T he Wye Valley, a verdant, twisting, watery divide between England and Wales, has been drawing tourists for centuries. In 1798 Wordsworth composed one of his most famous poems on the hills above the abbey at Tintern, waxing lyrical about the beauty of this sylvan paradise.
Since last year, there has been a new attraction to the area, drawing beer lovers from across South Wales. At the Meadow Farm Shop, on the fringe of Tintern, they've started selling bottled beers. But this is not just another range of any old beers, these are wholly Welsh beers
- a colourful collection from nearly every microbrewery in the principality. The shop is run by former property restorer Edward Biggs and his wife, Tori. Edward also brews on site, having transferred the nearby Kingstone Brewery to his hillside smallholding.
You are the leading stockist for Welsh beers. How did you develop this niche?
We started the farm shop here four years ago. Then, last year, some friends of ours, who owned Kingstone Brewery, commented that there was such a good choice of Welsh ales being produced but that the full selection wasn't on display anywhere. We had room in the shop and we felt it would be a nice thing to try to set up. We managed to co-ordinate with the breweries to get the different ales. It is just for the smaller breweries and there wasn't any point in just stocking one or two. We wanted people to see the whole range. We've probably got about 16 different breweries, with a selection of ales from each of them - about 60 Welsh real ales.
How healthy is the Welsh brewing scene?
Very healthy. There's more and more interest in real ales. I think people are getting a bit fed up with lager and know when they're buying a real ale that they're getting something which people have put a lot of effort into making. There's such a variety of tastes, too, and people are going back to a more traditional way of eating and drinking. There is a lot of nutrition in ale and I think that's something people are beginning to realise.
How did the brewery become part of the business?
Brian and Jill Austwick, who ran the brewery in Whitebrook, didn't really have enough room, so we decided to take over the brewing and the bottling. I used to help Brian with brewing, and I had been very interested in real ales for some time, so it seemed a natural progression. Since we've done it, we're getting more and more people along.
What else do you sell in your shop?
We grow a selection of fruit and vegetables and we also stock fruit and vegetables from other local farms. Most are organic. We make a lot of our own jams, chutneys, cordials and ketchups. We have a small selection of wholefoods as well as Welsh wines, local ciders and apple juice, and dairy products. We also make bread and pizza daily by hand.
This summer, we're going to have a small garden where people can sit overlooking the Wye Valley and we'll be serving ploughman's lunches with a glass of ale.
Are there "good times" for your business?
Very much so. We do 5-litre mini-casks of Kingstone beers and, when you get a rugby match on, people like to come and get those. St David's Day was very busy. I had a lot of people in for ales then. As we're in a tourist area, we are obviously busy from Easter to October, but I think people drink ale at any time of the year.
It seems to be in constant demand.
Are you going to branch out from Welsh beers?
I don't know at the moment. We're quite happy with the selection of Welsh real ales. Some of them you really don't see anywhere else. There are plenty of real ale shops, but none really gives the selection we try to . There are lots of small breweries just over the other side in England and I think it would be nice to include some of those in the shop - a natural progression as time goes on.
Is your rural location a benefit or a hindrance for your business?
I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. We've got the brewery
as well as the shop, so it connects everything together. People can see the brewery and then
try the ales
- the location adds to the experience.
Do you feel pressure to be price competitive or actively promote your shop?
We specialise in different ales and I think people are happy to come here and find the selection. The prices we sell at are pretty competitive anyway, because our overheads are comparatively low, but we don't look at being in competition with any of the other off-licences or supermarkets. Our website is just going live (meadowfarm.org.uk) and we will be producing leaflets to make people more aware of the brewery and the shop, but word of mouth counts for a lot in this business. People seem to find out about the shop and brewery without our having to do an excessive amount of advertising.