Student beers with ambition
Saturday 14 January 2023
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Shindigger could not be left out of an issue discussing craft beer in Manchester, for it is a brewery that has been unequivocally and unashamedly shaped by a very specific part of life in the city: students. While quality and concept is obviously of utmost importance to co-founders George Grant and Paul Delamere, the pair don’t take themselves too seriously, and as a result have taken some brilliantly innovative and unorthodox approaches to problems faced by the brewery over the last nine years.
Like many breweries, Shindigger was conceived in a homebrew project undertaken by a very young George and Paul. They were at university at the time, and were brewing in their halls, at first just for a laugh, then later to supply house parties; the byproduct of this, of course, was that the pair began learning more about beer, trying different styles, and realised that a lot was lacking in the mainstream lagers that they and their peers habitually drank.
Paul tells me that while modern craft might have been finding its feet in Manchester in 2011, it wasn’t quite accessible to younger people at that time. Being young graduands themselves, Paul tells me the original blueprint for Shindigger was “to make a student-focused beer that was based on American-style recipes''. Curious as to what a ‘student focused beer’ looks and tastes like, I have to stop Paul and ask him to explain.
He tells me that the aspiration was to produce a drink that combined the refreshing, easy drinking body of a lager with the character of cask, compounded by recognisable flavours that provide a point of access to younger drinkers. By the time the project became a business in 2013, the concept had evolved slightly so that George and Paul were creating a brand that was more generally aimed at younger people, but nonetheless delivered on the sessionable, American styles they first set out to make.
Products aside, something that has set Shindigger apart from many of its peers, is the contract brewing model that it continued to use beyond its infancy. “When we first started out, it was obviously quite hard to get a loan, so that kind of led us down this track of contract brewing,” says Paul. “Most people do contract brewing for a bit, then get the product off the ground and then get their own brew kit. But to be honest, we've kind of stuck with the contract brewing model because it has worked for us.
“I think for a long time people thought that the blood, sweat and tears of the brewer was what made the beer good, but really, our viewpoint is that consistency, good process, good kit and brewers who are professional and experienced are where quality comes from. You get the right brewer and the right kit, then a lot of the work is in setting the specifications; once you’re setting those the same every time, then you should be getting the same end product really.”
It’s possible that brewing for a younger audience made drinkers of Shindigger beer more open to unconventional methods of brewing, but whether or not it was easy for Paul and George to shoulder off any stigma surrounding contract brewing, the brewery has beaten its own path in line with its own needs and aspirations.
The brewery has beaten its own path in line with its own needs and aspirations
Besides, taking a different path fits nicely with the wider brand; when George and Paul set out, they wanted to break with conventional beer branding which Paul says, at the time, was often either outdated or bordering on corporate. In one way, that break is now embodied in Shindigger’s colourful, easy-going, and fun-loving labels, but in other ways, the brand is best lived and experienced through events, parties and pop-ups.
“We try to do a lot of work around events, just to make sure that brand spirit is alive”, says Paul. “We're not just kind of saying, ‘we're a brand that represents partying, enjoying times with your friends and having a good time in life’, we don’t want to be just a collection of photos and promises about living that lifestyle. We always wanted to take a step further, and run events that you can come to, see for yourself what the brand is all about and get a taste for it.”
When the brewery first started out, and George and Paul had just recently graduated, the pair would drive around Manchester in a branded van (the most they could invest in with the small loan they were eligible for) and deliver pints to people’s doors, freshly poured from a keg they had in tow. Paul is exceptionally good-humoured in recounting the memory of his younger self realising that the service, in its first iteration, was impractical, didn’t pay for itself and was essentially a “flop”. However, in a wonderfully muddled way, the practice came in handy.
“COVID was a big roller coaster ride,” says Paul. “Obviously, in March, things were looking pretty bleak. We thought we’d start just offering a 30-minute delivery service around Manchester, purely because it had some vitality to it. It was just a few Facebook ads at the start, but then people started sharing news of the service in WhatsApp groups and all of a sudden there was just this exponential growth”. At one stage, Paul tells me Shindigger had 25 drivers on the road at one time, some even spilling into Liverpool, all delivering pre-poured pints in cans and growlers. The service, which was expected to run for the month after lockdown was announced, continued going strong for a year and a half.
My immediate thought was that being a contract brewery without the pressing need to buy a canning line, Paul and George might have invested in a fleet that would support a resurrected delivery scheme, but that was not the case. “Most of our drivers were freelance DJs and musicians,” says Paul. “Obviously they rely on venues being open, and a lot of people didn’t necessarily have a PAYE, couldn’t claim back furlough and so were left out of that kind of scheme. The freelance job opportunity really spread through a lot of that kind of community.”
“All the customers who supported us through that period really did us and everybody from that community a solid, because, you know, it kept everyone in work,” Paul tells me. It occurs to me at this point that Shindigger’s acknowledgement and appreciation of industries adjacent to craft beer is something that sets it apart from players that sometimes slip into the self-referential culture that can be difficult to avoid in a beer city like Manchester. Sometimes, tuning out the din of what’s done, has its benefits.
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