Reap what you sow

Straddling Coventry’s bubbling homebrewing community and the commercial craft beer landscape, Twisted Barrel is uniquely positioned to reflect on the evolution of the beer scene in its corner of the Midlands


It’s hard to believe that at one point in time, an innocuous garden garage in Coventry housed the smallest registered microbrewery in the UK. Twisted Barrel then only brewed enough that everything produced could be sold at a trusted local pub, allowing co-founders Ritchie Bosworth and Chris Cooper to get the feedback they needed to become better brewers. This emphasis on constant improvement, rather than perfection — whatever that is — has informed ten years of Twisted Barrel, and lives on today in the form of its prolific homebrew club. 

Operations at Twisted Barrel are now a far cry from Chris’s home garage. With a brewery and taproom of its own, it has the time and space to host weekly meetups where homebrewers can exchange samples, get friendly feedback, enter in-house competitions, and even use the brewery’s equipment. Now in its tenth year, and having supported countless homebrewers through their journey of starting a brewery of their own, it’s worth taking the time to applaud a decade of Twisted Barrel. 

“Initially our love of beer actually took the form of a podcast, ‘All Hail The Ale’,” says Ritchie. “We started home brewing to better inform the podcast, and quickly began to enjoy the brewing side of things more.” The pair brewed to learn more, and get better, but they realised pretty quickly that, in Richie’s own words, “the thing about giving free homebrew to family and friends, is that their feedback is always going to be great”. 

They registered Twisted Barrel as a commercial brewery to broaden their feedback loop, and on 29th of March 2014, the brewery launched its first selection of beers — an American IPA, an old school session IPA (no haze), an oatmeal stout, a vanilla mild, and an elderflower and pepper saison — at a local craft beer pub. It was a huge success, and for six months after the launch, Ritchie and Chris kept pottering along, working full time jobs while brewing just enough to sell at the pub on the side.

PHOTO: Twisted Barrel's Home Brew Club

Running parallel with this part of Twisted Barrel’s journey was the development of FarGo Village. Ritchie says that in 2014, parts of Coventry were in disrepair, having fallen on hard times, and although there were some really fantastic independent businesses around the city, they were few and far between. Seeing the potential for regeneration, a local company took it upon themselves to seek out EU funding that would allow them to develop the area now known as FarGo Village, an artistically repurposed industrial space in Coventry City Centre, designed exclusively for creative, independent businesses.

“Up until that point, we hadn't really thought of anywhere that a taphouse concept would work in Coventry because the city centre is dominated by chain pubs and restaurants,” says Ritchie. “All the rents and rates were sky high, so a brewery taproom just wasn't really a business model that would work in this city. But when we saw that FarGo Village was opening we approached the team behind it, and it just so happened they’d been talking about wanting a microbrewery on site, something ridiculous like two hours earlier. So it was all quite serendipitous, really.” 

Twisted Barrel moved into its first commercial premises at FarGo Village in June 2015, and two years later expanded into a space that more comfortably housed both brewery and taproom. Today, the brewery remains just 30 metres from where it first started out, and is surrounded by an eclectic mix of small, local, and independent retailers, food vendors, and stylists, as well as an animation studio, a dance studio and artists’ collective exhibition and co-working space. 

Ritchie says it’s interesting to reflect now, in hindsight, on what informed the kind of beer Twisted Barrel brewed when it first started out, but also what Coventry’s beer scene was like when he began homebrewing. He says that by 2014 one of the UK’s earliest beer havens, a Coventry-based bottle shop called Beer Gonzo, had been importing Belgian and Lambic beers for ten years. With the availability of these styles punctuating Coventry’s macro-dominated beer scene, Ritchie took an interest, and developed a love of Belgian beer. 

It was therefore only natural that when Ritchie started homebrewing, these were the styles he was interested in brewing. In hindsight it’s obvious — “you brew what you drink,” as Ritchie puts it — but I think this equally lends some interesting insight into the power of home brewing and the influence Twisted Barrel has had on the local home brewing community. 

Twisted Barrel’s homebrew club was “something that we wanted to set up as soon as we got going,” says Ritchie. “Homebrewing was Chris and I’s brewing background, and we’d found that the only kind of research we could do was buy every book we could get our hands on, read every forum, try brewing different styles ourselves because, you know, the best way to learn is to do it. When we first started home brewing we didn't really feel like we had anyone else we could go to to ask for input or advice, so the homebrew group was born out of that really.”

The club has now been meeting once a month for nine years, and is 60-odd members strong. In fact, at the time of my conversation with Ritchie, Twisted Barrel is preparing to hold a Meet the Brewer session with the Mashionista, a microbrewery that started life in the homebrew club and is now five years old, and one of the best rated breweries in the country. Ritchie says you don’t have to be a brewer to join in, and around half of the club’s members are just fervent beer lovers who are interested in the process and enjoy the social aspect of meetups. Of those that do brew, Ritchie says their reasons for joining in are all wonderful and varied. 

“You get people that are purely in it for a creative outlet that you might not get in your regular day job,” he says. “That’s what attracted me to brewing in the first place. I was an accountant for God knows how many years and it was definitely boring, so brewing gave me an artistic outlet that also let me develop practical skills at the same time. You’ll find that in the home brew club, some people come to it from purely engineering backgrounds, and they’re really practical and hands on with their kit, but you’ve also got people that are involved because they like craft beer and want to have a go at making it themselves, or are even just doing it just to save a bit of money on their monthly beer shop.”

Ritchie continues, telling me that although people couldn’t meet during COVID, members of the homebrewing club stayed in touch online, and kept feedback and competitions running at a safe social distance. “I think the community got a lot closer over the COVID years. Everyone kept brewing at home, and in the runup to online meet-ups, you’d leave six bottles or so in the front garden and one person would go around, pick up the bottles, put them in packs and then deliver them back out to people’s houses. Once everyone had their pack, you’d basically hold the competition online. Those members meet up regularly and go out together now, I guess it’s become quite a close knit community.”

PHOTO © Tom Sell

Listening to Ritchie it occurs to me that the Midlands’ beer scene might be unlike any I’ve encountered before. If Coventry and the community around Twisted Barrel are in any way representative of other neighbourhoods, then the region’s beer scene is simmering just beneath the surface of what’s visible. Considering this makes me realise how shortsighted it is to conflate the health of the region’s beer scene with the number of independent breweries that call it home. People make beer, not breweries, though as Twisted Barrel has demonstrated, breweries and businesses can amplify the work of individuals, making waves where there otherwise might just be ripples. 

While the positive waves Twisted Barrel has made within its community are of course cause for celebration, they also serve as a sobering reminder that the brewery has had to eke out an existence without support or endorsement from the UK government. “I think what I've been hoping for, for about two years now, is some form of recognition from the government that the sector is struggling and some of the initiatives they've implemented to try and help haven't made any difference at all,” says Ritchie. 

“We need some kind of relief targeted specifically at the brewing industry to help us recover. Everything we buy ingredients-wise is zero rated, and everything we sell is taxed so that of every pound, 20% goes to the government immediately. Insolvency rates are at record levels in the sector, so at least some kind of recognition that we’re struggling would help to start redressing some of the issues. I mean, do we want to go back to the ‘70s when there were 16 breweries in the whole country?”

Ritchie says that while it’s hard to be enthusiastic about anything but staying in business these days, he allowed himself to brew a Belgian beer for the first time in a long time, in the week leading up to our call. Things have changed since the days of elderflower and pepper saisons, but a creative impulse remains, albeit at the bottom of the barrel.

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