adopted by the supermarkets not to their taste, the brothers decided to see if they could develop their own distribution channel for their alcoholic wares.
Just as the world’s wines can be brought direct to people’s doors courtesy of member clubs, John and David reasoned the same could apply to beer.
As John, says: “If you are a small microbrewery in Cornwall, your beers will typically only be stocked in that region, so the problem is how does the beer connoisseur in Newcastle, of which there are many, get their hands on a beer from Cornwall? The answer is they can’t.
“Sir John Fitzgerald around here does do a swap with other regions in cask form, but nobody is doing it in a bottle.
“Where a club like this comes in is that it sits as a conduit between all these mircrobreweries and the customer nationally.”
Perhaps thanks to the relationship Delavals already has with the National Trust, they were able to convince the organisation to work with them on the launch of the UK-wide club.
The potential of the venture is huge – and not just because it can in theory tap into the trust’s four million members. While the number of pubs may be declining, the amount of beer – as opposed to lager – being drunk is on the increase.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) currently boasts 150,000 members, 30,000 of these women.
And there are now around 1,000 breweries across Britain, of which almost 200 have opened in the past year. This is a long way short of the 1,500 or so there were in 1900, but markedly better than the paltry 140 operating in 1971.
Together, they produce a staggering 4,000 to 5,000 brands of beer.
John says: “At the supermarket you might find 75 beers at best. For those interested in their beer, that’s up to 5,000 they can’t get their hands on.” But one of the aims of the National Trust Beer Club (NTBC) – apart from generating income for the charity through sales and membership subscriptions – is to make as many as possible available to members. At present, the club is offering 130 beers from 45 brewers – including the eight National Trust brews produced by Delavals – with more being added every week. There are North East contributions from the likes of High House Farm at Matfen in Northumberland and Allendale.
But there are also offerings from, among others, the Bristol Beer Factory, Arundel Brewery in West Sussex, Tiny Rebel in Newport, South Wales and Gwatkin in Hereford.
John is cagey about how many members have come on board since the club’s launch, but he says 45% have to date been female – either buying for themselves or husbands or boyfriends.
The club is open to anyone over the age of 18, not just NT supporters. But if just 0.5% of NT affiliates signed up that would equate to 9,700 members, 1% to 19,400 and 2% to an impressive 38,800.
Membership starts from £40 a year up to £480 for the gold package. On joining, each member receives a case of 12 beers from the National Trust Great British Beer Collection, an engraved club bottle opener plus ongoing benefits.
And, of course, they also profit from Delavals’ expertise in selecting the finest craft beers from across the UK.
Many may ask why the trust has put its name to a beer club. John says the progression was a natural one. “Country house brewing used to be very prevalent in the UK 200 to 300 years ago, and most of these big estates had a working brewery.
“The National Trust has hop farms in Kent and they even own pubs.”
There is no doubt that both the Gilfillans are shrewd operators, but John admits there has been luck involved.
He explains. “It was in a fortuitous moment that the whole company began; that my brother recognised the history of Seaton Delaval Hall and its brewing and had that light bulb moment.
“And then if Lord Hastings (whose descendants arrived at the estate in Norman times) hadn’t passed away, the trust would never have bought it and then all the strands necessary might never have come together.
“The point I am trying to make is that there is luck in everything, but we have seized the opportunities that others haven’t.”