It takes a village

Jo Caird meets the communities coming together in the name of great local beer

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The head brewer at Drone Valley Community Brewery likes to quip that one of the ways they give back to the local community in and around the Peak District town of Dronfield is keeping retirees off the streets. “I think it’s tongue-in-cheek,” says Bernard Caddy, a former company director who has been volunteering at the brewery since 2018. 

While the majority of brewing and bottling volunteers at Drone Valley are indeed retired, the brewery attracts plenty of younger people too, he says, particularly when it comes to manning the tap room. 

“One of things I talk about is social cohesion: we are helping a group of people come together, have some fun, and also come out with a feeling of satisfaction. It's doing something with an end result, which is some very nice beer.”

Established in 2016, Drone Valley was one of the first breweries in the UK to be set up as a community benefit society, a category of business that requires all profits to be used, as the name suggests, for the benefit of the community. In the case of Dronfield, that might mean buying play equipment for local schools, supporting a community pantry or helping fund a teenager’s charity expedition to Kenya. 

But the benefits are more than merely monetary. As well as the social side, the nitty gritty of brewing is a draw for many. The brewery was initially set up by a “group of enthusiasts for good quality real ale: proper ingredients, innovative recipes” in the wake of the closure of a local commercial brewery. That enthusiasm continues to this day: “All the different ways that you can basically take four simple ingredients and make such a variety in such different and fulfilling flavours and textures and tastes of beer. 

PHOTO: Drone Valley Community Brewery

“It is a wonderful science. And in that sense, it's something that people are enthused by, and because people can be involved in a very practical way, it's far more meaningful.”

The “hardcore” of 15 or so volunteer brewers that take part each week under the guidance of head brewer Craig Lee are a tiny fraction of the brewery’s 720 shareholders, most of whom pay £10 for annual membership and a single voting share. But the brewery also welcomes school groups and clubs interested in the brewing process: “The fact that you can see the grain, you can smell the hops, you can see the process of boiling and what comes out at the end as the wort,” explains Bernard. 

And then there’s the role the brewery plays in the local hospitality ecosystem. “We have a number of local real ale pubs which will take our beer and know that they can get a really good quality beer at fair trade prices. We like to think we're helping the community by keeping pubs and clubs open which otherwise potentially could not afford to be open.”

That was the thinking behind the establishment of Pumphouse Community Brewery in 2015. There was already a community pub in the North Essex village of Toppesfield, The Green Man – starting a brewery to supply it, along with other pubs in the local area, seemed like the natural next step. 

The beer goes down a storm with pub landlords, says volunteer Paul Cook, who looks after the sales side of things, as well as helping with brewing, bottling and deliveries. That’s partly because Pumphouse can produce the beer at very competitive prices using the community benefit model. 

But there’s also something very attractive about the idea of community brewing in itself, says Paul. “Each ale has a story behind it, and publicans love to be able to tell their customers about it”. 19 Elms amber ale, for example, was brewed to mark the planting of 19 elm trees in Toppesfield in memory of the 19 young men of the village who gave their lives during the first world war. While The 9th’s Havocs American pale ale was named after the US Air Force’s A-20 aircraft, which were based at nearby Wethersfield in 1944.

PHOTO: Drone Valley Community Brewery

While Pumphouse has no problem finding customers for the beer, attracting new volunteers to get involved in making the stuff is another matter. 

“When these communities kick off, they are full of excitement, then after a few months it gets a bit tired and the interest tends to wane and you get down to a limited number of old people who want to stay involved and find that they can’t because they’re not able to do so,” says Paul. 

“They gradually back off and you get left with a nucleus of a few that put in an awful lot of effort to keep the thing going. We have got to rethink how we appeal to the younger generations.” 

That might mean social events like the open mic night at the pub, but there’s also scope for more ambitious interventions, such as building up sufficient funding to train up a young person for a new, paid, sales role at the brewery. “I know a few people that would probably grasp that one,” he says. 

It won’t be easy – profit margins are small in brewing, and any revenue raised is currently funnelled to support local causes such as the shop, school and church – but Paul and his fellow volunteers are undeterred. “It was a different ethos when the brewery was set up seven years ago – we need to change that to survive.”

The newest community brewery on the scene is the Isle of Eigg Brewery in the Inner Hebrides, which began brewing in April 2022 following a two-year incubation period that included a £200,000 crowdfunding campaign. 

PHOTO: Pumphouse Community Brewery

“The idea of community ownership is part of our DNA,” says founder and head brewer Stuart McCarthy, a former secondary school teacher who moved to Eigg in 2013. “In 1997 Eigg was one of the first places in Scotland that bought back the land from the laird [absentee landlord] and set up community ownership. There's a can-do attitude here.”

Stuart is proud of the fact that of the 100 residents of Eigg, around 40 (60 per cent of the adult population, give or take) are investors in the brewery. The other 600 or so investors are based off-island, as far afield as North America. 

For both groups, he explains, it was the “social side” of the brewery’s business plan that was the driving force of the crowdfunding campaign – “the idea of employment in a rural community where employment is difficult”. The aim is to employ three people within three years, and they’re on track so far, with around 1.5 full-time equivalent roles between Stuart and fellow islander Ben Cormack, who’s a graphic designer. These jobs will hopefully help to “flatten the seasonal curve, the boom and bust and summer and winter” in an area very heavily dependent on tourism. There’s also a plan that will hopefully enable further employment opportunities beyond the brewery: a funding pot for local entrepreneurs that might struggle to access capital funding elsewhere. 

“Those people that you’re employing directly with the brewery aren’t necessarily there for longer than two or three years,” Stuart explains. “They’re there to learn as much as possible and then potentially take some of that grant money and go and run with their idea. So success isn’t actually the brewery’s success, it’s a wider forum. The success of the brewery is how it can create a platform for other people to be successful.”

PHOTO: The Isle of Eigg Brewery

That success depends not just on Stuart and Ben but on the brewery’s other community shareholders. Currently it’s the eight-strong board of directors (including Stuart and Ben) who are steering the ship, but Stuart would like greater community involvement going forwards. “We didn’t want to just have that initial buy-in [by shareholders] and that would be it. Surely the purpose of the community owning something is that they contribute towards it?” 

When it came to building the brewery, islanders were key, clearing the site, laying the concrete slab, and putting in all the electrics and plumbing. “It was all of us contributing, some of it paid, some of it not, some of it just paid in beer,” Stuart says with a laugh. What contribution shareholders might make in the future is as yet unclear, however: “It’s an ongoing question. It’s very difficult when you’ve got 650 members and you’ve got a clear track that you need to achieve: getting some income, selling beer. Down the line there might be more opportunities to help at the brewery.”

Whatever the future holds, Stuart is clear on one thing: the brewery is far bigger than just him. “I am a driver, I’m not the driver,” he says. “Ultimately the success is that I step out and it stays standing and goes on to do other really positive stuff.

“The whole idea of a community-owned business is one that leaves the ego at the door. It doesn't exist with just individuals doing it, it exists because everybody has supported and bought in.”

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