No small beer - Business Works

Not small beer

Karl Graves
It is good to read about an interesting and successful business. Stewart Elliott founded the Church End Brewery in the early 1990s and it has steadily grown – dare one say, organically. Karl Graves, Brewery Manager, explains what it is all about and how the business has developed. Karl Graves

The working day for brewers can begin at such an unseemly hour. I fall blinking into the glare of the strip lights at 0530, although this time is often dependent upon the amount of pleasure enjoyed on the previous evening. Having fired up gas burners and checked all the appropriate measurements including water temperature and pH it’s time to put the kettle on and take a moment to think over the chaotic, frustrating and oft paradoxical world that is life in a brewery.

The first job of the day is to ‘set the mash’ which involves mixing malted barley and hot water into the ‘mash tun’. It’s a simple process which nevertheless requires close monitoring as the overall temperature of the mash determines the types of sugar that we create, which in turn will determine the amount of ‘beer’ created at the end of the process. It’s here that I am reminded of the inherent problems that come with an industry whose raw materials are supplied by only a handfull of firms, who operate on a contracting basis with their suppliers often years ahead, resulting in rigid price structures with little room for manoeuvre or negotiation. Of course the thorny issue of price is something with which all manufacturers must grapple, but brewers, rightly or wrongly, feel that they are being tightly squeezed on both the purchase side with an apparent monopoly on raw materials and at the point of sale, where three big duty rises in a year have left many conscientious brewers around the country thinking ‘why bother?’

Adding the hops
The mash is in and lovely sweet, malty aromas are drifting around the brewery. It’s a lovely part of the day, the building is still quiet, brewery workers and office staff are yet to arrive. The double doors at the rear of the building look out onto fields and woods, often buzzards circle overhead in the distance while crows mob them en masse. In late spring and early summer young blue tits and swallows fly into the building through the open doors causing chaos amongst brewers, who have employed some novel methods of eviction such as throwing cloths, standing on fermenters whilst catching them mid-flight with towels and, least successfully of all, shouting abuse.

The mash has now stood in its vessel for 1.5 hours and its time to start removing the sweet sugary liquid we have made and send it to the copper for boiling. This liquid is called ‘wort’ and depending upon the recipe it can be pitch black, rich red-brown or a delicate straw yellow in colour with a slightly biscuity sweet flavour. Hot water is now continually sprinkled onto the top of the mash, which slowly percolates through to the bottom of the vessel and into a trough from where it is pumped into the copper, all the while washing out the sugar we have created. This process lasts approximately three hours and has the wonderfully evocative name of ‘sparging’ and, like many brewing terms, is steeped in mystery and intrigue, coming from an era when brewers were real brewers and when every town had at least one brewery.

Ridge Lane in Warwickshire has had a brewery now for 8 years. From small and humble beginnings in 1994, starting out from an old coffin workshop behind the Griffin Inn in nearby Shustoke, the brewery has steadily grown from an initial output of 4 brewers’ barrels per week to a steady 40. The brewery was started by Stewart Elliott, an electrical engineer, seeking refuge in the Midlands from the South of England. It started in the wave of ‘new’ breweries which sprang up during the early 1990s as a result of the ‘Beer Orders’, a change in legislation created to allow independent breweries access to the Big Brewery dominated market of the time. As the business grew over the next seven years, more staff were taken on to cope with increased demand and, in 2001, the decision was made to move to the current site in Ridge Lane and to increase the size of the plant from 5 barrels per brew to 10 barrels per brew. This of course was only possible due to steady, controlled growth allowing money to be invested back into the business to improve equipment and to train and hire more staff. In 2008 the brewery increased in size again from 10 to 20 barrels per brew whilst remaining on the same site. During this period the market for real ale witnessed a huge increase, but at the same time new pub companies were formed by the large national breweries selling off their pubs and thus neatly sidestepping the ‘Beer Orders’ which of course only applied to them and not pub companies. So began the shake up of the pub market as more and more pubs were acquired by pub companies, thus reducing the potential customer base of smaller breweries. And here we are now in 2009 with the large national breweries and pub companies struggling to cope with a turbulent market, while smaller breweries, with their inherently more flexible approach to business are the only sector of the industry that is seeing any growth.

Hirani in the bar
Back to the sparge which is complete and in the copper, a vessel so-called because of the metal from which they used to be constructed, full of hot, sweet wort and ready to be boiled. The hops are added at the beginning of the boil. These are the female flowers of the hop plant and they are boiled for 1.5 hours, where they will add wonderful, bitter, citrusy, oily flavours to the finished product as well as floral, spicy aromas. They are grown all over the world, in such diverse countries as the UK, Germany, USA, Czech Republic, New Zealand and Poland.

Alongside malt, hops are susceptible to the vagaries of the weather which is of course impossible to legislate for and are a raw material that is, yet again, grown on a contract basis with only a small number of suppliers in the UK. The global nature of the hop market has exposed brewers large and small to tremendous price instability in recent years – 200% increases have not been unusual. If you want to shorten the life of your local brewer significantly then talk to him about hop prices.

The boil is complete and the oil from the hops has been extracted, so now I must cool the wort and send it into a fermenter where yeast will be added to create alcohol. The brewery is full of pungent aromas; of musty hops and sweet malt and steam is billowing everywhere. The wort is sent through a heat exchanger which lowers it’s temperature to the point where yeast can be added (approximately 20°C) and it’s here where the fermentation begins. A thick, crusty head of living yeast soon forms after a day or so on the top of the wort, reminiscent of cauliflowers or mountain peaks, they indicate that fermentation is underway.

Two days after I made my wort, I’m looking at the yeast which has formed on top and the word duty springs to mind. Duty or money that we must pay to the government for the alcohol that we have created and here is the paradox. Brewing and the sale of beer is vital to government, the revenue that is raised from small brewers alone amounts to millions and millions of pounds each year, and yet the huge duty rises that have been seen this year alone, coupled with shouldering the burden for anti-social behaviour and strong anti-drink lobbying from health groups would seem to indicate that brewers are perhaps an endangered species.

So, what does it mean to be a brewer? It does give oneself a certain cachet. Indeed I’ve witnessed many grown men weaken at the knees and force back a tear from misty eyes when I answer the question, ‘What do you do?’ with, ‘I am a brewer’ – but is the job really worth such adulation? For a start, an enormous sense of job satisfaction can be drawn from small, inconsequential moments. To be sat in a pub with friends and hear complete strangers talk at length about the beer you have made ‘I wouldn’t drink anything else,’ ‘It’s the best pint I’ve ever had’ and, ‘I’ve never had a bad pint of this here’ is a lovely experience. Couple this with an end product that is visceral and tangible, ‘I was involved in the making of this’ and it would appear that the job does have its more positive moments.

The Brewery
And what of the future for the brewery, its staff and the industry in general? It would be easy to rail against governmental policy, complain endlessly and bitterly about the effects of weather on raw materials and grumble incessantly about uncompetitive suppliers, but this would only result in premature aging and hair loss. To survive in the conditions that are prevalent today, it’s essential to focus upon the elements of the business that can be directly controlled. For the brewery, this means quality and consistency of the product at all stages and quality of service that is offered from the office, right down to the delivery men who are the direct link with our customers. If we do these well then we will survive and prosper.

The beer I made is now in cask and on sale to the public and the whole process begins again. We fill containers, we empty containers, we clean containers and then we fill them again, it’s the cycle of brewing ... and I love it!

For more information please contact Karl Graves, Brewery Manager at the Church End Brewery:
Ridge Lane, Nr. Nuneaton, Warwickshire CV10 0RD
t: 01827 713080

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