New Bristol Brewery
The trendsetting couple in the heart of Bristol
Saturday 19 November 2022
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New Bristol Brewery is a small, daring brewery located slap bang in the middle of Bristol, owned by husband and wife team Noel and Maria James, and a small but dedicated team. Even as it’s found new fans in the UK and beyond over the past five years, it still prides itself on being the same small-batch, hands-on operation, with strong values and deep local roots.
Clearly bursting at the seams, New Bristol has been in this space for the entirety of its seven-year life, starting out in the tiny area that now forms its taproom. In those days, the brewery consisted of just Noel and his brother, who now runs a successful tattoo parlour. Noel had been a master carpenter, whose clients included Harrods and the Sultan of Brunei, but he decided the 20-hour working days weren’t conducive to his long-term happiness, and so began looking for a way to harness his other interests of “drinking beer and eating pies”.
“I'd always homebrewed,” recalls Noel. “I decided to just literally jack it all in and move back to Bristol, where I lived on a boat in the harbour and worked for another brewery for a year, just learning the physical mechanics behind large-scale brewing. From there, my brother and I managed to shoehorn a 10-barrel kit and four open-top fermenters into the back room here, along with a little bottling line and room to park the van.”
New Bristol grew steadily, selling its line of mostly traditional-style ales and eventually taking over the neighbouring unit, effectively turning two tiny spaces into one very small space. Retail machinations aside though, the most important event in New Bristol’s story happened around six years ago, with a fateful swipe right.
“We met on Tinder, yes,” says Maria, sheepishly. “I was a TV director and producer at the time, working on shows like The Hotel Inspector and loads of ghost type shows in America with Gail Porter. I'd moved to Bristol to be with Noel, and had just been headhunted to do the Channel 4 Bake-off, so life was great. But then two weeks before I was due to start I got a diagnosis of stage three breast cancer.
“With chemo, you sometimes feel like shit, and then other times you’re much more able. I'm a very creative person and I want and need to be busy, so that’s when I started coming into the brewery with Noel. I did that for a year, and just totally and utterly fell in love with the whole craft beer industry and the support I got from the other breweries in Bristol. And then after the year, when I'd got the thumbs up that I was in remission, all the TV guys were ringing me up asking when I was coming back to work.”
Needless to say, Maria stayed in Bristol and stayed in craft beer. “This is something I love and believe in so passionately,” she continues. “It's our own brand, and it's our own product. So I stayed and have been here five years now, taking over most of the sales and the marketing side, and the can designs and stuff, working with a local artist called Tom Moore.”
Together Noel and Maria have found some kind of creative alchemy, doubling the brewery’s turnover every single year, even through the privations of lockdown. The team has grown significantly, including the appointment of a dedicated head of sales and export, Thomas Rooke. It's taken on a cold storage facility a short distance away, and the demolition of a neighbouring building will allow them to create a large outdoor seating area, but even Noel admits it’s probably only a matter of time before production is forced into “some big soulless warehouse somewhere on the edge of town”.
Great growth typically puts pressure on a brewery’s ability to experiment and New Bristol is no exception to this rule. Equally though, Noel, Maria and their growing team understand the importance of experimentation to the New Bristol brand.
Maria says: “There's not enough brewing days on the clock, but we have a really big fan base and people really seem to love our creativity. We love coming up with original ideas and creating new flavour combinations, don't we?”
“The beer styles definitely changed when you came on board, in a way that’s really defined what New Bristol is,” says Noel. “I started brewing in that small room with my brother, doing exclusively cask, pale ales and everyday bitter. We still have some of those in our core range, but we've gone into making more approachable, soft and pillowy NEIPA-style pales, and we’re pretty famous for our stouts. We’re basically brewing a new beer every one to two weeks.”
Having both made the conscious decision to live and start a business in Bristol, both Noel and Maria are staunch advocates of the city (which, to be honest, seems to be a pattern). They’re particularly passionate about the culture of supporting local businesses, and the strong sense of community that it engenders.
“We're so lucky to live in a city that supports independents,” says Maria. “During Covid, it was unbelievable the amount of people that would come to the brewery to buy our cans, then walk to the local bakery to buy the bread, then to the local butchers to buy the meat. They recognised how important these businesses are to their neighbourhood and really stepped up, and we're so thankful for that.”
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