Brewing with purpose
They ain't in it for (just) the money
Sunday 06 June 2021
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Olsi Vullnetari knew that he would need to start over. That his previous career – he had worked as a consultant in migration and development – was now closed to him. Once you’ve been in prison, Olsi says, “you can’t pretend that you’re going to do the same job again.”
When Olsi applied to work at Tap Social Movement, a craft brewery and tap room in Oxford, having spotted the opportunity on the jobs board at Spring Hill open prison in Buckinghamshire, he knew absolutely nothing about brewing. It turned out not to matter. Neither did his background.
“Our whole ethos is that it really is irrelevant what somebody has done in their past,” says Tess Taylor, founder and director of Tap Social along with her sister Amy Taylor, and Amy’s partner Paul Humpherson.
“They’ve completed their sentence, they’ve paid their dues back to society and now they just really need some support to be able to continue down the right path.”
Olsi started at Tap Social in 2018, working at the brewery by day and returning to Spring Hill each evening as he served out the remaining 17 months of a 42-month sentence for fraud. Some Tap alumni move on from their roles at the brewery once they’ve completed their sentences, moving back to their hometowns or sideways into other industries. Olsi opted to stay after his release in October 2019. He’s been working at the brewery as a free man ever since.
“Tap Social is an amazing place,” says the brewer with pride. “They don’t have to do it this way. It’s not without headaches, getting the guys from prison to work and giving them lots of freedom. But they’ve done it, with lots of success. There are eight of us working here. Everybody is just so appreciative. They’ve responded so positively to the trust they were given.”
This spring Tap Social will be releasing two new barrel-aged beers, the result of an exciting collaboration with the Wild Beer Co., which saw the Somerset brewery gift a couple of its barrels to Tess and the team and share their barrel-aging knowhow.
Social Brew Collective
Wild Beer and Tap Social came together under the auspices of the Social Brew Collective (SBC), a project to support and raise awareness of British craft breweries which, along with producing great beer, seek to make positive change in the world by employing people who would otherwise find it difficult to access the workplace.
For Tap, that’s offenders and ex-offenders, individuals whose criminal records bar them from many roles. “What a lot of people fail to recognise is that if nobody provides them with employment and no opportunities, then there really are few options other than turning back to crime,” says Tess.
In the five years since Tess, Amy and Paul founded Tap, only 7% of the ex-offenders they’ve worked with have gone on to reoffend. The national average, according to the Ministry of Justice, is 48% a year after release.
The SBC has its origins back in 2018, when Russell Sykes, lead brewer at the Wild Beer Co, was looking for “breweries that we admired” to take part in a cask collaboration series that also involved Fullers, Magic Rock, Left Handed Giant and Budvar. Russell was alert to the enormous potential of social enterprises after coming into contact with them in his previous career in the charity sector. When he came across Ignition Brewery, a social enterprise based in South London that employs and trains people with learning disabilities, working together seemed like a great opportunity for both parties.
“Through collaboration we challenge ourselves to do something a little bit different, a little bit special and develop through that,” says Russell.
“As brewers we enjoy being part of a craft brewing community, attending festivals, collaborations. They have an equally valid place within that community. So how do we use our position to push for them to be part of it?”
Remix to Ignition
Ignition was founded in 2015 by Nick O’Shea, an economist for a mental health charity who wanted to address the lack of employment opportunities available for people with learning disabilities.
“People used to have jobs but over time they’ve lost them. The trades and the industry, the work in a factory, those types of jobs have gone,” he explains. Rather than ringing round local supermarkets as part of his role volunteering with his local Mencap, Nick decided to take matters into his own hands.
He had no experience in brewing. He chose beer for his new venture, he says, because “it’s a product that has enough margin in it to sustain a small business”. The first time Nick even set foot in a brewery was the day he and a group of six learning disabled people he met through Mencap arrived at an open brewery to get trained up.
Nick’s lack of brewing experience hasn’t been an issue. Ignition has gone from strength to strength, graduating from the open brewery after a year into their own space, then moving again to expand into a brewery and taproom on a busy South London high street. The six team members that Nick started with are all still employed by the brewery and he’s currently in talks about replicating the Ignition model elsewhere in England.
The initial collaboration brokered by Russell Sykes led to a lasting relationship, with Ignition staff members touring Wild Beer’s Somerset HQ as well as staffing the bar for Wild Beer at the London Craft Beer Festival in 2018 and 2019. “They treat our team like VIPs, which is just lovely,” says Nick.
It was that latter event that led to the launch of the Social Brew Collective proper in December 2019, after Wild Card Brewery and Gipsy Hill Brewing approached Russell about getting involved with social brewery collaborations of their own. The resulting keg series saw Wild Beer working with Tap Social, Gipsy Hill with Ignition, and Wild Card paired with Spotlight Brewery in Yorkshire, which also works with people with learning disabilities.
The keg series was a success but Russell realised that cans and bottles would be a more effective route in terms of “telling the story of social enterprise breweries”, he says.
“One of the aims of the project is to let people know about the work that they’re doing and get people to find their beer, subscribing to their newsletters, following them on social media, and use our market reach to generate that. I don’t think necessarily you do that through a keg batch.”
Russell was all set to oversee another SBC collaboration series in 2020 – this time in cans or bottles when the pandemic hit. He’s hoping to revive the project in 2021 but is yet to announce any of the collaborators.
It’s likely, however, that the roster will include Ivybridge Brewing Co., a social enterprise based in Devon that addresses the disability employment gap through providing employment and training opportunities for learning disabled people. Ivybridge’s founder, Simon Rundle, has been talking to Russell about working together since they were introduced by Ignition’s Nick O’Shea.
“I feel like we’ve been part of it for a long time but we haven’t actually done anything as part of it,” says Simon, a marine biology professor at Portsmouth University. “To be linked in with a really high-profile brewery is going to be fantastic for us because they’ll raise the profile of what we do.”
Ivybridge currently has a staff of four - one paid, three volunteers - but Simon hopes ultimately to employ six people part-time at the brewery. He’s in the process of scaling up as we speak: moving premises, installing a much larger brew kit and preparing to open a tap room. Tom Seeley, who’s been with Ivybridge since its launch in 2019, tells me that he has a lot of fun with the other guys that volunteer there and that his favourite job is bottling.
The larger operation will allow Ivybridge to add hospitality to its existing training offer, including potentially working with learning disabled students at a local college. The tap room will also serve as “a bit of a hub within the town to try and encourage other employers to think about employing people with learning disabilities. I want us to be a bit of a model for that,” Simon says.
“It’s all about finding the jobs that those people can do, rather than saying ‘This is a job: can you or can’t you do it?’ It’s changing people’s mindsets.”
That’s the thinking behind Tap Social and Ignition too. The beer has to “stand on its own”, as Tap’s Tess Taylor puts it, but it’s very much a means to an end. “Our main goal is always just to create as many employment opportunities as we can and start conversations about working with ex-offenders.”
For Nick O’Shea of Ignition, the brewery and tap room are so effective in changing attitudes towards learning disabled people because they level the playing field.
“If someone pays £5 for a beer and they love it and then they meet the person who made it and that person is Chris or Michaela, that does far more to change stigma because they’re like, ‘Oh, I honestly didn’t think you could make that beer, because I couldn’t’. It’s much easier to talk about the products you’ve made than say, ‘I’m a great person and give me a chance’.”
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