This dirty old town
Matt Curtis asks how changes brought about by the pandemic could accelerate craft’s rush to the countryside
Thursday 03 September 2020
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“The best thing about owning a brewery in the countryside is actually living in sync with the seasons,” Miranda Hudson, the founder of Norfolk’s Duration Brewing, tells me. “I love the re-enchantment of the landscape away from all the hubbub of the city – birdsong, seeing wildlife, and being near the coast. It just feels so expansive.”
The village of Gayton Thorpe is a far cry from Miranda’s former stomping grounds of Brixton, South London. Here in East Anglia steel and mortar is supplanted by old oak forests, coastal salt marshes and farmland as far as the eye can see. She’s a South Londoner through and through, from accent to urban sensibilities, so when a couple of years ago she told me that she and her husband, brewer Derek Bates (who prefers to be referred to exclusively by his surname), were setting up a farmhouse brewery in the middle of the countryside, this came as something of a shock. This was not the plan for a Walthamstow-warehouse or Bermondsey-railway arch I would’ve expected. It was undoubtedly a risk, but a calculated one, with good intentions.
A couple of miles drive (or cycle) from their home in the village is West Acre farm. Here there’s a collective of small, independent startups, surrounded by the ruins of an ancient medieval priory, and backed by the landed-gentry who own this estate. Mostly importantly it’s where the Duration masterplan is taking root: a destination brewery inside a renovated, Grade II listed former stone barn.
I first got to visit the brewery about half-way through its 44 week build, during the summer of 2019. It was still mostly an empty shell at this point, although the tiled floor going down that day was indicative that this would soon be filled with shiny brewing vessels, a canning line, and three wooden foeders, custom-made by Foeder Crafters in St. Louis, Missouri. When I returned recently, just over a year later, this was now a working brewery. For a moment this felt unusual in that it didn’t feel new at all. In fact it felt like this is how it had always been. A sign, perhaps, of how well-placed Miranda and Bates’ intentions are.
“Our remoteness comes with some obvious limitations – poor wifi, limited footfall,” Miranda says. “But having to consider dedicated drivers and family outings when designing open days, tours and what we offer – that excites me, it means we are taking beer somewhere new”
Having to consider dedicated drivers and family outings – that excites me
While, admittedly, Duration isn’t that far from large towns such as Kings Lynn, along with the city of Norwich, it’s still the urban centres like London, which they first expected to do most of their trade. However, things are different now. The pandemic has changed everything, and on a Friday, on my most recent visit, as Bates winds down after a day of brewing, he waits for local customers to collect pre-paid cases of beer, while he relaxes with a glass of the brewery’s latest West Coast IPA, Concrete Realities.
“I believe the pandemic has taught people two somewhat converse truths,” Miranda tells me. “On the one hand with good logistics and online shopping we can patronise the businesses we admire directly without physically needing to be there. On the other hand there seems to be a broader understanding and appreciation of hyper-localism.”
Sat among this countryside idyll, suddenly Duration’s master plan makes a lot of sense. As a Londoner of 15 years myself, and having just spent the majority of the past four months in the cramped confines of a second floor, Victorian terraced flat, I too was ready for my slice of something more rural. The convenience of the city, with its bars, restaurants and more besides all but obsolete during lockdown, I started thinking if we would now see a mass exodus to the country. Is the exponential growth of the urban brewery at its inevitable end?
“The obvious benefit [of owning a brewery in a big city] is proximity to a large and wide variety of customers and beer drinkers,” Mark Welsby, who co-founded Manchester’s Runaway Brewery in 2014 tells me. “We’re effectively part of an ecosystem of small independent businesses, within which we are active and easily visible, and that leads to opportunities.”
Camped in a railway arch at the edge of the city’s fashionable Northern Quarter, Runaway has built a strong reputation for beers that could easily be described as dependable as much as they could be called delicious. They’re a classic example of the modern urban brewery, their space split between production and taproom. Mark also tells me that the brewery’s location also opens a pathway for collaborations with other local businesses such as beekeepers, artists, bakers, coffee roasters, ice cream makers and more. “It helps build long lasting ties within our wider community,” he says.
But had Mark been able to stare into the ether and predict how difficult the future would become, would he have done things differently, or would he have always chosen his home in Manchester?
“When planning back in 2012, our original idea for Runaway was to start-up in an urban area, but grow into a second, rural site as well,” he says. This second site would have focussed on seasonal, mixed-fermentation beers as well as a restaurant functioning as a taproom. The good news is that Mark indicates this is still a possibility. “That way we could take advantage of each location, producing beers inspired by place, whilst giving ourselves and our staff a richer, more varied life.”
What’s the appeal of the rural brewery way of life? While Verdant Brew Co. has become a nationally-recognised name for its exceptionally hop-resonant IPAs, it’s done so with one eye on the English Channel, from its home in the town of Penryn, close to the Cornish Coast. And while the brewery itself occupies the familiar surroundings of an industrial estate, it’s only a stone’s throw away from sprawling countryside and the open sea. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it.
“We never decided that Cornwall was a place to open a brewery, it’s simply where we live,” Adam Robertson, one of Verdant’s founders tells me. “All of our staff live in Cornwall and live here for the quality of life it offers. Being able to offer jobs to folk and knowing that it’s stable is the best thing about having Verdant in Penryn.”
In just over a decade we’ve seen cities like London, Manchester and Bristol become homes to an established modern beer culture. London has skyrocketed from being home to just 10 breweries in 2007, to almost 130 now. Having a healthy market on your doorstep, as well as plenty of eager pubs and bottle shops wanting to stock your product is handy. And for us drinkers, living in the city gives us a wide and varied beer culture to enjoy at our leisure.
Except that’s not so easy now, and with more people switching to tasting beer at home due to the fallout created by Covid-19 that luxury doesn’t feel quite so convenient. Now that you can no longer just “nip out for a pint” instead having to plan ahead and book, the appeal of a fridge full of interesting cans grows ever more present. Coupled with the fact that more and more folks are learning they can work remotely, the lure of the countryside or small town idyll will be on a lot of people’s minds. This is especially so when you’ve got a brewery like Verdant on your doorstep – along with all the sea air you can inhale. Are we about to witness a stampede to the countryside?
“I don’t think we will see a mass exodus but I imagine those who were already thinking of leaving the city will act on that desire sooner rather than later,” he says. “Same for those who are thinking about starting their dream location brewery. Now is most likely the time those thoughts are very prevalent.”
A market town like Macclesfield might be one of the places you recognise as somewhere the train stops before you head north towards Manchester, but it’s a fine example of a smaller town with a thriving beer scene. If the idea of abandoning the creature comforts of city life for a vast open expanse of the countryside leaves you reeling, but you still seek something an escape, it might be the happy go-between you’re looking for. Right on the western edge of the Peak District, and with great pubs like Waters Green Tavern, and the Treacle Tap – plus acclaimed breweries like RedWillow – it’s a strong example of how beer is thriving beyond the limits of the UK’s biggest cities.
“I stopped working in London to start the brewery, to do something that excited me and let me spend more time with my family,” RedWillow’s founder Toby Mckenzie says. “The former I’ve achieved, the latter, I don’t think my kids would say I’d been entirely successful at.”
Lockdown changed the way RedWillow had to do business, closing down its wider distribution network to the on-trade, as well as its own bars, including one in Macclesfield and another in neighbouring Buxton. But they adapted, yes they were selling cans UK-wide via their website, but it was the support of locals that spurred them on. Co-founder of the brewery, Toby’s wife Caroline was delivering beer six days a week as locals rallied round to support the small business.
“It was genuinely amazing just how much of our production capacity was being purchased within 10 miles of the brewery,” Toby tells me. “We frequently found that once we had dropped to one house on a street, the next day we would have several more orders from their neighbours, the power of a neighbourhood WhatsApp group is something to behold.”
It perhaps demonstrates on the one hand how small towns have plenty to offer a fledgling brewery in terms of custom and community, as well as enough to keep those ready to turn their backs on big cities. It sounds like habits are changing too, with Toby saying he fully expected his locals to dive back into cask ale when RedWillow’s bars reopened in July but folks dived straight into what he describes as the “hazy, hoppy and fizzy.”
I know from experience the desire to escape the confines of London is strong, something my recent weekend in Norfolk made me aware of. I can’t help but think that there must be countless others like me, ready to escape the city for a quieter life, but hopeful that there might be a few perks on the other side of a move. A local brewery is certainly high up on my list as a beer lover. But will those looking to also open, or perhaps even move existing breweries look to do so away from the cities?
“I honestly don’t know how the industry will change. I guess we will all focus much harder on our local community to offer safe spaces for people to enjoy our products,” Verdant’s Adam Robertson says. He hopes breweries like his will become a stronger part of local communities with people travelling less. “It’s a good thing that people are looking to interact more with their neighbours and having more empathy for each other. It builds stronger communities all round,” he says.
Sat around a burning log fire, beer in hand as my weekend at Duration comes to an end, I reflect one more time on that countryside dream. Maybe I’m not quite ready to go cold-turkey when it comes to city life, but I am certainly interested in gaining new perspectives that aren’t so city centric.
“I can see why [craft brewing] seemed solipsistic, a pastime of mere privileged city dwellers, so I’m really excited that modern beer can step beyond a bit now,” Duration’s Miranda Hudson tells me. “I think we will see an increased appreciation of what’s on our doorstep be that city or country but I’m an optimist.”
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