Richard Croasdale turns the tables on this month’s guest editor, Earth Station’s Jenn Merrick, to find out how she’s helping create a more diverse scene
Photos: Nicci Peet
Friday 15 May 2020
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People Like Us; beer for good
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To the extent that Earth Station exists at all,” begins Jenn Merrick, the brewery’s founder, “it's largely a story of industry friends doing each other favours.” It’s a slightly more philosophical start to the interview than I was expecting, but from Jenn not a massive surprise.
Originally hailing from Salt Lake City in the US, Jenn has earned her reputation as one of the UK’s most experienced and respected brewers, having been a driving force at a number of influential London breweries including Dark Star and Beavertown. After waving goodbye to the latter, she unveiled her plans to open a community-focused brewery in East London’s Royal Docks, an area earmarked for regeneration as part of the Capital’s mammoth Crosslink project.
Conscious that such redevelopment projects can be socially divisive, Jenn resolved to make Earth Station a force for social cohesion and inclusion. A huge part of this commitment was her role in The Pipework Project – the brewing industry’s response to changes in the way the Government funds apprenticeship schemes – in which she helped set new standards for brewing apprenticeships.
“I got to join with everybody from the big regional breweries and family breweries, but also the multinationals like Molson Coors was on the table, all the way down to very small businesses,” she says. “The goal was to turn out fully formed head brewers with a grasp of everything from the commercial elements, all of the brewing elements, all of the hygiene, regulatory health and safety; they need to have the whole package in terms of understanding of how to run a brewery. It’s not just the book learning and not just the hands on, but this kind of hybrid that you can’t really get anywhere else.”
While the Pipework Project has made some good progress, Jenn’s dream of a permanent home in London has been slower to come to fruition. Delays and shifting priorities for the Crossrail project have seen some local redevelopment projects stall, including the Royal Docks.
“It’s been frustrating, but I just took a step back and questioned what I really care about. The answer was my friends in the UK brewing industry, so the puzzle then became how could I take that desire to support a community and apply it to our national industry, with this kind of lens on diversity and inclusion.”
The answer has been to reframe Earth Station’s mission, pulling away from that original (and admirable) local focus, to start working with the wider industry, within Jenn’s network, to support real change.
“That doesn’t mean getting on my soapbox or trying to be beer Jesus,” she says. “It’s about asking how we can practically support businesses who want to be more diverse and inclusive, but don't know how to go about it. So, things like sponsoring Stonewall to speak at one of the existing industry events, where there's already 500 brewers in a room. Small business owners and small brewers can walk away from this event with more knowledge, more confidence, and the tools to do the next thing that they want, because it's clear in the industry that people want to do the right thing.”
The original desire to include people from different socio-economic groups and ethnic groups, so much part of Jenn’s vision for the Royal Docks is also alive and well. As she supports brewers and others in her network, she continues to advocate for the apprenticeship programme, not just for social justice, but for the long-term viability of the industry itself.
“A lot of the young people who want an actual career in this industry can't afford to go to Heriot Watt. And it can genuinely be a career, whereas I think for a lot of dabblers, who have gone into craft beer because it's cool, are still being supported by mum and dad. Those are not sustainable in the long term. So what does it really mean to be socially sustainable? How can we make the brewing industry not a flash in the pan? And who are the people who are going to be the leaders of this industry in 10 or 20 years?”
On the brewing side, Earth Station is enjoying collaborating with industry friends and working particularly closely with Manchester’s Marble, which has effectively become the brewery’s second home.
“Jan and Joe at Marble are good friends,” Jenn says. “I helped them specify and build their new brewery. So it’s perfect in terms of their equipment, the new canning line, new brew house and everything, but more importantly they’re just really good, decent people and their whole team are the same. So we've done basically a skill swap, where I get to brew with Ruby in return for consultancy time and helping them grow their business.”
It’s as close as Earth Station has come to a bricks and mortar home, and it’s clear Jan and Joe share a lot of Jenn’s goals. So until the dream of her own bricks and mortar brewery bears fruit, she’s happy to be on this journey with friends.
“Without a bricks and mortar, it’s been hard to deliver on our social mission in terms of taking on apprentices, for example. So to work with somebody like Marble, who are already pushing in a similar direction – particularly on the education and social inclusion front – it’s great to be in a position to support that and the great work they’re doing in Salford. And as for the future, we’ll just have to wait and see!”
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