Recent years have seen an increase in the rise of small independent breweries making beers full of character that challenge the generic taste and feel of their mass-produced equivalent. You could call them boutique breweries but this, being a manly business, they are known as microbreweries: a term that perhaps lacks a certain swashbuckling something, but makes up for it by accurately describing their economic position.
These are tenacious underdogs, brewing small quantities of quality beer. Life should be tough – at a time when pub closures are at an all time high, in the depths of a recession when people are dinking less – but their numbers are increasing at a phenomenal rate. According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), last year a miraculous 158 new breweries joined the rush to turn water into beer, taking the total number of small independent breweries over 1,000.
What accounts for their rise? How do they do it?
We wanted to know the answers so we spoke to local brewer John Henderson, from Scottish Borders Brewery – the team behind Foxy Blonde, Game Bird and Dark Horse, who brewed their first barrel back in February 2011.
For John the move into brewing was the result of a number of factors. As a farmer he needed to diversify and as a barley grower, adding value to his existing product seemed to present an obvious solution. He was also aware of the changes in public taste:
‘These days people are looking for something different, more of a story, not just the same old, same old. Craft brewing allows us to create a truly unique beer, one with real provenance and big taste. The interest in cask conditioned ales is a natural extension of the slow food movement and farmers markets; of an interest in local food, real flavours, how it’s made and where it comes from.’
This shift in consumer tastes accounts for an increase in demand but it isn’t the whole story. In 2002, Chancellor, Gordon Brown introduced the Progressive Beer Duty (PBD) tax and this single act, a tax levied on a sliding scale for producers of fewer than 40,000 barrels a year, stimulated the market and changed it in a remarkable way.
Previously, under a system of standardised duty, without the benefit of economies of scale, the microbrewers were unable to compete with the big boys. John Henderson says the PBD has leveled the playing field and given microbreweries a chance.
In two years SBB has trebled in size. They currently brew around 100 casks per week and distribute their ales within a rough 250mile radius of their base in the Borders. And it is successful distribution that is the last link in the chain, the key to understanding the anomaly of the rise of the microbreweries.
It’s widely reported that pubs are closing in large numbers, 703 in Scotland over the past five years according to a recent independent survey. In order to survive a pub needs to be special. Pubs want to capitalise on the growing interest in cask conditioned ales too, they need to up their game, diversify, differentiate, and building relationships with microbreweries creates a healthy interdependency. Build a reputation as a specialist, earn an entry in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide and you have the foundations for a sustainable future. With the aid of Belhaven Brewery distribution, SBB distribute 95% of their beers to pubs.
Many pubs have taken this relationship one step further and become brewers. Tempest Brewing Co, is the fledgling brew set up of The Cobbles in Kelso. In its short history Tempest has evolved from a homemade, Heath Robinson, one-step-up-from-man-in-shed-set-up to a state of the art brewhouse. Both pub and ales have attracted the attention of CAMRA and beer aficionados.
Where the microbrewers have yet to make their big breakthrough is in the bottled beer sector. Partly this is due to the fact that cask conditioned ales are a live product and bottling is a whole different game – a costly one. Although retail sales through independent off licenses, delis and farmers markets is an important growing market for SBB, as it is for many microbreweries, the costs and processes associated with bottling means that it only accounts for 5% of SBB sales.
It can be hard on the home drinker to find their favourite tipple, committed beer drinkers are likely to source their luscious ales in the independents but the potentially huge market accessed via mass distribution and supermarkets remains elusive, though there are exceptions. Brew Dog increasingly crops up on supermarket shelves and perhaps the recent deal signed by Colonsay Brewery is an indication of things to come.
Colonsay Brewery is the absolute terrier of the underdogs and perhaps the most remote of the UK microbreweries. It faces significant odds in just getting its pig to market – high freight costs due to remote location, disruption to supplies due to bad weather and ferry stoppages, a local population of a mere 50 souls – but against these odds its signed a deal with Aldi supermarket, who will carry CB’s lager and ales in a number of its stores.
The CB lager has a rare, refreshing zest, it’s easy drinking, and before you know it, you’ll be waxing about Hebridean mists and salty breezes. Which is no bad thing really.
Here’s what one reviewer had to say about their 80-/ ale
We absolutely implore you to seek out your local brews, keep your eyes peeled and your glass at the ready!