Meet the art school graduate whose side hustle became a rich form of creative expression
Tuesday 03 September 2019
This article is from
Raise the Bar 2019
Share this article
Art has always been a big part of the global craft movement, largely in the form of the trend of mind-bending, convention-breaking, eye-popping can and bottle designs we inherited from the states. But some breweries take the connection between beer and art even further, incorporating visual art, storytelling and big ideas into the way the business is run and even into the beer itself.
Dig founder Oliver Webb’s story is a little unusual. Instead of quitting a job he hated after avidly homebrewing for years, his path into craft started at art school. It was at the end of his first year, and everyone was pitching in, helping the second year students get ready for their final exhibition. Oliver recalls this was the first time he’d really felt the creative community vibe that he’d expected would be the norm. So he did what any normal, creative individual would do under the circumstances. He turned his studio space into a bar.
“We just bought the cheapest beer we could find at Sainsbury’s, and everyone donated like a pound a pint to keep the thing going. We’d also do special themed cocktails depeneding on what was happening that week – if we had a visiting artist for example. Every Wednesday we’d go to the main student union bar and beg them for ice, because that’s where the big parties were.”
But wasn’t that a bit… illegal?
“Oh absolutely, and we ended up getting shut down by the police at the end of the year – we still think one of the student union bar managers ratted us out, but it’s all water under the bridge.”
Oliver’s illicit bar went legit for a while, as to took it round various Birmingham beer gardens staging events, making a bit of money and, as it turned out, attracting the attention of some people who would one day be his investors. For Oliver, this was all a way to fund his creative pursuits, while he waited to be discovered as an artist. But everything changed during a fateful trip to New York.
“It was a real moment of revelation,” recalls Oliver. “I went to the Other Half taproom and suddenly realised a brewery could be more than just a place where you make beer. It was bringing people in, telling a story and expressing itself in so many different ways. I thought ‘this is a fantastic direction for my practice to go down’. I could make it a progression of my work, do something really interesting with it.”
All through this time, he was talking to the owners of a hugely successful community pub in Tipton, Birmingham, called Mad O’Rouke’s pie factory. The team there had seen what Oliver had achieved with his bar and were keen to work with him; when he took the brewery idea to them, they were immediately behind him. He teamed up with his brother and sister to help run the business, and finally brought on a head brewer, Joe Leaney, who had been working at another local brewery.
“The investors were like 'you're not playing around with this much money without a professional brewer to help you',” laughs Oliver. So I got Joe to join the dark side. So it was our core of four people.”
Like any new brewery, the start was tough and Dig had to work hard to get its name out. Again, Oliver’s first instinct was to reach to the art world and explore how his new venture could collaborate locally. They ran raves, worked with the art galleries of which there are so many in Birmingham, and then used the revenue from these events to do more with those relationships, gradually embedding themselves in the wider local cultural scene.
Oliver’s passion for art also shows in the range of beers Dig brews, and the way it works through new recipes.
“From a very basic point of view, we’ve got a large range that we're willing to push out. We have a core range of four beers, but we talk about them as families that we're developing into expanded meta storylines. In that family, there's Hell normal and Hell light – which is an American-style rice lager – and Hell Life, which is an IPL. California is our fruity, sour, low-hop family, where we change the fruit every time. Then there's Optimo, our house NEIPA, which we title in the style of films sequels. So, we’ve got Optimo Forever coming out soon, for example.”
One of the Dig’s Beer52 beers is titled cutely The Last Optimo, because “generally brewing a beer with DeProef means like you've completed the craft beer game. Obviously it's a non-linear story though, so there will be other Optimos coming out later.”
Named for the Digbe.th area it calls home, Dig Brew Co is proud of its roots and genuinely passionate about its community role. Birmingham has the youngest population of any city in Europe, and some of its poorest communities, particularly in its former industrial hinterlands; places like Tipton, Digbeth and Wolverhampton.
“The reality of Digbeth is there are very few residents - it's all undeveloped industrial land, very close to the centre of Birmingham. The landlords are waiting for HS2 to push prices us, so there’s nothing happening there. We've got a 7,000 square ft building that would be unaffordable in any other part of the world – that gives us an opportunity to be a force for good.”
“You've got all these young people who want more out of life, so they're moving out of the provinces and coming into the centre of Birmingham. That's why it’s such a young city. You've got all these young people basically saying ‘right, show us what you've got, what can we do with ourselves’. It's up to everyone to recognise that. These people need inspired. So Birmingham being the youngest city in Europe isn't an opportunity to make money, it's a responsibility. Let's make it worth it, or it would have all been a waste.”
It might not be the kind of art he envisaged making, but through Dig Oliver is clearly pursuing some big ideas about what it means to be a young local brewery and how his story forms part of the rapidly evolving history of the UK’s second largest city. We hope it’s a story that plays out well.
Share this article