Keeping it in the family
Brewing dynasties, hopes and strife
Illustration: Fiona Dunphy
Monday 18 January 2021
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There’s something reassuring about the idea of a family-run brewery in these unsettling times. Family members working away side by side, pulling together to fulfil the hopes and dreams of their forebears. Developing knowhow down the generations. Doing their part to keep the great tradition of British beer making going strong. Warms the cockles, doesn’t it?
The reality is a little less rose-tinted. Don’t get me wrong: brewing dynasties play a crucial role in the British beer ecosystem – the 29 members of the Independent Family Brewers of Britain alone own over 4,000 pubs, sustain 69,500 jobs and brew 500 million pints a year. Many of the UK’s best known and longest-established independent breweries are still proudly family-run, from Black Sheep in the north to Harvey’s in the south and from Shepherd Neame in the east to St Austell in the west.
But running a family business can be a hard slog, not least when it comes to the tricky issue of handing over the reins to the next generation.
“I’ve been a commercial brewer now for 25 years and I’d like to think I know what I’m talking about,” says Ian Bradford of Lymestone Brewery in Staffordshire. “To have someone say, ‘Why do we do this? Why don’t we do that?’ It is rather challenging, especially when you’re trying to show them how to do it properly.”
The “someone” Ian is referring to is his 26-year-old daughter, Sarah, who joined the business in 2015. Growing up, she never intended to work for her parents (“I just wanted to do my own thing”) but started helping out here and there, in the brewery and at the family’s pub in Newcastle-under-Lyme, while looking for work after leaving university.
When Ian’s trainee assistant brewer quit unexpectedly, he offered Sarah the job. They started off “very gently”, he says, focusing on the technical side of brewing, but it wasn’t long before Sarah was joining in with the decision making. “And it became obvious that she wanted to brew her own beers.”
The dark, sweet beers Sarah wanted to brew couldn’t have been more different from the pale, hoppy style favoured by Ian. There were fireworks initially – “Some of her ideas required me to wear a crash helmet while they discussed them,” jokes Sarah’s mother, Viv, who looks after the non-brewing side of the business – but Ian is now grateful for the push to experiment.
“It’s not a bad process once you get off your pedestal,” he says. “The real ale craft beer scene has transformed quite dramatically over the last 20 years and there’s all sorts of people brewing some very saleable beer and breaking all the rules. It’s very exhilarating.”
There were fireworks initially... but Ian is now grateful for the push to experiment
Not everyone was so pleased by the new outlook at Lymestone, Sarah recalls. “I was trying to experiment with different beer styles with Dad but when we would release them under the Lymestone Brewery name there were a lot of people that were like, ‘Bloody hell! What’s that Brad getting up to? He’s lost his way!’
“It became quite clear that we needed to differentiate between what was mine and what was his.”
Stray Cat, a micro-brewery headed up by Sarah but still part of Lymestone, whose products include a lager, a pilsner and an award-winning milk stout, was the result of that differentiation process. Father and daughter have never looked back: “We’re both extremely proud of our collective achievements,” says Ian.
“We have a small team and it’s entirely family-owned and there’s no big backers behind us. What you see is directly down to the family’s investments.”
When Alex Arkell joined the family firm, Arkell’s Brewery, in 2010, he was anticipating “a few years of training and practicing with the head brewer and seeing what happened”. Instead, the head brewer at the 177-year-old Swindon company announced that he wanted to retire.
“With old companies like Arkell’s,” explains Alex, “when the window’s there you’ve got to take it or it will be another 30 years before these opportunities come up.”
He took it, becoming head brewer at the age of 28. He’d had ten months’ master brewer training in Chicago and Munich, and had spent a year running one of Arkell’s tenanted pubs, but was otherwise totally green. Despite that, his father James, Arkell’s chairman, gave him the autonomy to do things his own way.
“Dad’s very trusting and empowers us [Alex’s brother George also works for Arkell’s, looking after the brewery’s nearly 100 pubs in his role as managing director] to be the masters of our own destinies in our particular part of the brewery and doesn’t question us too much when we make bad decisions,” says Alex. “He’s more of a guiding hand.”
Coming into the job so young was “definitely challenging and it still is,” the brewer admits. “Early on and even now I rely very heavily on the expertise and the skills of the guys who work here.”
While Sarah Bradford had to persuade her dad of the merits of innovation, Alex Arkell’s task was to bring along with him a team of brewers who had spent years – generations in some cases – coaxing what Alex calls “consistent quality moorish everyday beer” from one of the oldest steam breweries in the world.
“It took a few years for them to properly trust me with my outlandish ideas,” says Alex with a self-aware chuckle. “We did all sorts of experimenting to see where our customers would land and how adventurous we could be.”
Some of the very strong or hoppy beers inspired by Alex’s time in Chicago fell by the wayside in favour of better selling more traditional ales, but the brewer speaks fondly of that period: “We had a go!”
He’s also proud of its legacy: a rolling programme that sees a new draught beer introduced each month. “We’ve brewed all sorts of bits and bobs in the past couple of years.”
An extraordinary trial
In 2009 Tuggy Delap had the inescapable feeling that all was not right with Fyne Ales. The brewery she had set up with her husband Jonny in 2001 on her family farm and estate in Argyll had won awards and was much beloved by its customers but “somehow we weren’t making money”, she recalls.
Tuggy’s son Jamie, an engineer by training, had just come to the end of a project running global operations for a big textile company, so she asked him to cast his eye over the family business and advise on where to take it next. Just a few months into that process, Jonny passed away suddenly. Despite the fact that he and his family were living in Gloucestershire at the time, Jamie took on the role of managing director of the brewery.
“The whole thing was an extraordinary trial but it was unbelievably fortunate for us that Jamie was actually able to step in and help,” says Tuggy.
Not that Tuggy didn’t have her reservations about Jamie’s plans to scale up the business, opening a brewery tap and shop in 2012 followed by a state-of-the-art new brewhouse in 2014.
“He pinched a large piece of my farm shed and turned it into a brewery and now he wants to pinch more of my shed…and he’s not getting it,” exclaims Tuggy, only half joking.
Jamie laughs. “It’s a constant debate really, to what extent we’re actually a brewery and to what extent we produce animal feed to feed all Mum’s animals.”
Tuggy admits to needing to be “dragged through the process” of bringing Fyne Ales to a state of sustainability but says it has all been worth it. “Part of keeping it in the family is that the family have to decide what they want to do.”
Tuggy’s main focus is the farm – they have highland cattle, sheep and red deer– but she still plays an advisory role, along with Jamie’s brother Mungo, when it comes to the place of the brewery within the estate as a whole.
And of course she lives on site. “I’m very old so most of my friends have retired but I don’t think you really can retire around here because we’re so close. We’re sitting in the dining room and the brewery is 30 yards away. It’s amazing how many people knock at the door and say, ‘could we…?’ and ‘should we…?’ and ‘can we…?’”
Handing over responsibility to the next generation can be more of a clear-cut process for some family businesses. When Tony Davis, founder of Rutland’s Grainstore Brewery, retired in 2014, his son William bought his shares and became managing director in his place.
Joining the business straight out of university, William worked his way up from cleaning out casks. Being employed by the family firm while living with his parents, as he did for the first few years, had its tricky moments (“you bring it all home with you”) but he and Tony worked well together, William says. Buying his father out was a “natural progression”, giving Tony time to travel and enjoy the fruits of two decades of hard work.
But even with Tony technically out of the picture, he’s still an asset to the company, says William.
“We use him as our brewing consultant, which is very handy, because he’s not only very knowledgeable about brewing, but he’s also a beer sommelier and was chairman of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling, Midlands section, so he’s got a lot of contacts.”
William, like every independent brewer in the world right now, is focused on the immediate challenges of how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting hospitality, tourism and supply chains. But looking further into the Grainstore’s future, he would welcome the involvement of his kids one day.
Alex Arkell has similar hopes for the next generation of his own brewing dynasty: “It’s worked very well as long as we all have the enthusiasm and love making beer and my brother George and I both enjoy our jobs,” he says. “We both have kids and it may rub off on them as well, the sort of enthusiasm and the joy we get out of what we do.”
Jamie Delap has no expectations as far as his children or nephew are concerned. He was willing to come into the business when his parents needed him but doesn’t ever want to have to ask the younger Delaps to do the same.
In Britain we’ve got too many companies where ownership was chopped and changed
“If it suits them and fits in with their life, then happy days, they can get more involved. If they don’t want to then they should be able to enjoy it as good long-term shareholders. I want to get the business to the size where it can be professionally managed,” he says.
For Jamie, being a family business is about much more than just the surname of the people in charge. It’s a guiding principle:
“I’ve worked all over the world and what you see is that in Britain we’ve got too many companies where ownership was chopped and changed. Everyone’s got a three-year business plan to earn a fortune, buy a Ferrari and retire somewhere and it’s really not good for businesses.
“Long-term patient family ownership is what actually really helps to create great businesses for the future.”
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