Treasure in the Attic

Beer for Brum


Reaching Stirchley is both easier and quicker than I thought it would be. A casual couple of hours between Leeds and Birmingham concludes with a 12-minute connecting train that leaves me just a stone’s throw from Attic Brew Co. Quite literally just across the tracks, and sandwiched between two car garages, a short walkway bridges the gap between the street and Attic’s taproom. The path is well maintained, and makes it feel more like the entrance to a trendy, off-street bar than a suburban industrial estate. Inside, it’s evident that the taproom’s unit has lived many lives. The walls are freshly painted, but with bricked-up doorways and windows rippling just below the surface. Sales and operations director, Oli Hurlow jokes that he sometimes wishes the place were a little more polished, but we both agree those living blueprints of times gone by only reinforce the feeling that Attic has inherited this brilliant part of Birmingham. 

As rumour has it, the building was used to make artillery shells during the second world war, and apparently became a bakery for the first Co-op — a Birmingham institution — before housing a dairy, then a car garage. Most interesting though, is the brewery’s location. The railway line separates Stirchley from Bournville, home to the original Cadbury's factory, and a part of Birmingham that Oli describes as “an amazing place that feels straight out of the Victorian era”. The model village was built by the Cadbury family to house factory employees, but because of their Quaker heritage, they didn’t allow any pubs within its perimeter. “A lot of the housing over there is managed by a trust that was set up by Quakers and so it's still very, very difficult to get an alcohol licence in Bournville,” says Oli. “In fact, until last year, the only Tesco in the country unable to get an alcohol licence was based there.”

That, of course means that residents of this historic part of Bimingham have to make their way to the peripheries of Bournville to visit a pub or — since Attic set up shop in 2018 — their local brewery’s taproom. Oli says that Attic’s local community has made everything they’ve done to date possible. “The whole idea in the first place was that we wanted the taproom to feel like a pub in a taproom setting. By that, I mean you can walk in and see a neighbour who you haven’t caught up with in a while and get chatting again. That’s what we were going for, but finding this place in Stirchley – this super friendly, super, supportive, and very independent place – had so much to do with the taproom becoming what it is today. The whole thing was half plan, half luck.”

Of course, the beer itself was a big part of that plan, though I’m interested to learn that Attic has a refreshing take on the topic of brewing. “We came from a homebrewing background,” Oli begins, “and so a big part of our journey has been constantly improving. We’re not one of those breweries that says ‘this was one of our day-one recipes and it's still pouring today’, because what we’re brewing today is better than anything we made back then. What was interesting for us, was the point at which people in the taproom started asking, ‘when’s that one coming back?’ or ‘is this one still pouring?’”. In this way, Attic’s core range has developed organically over time, and it has interactions at the taproom to thank for that. Ultimately Oli says that the gold standard for Attic’s beer is that drinkers don’t have to think too hard about ordering a second one. 

The whole idea in the first place was that we wanted the taproom to feel like a pub in a taproom setting

“As much as we have a menu with loads of options on it, the ideal scenario is that when you’re in a group with your mates, someone’s headed to the bar for another round and when they ask you what you want, you can just say ‘I’ll have another one of these’. If that’s an easy decision to make, then we’ve done our job well.” I’ve heard it said before that a beer should sit beside you, not in front of you, and that it shouldn’t distract from the conversation that’s unfolding while it’s drunk, but in Attic’s case, I dare say beer plays a more active role in the drinking experience. Its purpose is to create a feeling of ease, and in doing so, it adds to the relaxed and welcoming atmosphere of the taproom.  

Mounted on the wall of the taproom, not far from the tiny corner where Attic’s first commercial kit was set up, is the brewery’s ‘OG’ kit. It looks like a set of four XL pressure cookers wrapped in foil jackets, suitably sophisticated for the student flat where it started its home brew life. 

When Oli and managing director Sam Back finished university, where they met and became friends, the kit accompanied Sam to his hometown of Birmingham, and took up residence in his attic. Sam kept brewing there while he and Oli developed, and eventually finalised, plans to open a pub with space for them to brew on-site. Over time, this morphed into the “pub in a taproom setting” Attic boasts today, and which operations have grown into and spilled out of since moving into the space in 2018. The brewery and taproom are now split between two neighbouring units with large parts of the common wall knocked through, to keep them connected. 

Aside from setting up shop in Stirchley, Oli says another pivotal point in the life of the brewery was its acquisition of a canning line before lockdown. “It was actually just before COVID that we started thinking we might need to diversify a bit,” says Oli. “Pre-pandemic we were kind of thinking, you know, what if the landlord kicked us out? All the business we had was between these four walls. So we bought a really knackered old canning line, which just sat in the corner for a few months because it needed so much work done on it, and we then didn’t have a pressing enough need to get it started right away. Fast forward to lockdown being announced and it became our one and only route to market. Sam spent a week with his head in the machine, figuring out how everything worked and what needed to be fixed, and pretty soon after that, we were canning.”

Aside from the canning line, the brewery is exceptionally well equipped, boasting a brand-spanking-new three-vessel brewhouse, whirlpool, centrifuge, and a nitrogen capture plant, which extracts nitrogen from the air and stores it until the brewery is ready to use it as a moving gas. While the nitrogen captured isn’t of food-grade quality just yet — and so can’t be used to actually nitrogenate beers — using nitrogen to power brewery operations still reduces its use of and reliance on CO2. Oli says that Sam was responsible for acquiring all this kit. “Sam loves a bargain,” he tells me, which not only leaves me impressed at just how dynamic Sam and Oli are as a team, but also how close they are as friends. 

The gold standard for Attic’s beer is that drinkers don’t have to think too hard about ordering a second one

I dare say it’s the strength of this friendship that has allowed Attic to grow, adapt, and learn in a productive and positive way. Oli says that recently, he and Sam sat down and reviewed the brewery’s original business plan, and thought about what’s changed, what’s worked, and what they’d do differently in future. Oli says that for all COVID was challenging, Attic came out the other end of it a better brewery. What it would have perhaps done differently, in the aftermath, was give itself some more time to open the Barrel Store, its bar in Birmingham city centre. It took a little longer to open than they'd anticipated, and dividing the team between work at the bar and operations at the brewery meant everyone had to stay agile and open to change for longer than they would have ideally liked to. Oli sees all of these as lessons that had to be learned at some stage, and which will inform Attic’s plans for the future. 

For one, Oli says that all going well, the brewery taproom in Stirchley will be Attic Brew Co’s forever home. Once it reaches capacity there, that’s it, they’re not expanding or moving again. Growth for Attic will take the form of pubs and bars, another one of which they’re starting to think seriously about now, but don’t have any concrete plans for yet. Whatever happens, Oli says Attic will pace itself, and apply what it’s learned to future challenges. For now, Attic is deepening its roots in Stirchley, and remaining open to whatever the future holds. 


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