On the map: Solihull
Colin Drury’s new tour of the UK’s lesser-known beer hotspots continues in the West Midlands market town
Saturday 30 July 2022
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When Mark Gregory set up what would become Solihull’s first brewery in living memory, it was a project so secret he didn’t even tell his wife.
She only found out when he sold his first batch to a town bar and it made the local newspaper.
“Someone showed her the article and said ‘What’s your husband up to?’” the 55-year-olds recalls. “It was a new project and I suppose I wanted to give it a go before I started talking about it.”
He thinks a moment. “I’d spent £4,000 on a second-hand kit,” he adds. “I wasn’t exactly sure how she’d take it.”
That 2010 decision would, as it turned out, not only kick start a successful new career for Gregory, who, until that point, was a senior manager in the brewing industry. His outfit – called Silhill – would also help ignite a vibrant new beer scene around Solihull.
Cuckoo and micro-breweries, such as Dingbat Beer and 4 Chaps, as well as independent pubs like the Pup and Duckling, Sommar and the Tap and Tandoor have all turned this small town and the surrounding villages into something of a secret West Midlands hot spot.
I kept saying I could do better. Eventually, a friend challenged me to put my money where my mouth was, so I did.
“I was born and bred here and, for years, you couldn’t get a decent pint,” says Gregory. “I kept saying I could do better. Eventually, a friend challenged me to put my money where my mouth was, so I did.”
He bought his first kit from Wye Valley Brewery attaching one condition: the head brewer teach him to use it.
Now, 12 years on, Silhil produces 10,000 pints of craft and cask ale every week from a converted farm, while, in May, it opened a specialist “brew lab” in the back of the Warwickshire Lad pub. There, literally anyone can phone ahead, book a session and have a bash at creating their own drink, which will then get sold in the front bar.
“I would have loved a facility like this when I started out,” says Gregory. “It’s our way of trying to create a sustainable beer scene.”
Part of that scene already are Simon Evans and Adam Taylor.
They’re the founders of Dingbat Beer, a cuckoo outfit which worked out of Silhil for a while and which – like Gregory’s operation – was set up after its founders became weary of having to drink what they term “piss water” in their hometown.
“We wanted flavours and hops and interesting recipes,” says 39-year-old Taylor.
Their early 2019 runs didn’t always go smoothly. Today, they have a hazy IPA called Etna – so named after an earlier version started exploding in its casks because they hadn’t allowed the yeast to fully attenuate. “It’s been a learning curve,” admits Taylor. “But a fun one.”
Why does he think Solihull is on the rise? Because, he reckons, more people here want to get a good drink without getting on the train to Birmingham.
It is a theory Kevin Ell agrees with.
He’s one of three friends – along with Chris Antill and Gary Scruby – who, after years of home-brewing, decided to have a go at something bigger last June. The trio set up a kit in Ell’s garage in the village of Wythall, called themselves 4 Chaps and launched with a single initial dream: of creating something good enough to get a place at the town’s famed Shirley Beer and Cider Festival.
Which they achieved this May.
“It was the first beer that weekend to sell out,” says Ell, a 34-year-old paint technician. “Although, it was a Kolsch lager called Sunny Days, and it was a boiling hot day so perhaps people just wanted a thirst-quencher.”
Since then, they’ve got a regular spot in several local pubs and have set up a home delivery bottle service. What’s next? “Hopefully to move out of the garage,” replies Ell.
Not much bigger than a garage, as it happens, is the Pup and Duckling, which, in 2016, became Solihull’s first micro-pub when it opened in the Hatchford Brook area.
Since then, they've got a regular spot in several local pubs and have set up a home delivery bottle service.
It has three small rooms, 10 cask and keg lines, and a coming bottle shop. Oh, and out back, its own experimental brewing kit. “We just wanted to create a place where people could meet for good conversation and great beer,” says owner Jeff Berry, a 57-year-old one-time project manager. “It was as simple and complicated as that.”
Like several of Solihull’s best drinking establishments, it’s not in the town centre.
High rents there mean that quality bars have instead sprung up in unlikely places across the district: the Ale Rooms, by way of example, is in a former funeral parlour in the village of Knowle.
“The positive of that is, hopefully, you’re never too far from somewhere doing a good pint,” says Berry.
The negative, however, is that it may, ultimately, limit the burgeoning scene here.
Back with Silhil, Gregory has been having to search for new premises this year and will soon be moving out of town to Aston.
“It’s very difficult to find a place in Solihull and, very expensive when you do,” he says. “But I don’t see this as permanently leaving. This is our home. We’ll be back when the conditions are right.”
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