Brown breaks through beer's glass ceiling

09 March, 2007

Jaq Bayles meets one of the few women who are brewing up a storm in a man's world. Carola Brown is the founder of Ballard's Brewery

Back in the dark ages when beer was safer to drink than water and everyone brewed their own, the women took charge of the process while the menfolk went out to plough the fields or herd the sheep. They were the "brewsters" - from whom the old annual Brewsters Sessions got their name.

Carola Brown, owner of Ballard's Brewery in West Sussex, is brimming with little nuggets of historical information like this, and if these days you find it difficult to use all the digits of one hand when counting the number of women heading up breweries in the UK, she's doing a good job of making up for it with her presence in the industry.

Currently president of the Society of Independent Brewers and previously chairman, Brown has been in the business since the end of the seventies when her (now ex) husband, commercial lawyer Mike, decided to try his hand at running his own business.

"We used to make beer in a dustbin in the cellar using a kit and it had crossed Mike's mind that he could be a one-man brewery," says Brown.

And a visit to a Great British Beer Festival at Alexandra Palace tipped him over. The couple met three people who all owned microbreweries and suddenly the idea didn't seem so odd after all.

They called in a consultant, an ex-brewer who had made it his business to help people set up small breweries across the globe, and Ballard's - Carola's maiden name - was born in "a cowhouse in the garden of the farm where we lived in Trotton".

"We couldn't call it Brown Ale because that had already been done, and Ballard's sounds a bit beery," says the one-woman marketing, sales and accounting team. And as it turned out, there had already been one Ballard's Brewery in the county in the early 50s - she's got a copy of the sign to prove it.

But life was pretty tough - the delivery lorries couldn't turn around in the narrow drive so had to drop their 50kg sacks of barley in a field from where the couple had to get them to the cowhouse. With no planning permission for expansion, Ballard's managed for five years until an old George Gale's pub came on the market with a shed out the back. The couple moved in and transported the brewery with them in what would today be seen as a very lucky move. Back then, though, things were different, as they discovered in 1988 when they tried to sell the going concern.

Brown's husband had decided to go back to law. "We put the whole thing on the market, pub and brewery. No one wanted it. The situation in the industry was very different then," Brown points out.

"There were no pubcos and lots of freehouses and it was pre the guest beer concept. Now it would be very desirable. In the end we split it up, sold the pub and kept the brewery."

By now, Fran Weston had taken over as brewer and Brown had been a landlady for some four years. The two of them moved the brewery to its current location at the Old Sawmill in Nyewood, cramming it into two small units, although now, with a bottling machine as well as the barrel operation, it has expanded to four units and driver Keith Vidler completes the micro set-up.

Brown talks through the brewing process with scientific precision, yet says she has never brewed in her life. "I do the finance and marketing and stuff. I've never fancied the brewing - it's jolly hard work, all that stirring and lifting."

But when pressed, she admits she could take over in a crisis. "The skill is in keeping the consistency and knowing what to do when things go wrong."

The brewery produces five draught beers and five bottled beers, four of wh ich are sold under the Ballard's label or customised labels to mark special occasions such as birthdays or wedding anniversaries. The fifth is a commission from Historic Royal Palaces, which is sold under the King's label in Hampton Court, the Tower of London and Kensington Palace.

Brown's ales, then, have a regal provenance that even the government would be hard-pushed to question - and Brown, as SIBA figurehead, has thoughts on the issue. "Alcohol will probably be the next thing to be banned after smoking. Then sex," she comments wryly. "But we don't think real ale is a problem as far as binge-drinking is concerned. Of all the things you can drink it's probably the most healthy - even more than red wine. It does have antioxidation properties, it's not as strong as wine so you can drink more of it. So many people, women in particular, have tried beer once in their lives and didn't like it and are unaware there are so many different types and flavours.

"Seeing it as a working class drink has gone, but it still needs working on to get people to see it as something to have with a meal."

Ballard's has listings in Budgens through A Taste of Sussex, part of Food From Britain, and Brown is delighted that the flagship Midhurst store has a "fabulous display" taking up the whole side of a gondola. Other listings include four Waitrose stores and some business with Asda, and SIBA brewers are in demand with Threshers countrywide.

As Ballard's brews a maximum of 360 gallons a time, five times a week, keeping up with demand is Brown's biggest problem these days.

Women in brewing

Georgina Young, brewing manager, Fuller Smith & Turner

Fiona Harrington,

brewing manager, Greene King

Tracy Brown, packaging brewer, Frederic Robinson

Jean Timmons,

brewer, Shepherd Neame

Michaela Miedl, innovation

and development manager,

Coors




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