Back in the day

The UK craft scene has come a long way in the past ten years, and breweries setting up shop today face a very different set of challenges, writes Sarah Sinclair

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In many ways, being a craft brewer is like being the hero of a Greek tragedy. There’s a strictly prescribed, formal journey these characters must undertake, from disillusionment with an existing career, to brewing 30-litre batches in their garage as a means of escape. An act of extreme faith and vision propels our hero into the heady days of a new commercial brewery (in which they must complete legendary trials: finding a distributor, losing an entire batch to an unreliable mobile canning line etc). Even as they ride high on a wave of hype juice, we the audience are looking out for the fatal flaw that will perhaps bring them low in Act 3 (and we’ve seen plenty of those lately).

It’s a cliché, but for the very good reason that a great, great many craft brewers started out exactly this way, with nothing but a tiny, ramshackle brew kit and a surplus of self-belief. But with the UK beer industry firmly on the journey from adolescence to maturity, are the days of noble homebrew hero giving way to a new wave of brewery start-ups, backed by vast commercial experience and investment that reflects their ambition?

The first time I walked into The Antelope, Surbiton, which opened its doors in 2011, I felt at home in its down-to-earth vintage décor, but bewildered by the sheer number of unrecognisable beers; I had never heard of any of them. At the time, Big Smoke Brew Co. was brewing with an 800-litre, five-barrel kit based at the back of their pub. It was the first time I had heard the words ‘IPA’ and ‘brewpub’.

PHOTO © The Antelope

“It was all very rudimentary, with two open-topped fermenters and completely manual. It was your classic beginners brew kit, which suited us, as we were all total beginners with no professional brewing experience,” says Rich Craig, director of Big Smoke.

My first few times there I ordered Camden Hells, my first (to my knowledge) non-macro beer apart from Meantime’s Yakima Red; it was only later I discovered these breweries were no longer wholly independently owned.

Big Smoke went on to add equipment slowly over the years before moving to a new site at the end of 2018. It now has a 30-hectolitre brew kit with 11 double-sized fermentation vessels which, has enabled it to increase production by approximately five times.

I went on to sample all of Big Smoke’s wares and to this day I try to keep as up-to-date as possible. Its Electric Eye Pale Ale was my first true foray into independent craft beer and notable words have to be said for Cold Spark. I recommend it to anyone for a long daytime session of drinking and not wanting to make a tit of themselves or feel sick the next day.


It's really helpful now to have an informed and educated beer drinker

Looking back, Rich said he would not do anything differently as mistakes made early on have made the brewery what it is today, but “whether the 2014 Big Smoke would survive in today’s market is another matter.”

This question is picked up by Miranda Hudson of Duration Brewing, who commissioned the brewery’s own kit in 2019, and says: “I think for a home brewer garage project, upscaling into a brewery is going to be hard in places where there's already an established presence for craft beer, because you're going to be competing on a different level. I feel like those kinds of days are probably a little numbered.

“I have so much admiration for Mike at Double Barreled, Andy at Elusive and damn even Evin at The Kernel, who established their companies this way. My hunch is the competition is getting stiff and while the sector is still incredibly experimental, simply learning on the job at the expense of the product won’t really fly in today's market.”

Andy Parker, director of Elusive Brewing, started off as a homebrewer, but is now celebrating the fifth birthday of his brewery. He acknowledges that the marketplace is more saturated than in 2016 when he made that transition. If it wasn’t for the small garage projects we wouldn’t be where we are now on such an exciting precipice for the next chapter of the industry. The saturation of the industry is what has pushed it here so far, until recently it has been all about growth but now it’s about refinement.

Nowadays the words ‘IPA’ and ‘brewpub’ are familiar terms to even the youngest of discerning drinkers. In an industry that has gone from 747 breweries in 2011 to 1816 today, it’s fair to say the landscape has fundamentally changed for new breweries looking for customers.

Derek and Miranda, the founders © Duration Brewing

Big Smoke’s Rich says: “There is more awareness among the general public. Consumers are more discerning now. Modern beer styles using US and Antipodean hops have now entered the mainstream in this country, so customer expectations are higher and they are likely less forgiving of inconsistency and flaws in beers.”

However, this change also presents new and existing breweries with opportunities. Rich continues: “...there is also a greater demand for independently produced beer. Retailers of all sizes are now much more interested in the ‘craft’ market than when we launched...”

Miranda agrees, saying: “It's really helpful now to have an informed and educated beer drinker, they've been to a beer festival and they probably have got an established brewery and taproom within a ten-mile radius of where they live and so it's just more commonly what people do.”

Craft beer now has its deserved recognition on the shelves and, now more than ever, consumers are making an effort to educate themselves and support their local creative, independent breweries. The challenge today isn’t education so much as to making yourself stand out among the crowd.

Moonwake Beer Co in Edinburgh is in many ways typical of a new breed of brewery, coming off the starting blocks with an experienced, professional team and a decent chunk of investment. The brewery’s directors have twenty years’ collective commercial brewing experience, but made the decision to appoint seasoned sales and marketing professionals before the first keg had even rolled out the door; something a previous generation of brewers may not have had the resources or the inclination to do.


The plan was to have a wee brew pub with a few barrels

The brewery’s Finlay Heslop says: “One of the reasons why we went so big was because we are an experienced brewing team – brewing commercially is all I’ve done since I was 18 – so this for us isn’t a hobby but a business. You have to be confident that you can grow. If you look at any of the big players in the craft beer industry, they all bought small kits initially and very quickly had to buy new kits. Our investors wanted us to be ambitious, so we went for 35hl; it’s big enough that we can really push the brand throughout the country, but small enough to fit inside a city and it’s small enough to experiment.”

Investing up front in the right kind of talent and experience has also clearly been key to Duration’s success, most notably in the form of head brewer and co-founder Derek Bates. Miranda says: “Bates, I often think is living in a TARDIS, because he'd already evolved his thinking in beer design from his experience in the states, which was way ahead of where the industry was in the UK in 2011/12. I feel we had a huge advantage that it’s not an inception industry anymore – I feel like we’re in the next evolution.”

Fortunately for our new wave of craft hopefuls, there is now a whole generation of breweries who learned the hard way and are more than willing to share their hard-won experience with the new kids on the block. “It was invaluable to get information from our predecessors and our contemporaries,” continues Miranda. “You had breweries that had been around for a few years telling us to go big and not to mess around in the cheap seats. They said to get the biggest kit you can afford because you won’t want the growing pains later on... I was already raising a ridiculous amount of money that made my eyeballs pop out and I was like, well, maybe I need to stick a couple of zeros on it... If we had our time again the one thing I do not regret is the amount of investment.”


Photo © Moonwake

Andy at Elusive went the other way, and has found that, even though he was working with what he had at the time, those initial decisions have come to constrain him. “I'd also have started bigger,” he says. “Before I started, I was risk averse. The advice I got was to go as big as you can afford, but unfortunately we didn’t have a massive budget, so we had to start with quite a small physical space. We're now constrained by space. We have never wanted it to be too big, but we could really do with being a bit bigger to be more viable.”

Hindsight is 20-20 as they say, so as the craft beer wave truly arrived on the shores of the UK a solid ten years ago, what would these breweries’ advice be for those looking to set-up from scratch in 2021 and beyond?

Miranda says: “I think you need to come in with a little bit more skin in the game and a little bit more to offer in terms of your business proposition; you just need to be a bit more evolved these days.”

Rich agrees, noting in particular that direct sales have become a vital commercial pillar, particularly over the past 18 months: “The explosion in the direct-to-consumer market during this time means that breweries that are remote geographically can still build a very strong business via social media with limited marketing budget, while using cans rather than bottles simplifies logistics and improves product stability.”

In a similar vein, Andy remarks on the importance of building a branding and nurturing those all-important direct relationships. “My advice to new breweries now is to have a direct presence in terms of a taproom or a means by which people can buy a beer directly – that wasn't really necessary in 2016,” he says. “You also need to create your own market before you start really; do your homework and get out there as soon as you can – before you've even got beer – and talk to people. Establish that market and establish that demand, don't just kind of rock up with beer.”


Photo © Moonwake

The days of the homebrewer will never be gone – that would be a miserable day – but the landscape our homebrew heroes are entering has changed radically, with new challenges to overcome and monsters to be bested. To emerge victorious, they will need to find, hire, and make use of the experienced professionals now in the industry, as well as heeding the advice of those who came before them. The stakes are higher than ever, first impressions matter more than ever and forgiveness is harder to come by.

These new challenges do however create opportunities as our heroes, well-known and new, take the industry into the next wave. They have the chance to be more creative and nuanced in their brews while also being more mindful in creating their business and deciding who they are going to be in this landscape.

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