A brewery with a lot of bottle

21 January, 2011

Is there a better example of entrepreneurial spirit in the industry than the recent explosion of new breweries in Yorkshire? With the region now boasting more than 100 large and small, I spent an afternoon visiting two breweries near Huddersfield, partly in the search for new beers to stock (and wholesale), but also because, well, I quite like breweries. They are full of beer and brewers, and I never tire of seeing how each individual has his own spin on brewing, and how that affects the final product.

Mallinsons Brewery in Huddersfield has been brewing for a few years, and is typical in many ways of the recent microbrewery boom. It’s invested a relatively modest sum into brewkit (although “relatively modest” still means five figures), and is producing what might be described as “real ale in the modern style”.

There’s a focus on pale beers made with hops from America and New Zealand. It is very much a traditional brewery, supplying cask beer to pubs locally, and bottling beer when time and demand allows it. Part of the reason for my visit was to see if it would make a core range of its beers available in bottles, and a couple of specials every month or two. It seemed happy to do that, although maybe it was a little daunted by the commitment to volume that wholesaling might entail.

A few miles down the road, Summer Wine brewery is doing a similar sort of thing, in a similarly sized brewery. On entering the brewery I observed that it has a lot more casks coming and going than most breweries of its size, but that reflects the larger size of its distribution area.

After sitting down for tea and gossip, we had a quick look around the brewery – it didn’t take long. Summer Wine’s beers draw more on US craft beer than English ale – and that’s just an observation, not a value judgement. I asked about its plans for bottling, and it said that it was looking to bottle in a few months time. I asked if it would be interested in supplying beers for retail and wholesale, and again, it was interested in the prospect.

We had a brief chat about the possibility of handling its bottled beer distribution exclusively. It is a new brewery, clearly with big plans, making beer in a style that is very popular at the moment.

Normally breweries in this situation have a vague notion of what they would like to do with their bottled beer, and, like Mallinsons, it is very much a case of bottling when they have time, space and demand. Offering to handle their distribution can be a weight off their mind. Summer Wine said if we commited to buy­ing a sizeable proportion of its first bottling run, it’d consider exclusivity. I explained we would initially buy in fairly modest quantities, but if all went well, we might be looking for 40 or 50 cases a month.

The brewers shifted slightly uneasily and explained its first run would be around 300 cases. “Across all three beers in the whole range?” I asked, surprised at the volume. “No, for each beer” was the reply. Clearly, it has big plans, and suddenly I am the small fry.

Although both of these models have their merits, it’s worth remembering that growth isn’t always the aim of the business owner. Sometimes good local businesses are happy just to be good local businesses, whether they are producers, middlemen, or retailers.

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