Monday, 23 August 2010

Birth of a Micro - Part I

by XT Brewing on Monday, 23 August 2010 at 18:29

After 'I really love you' one of the most commonly heard phrases among friends, maybe after one too many ales, is probably: 'I'm going to set up a brewery'. It could be considered the middle aged rock and roll by many of you. And for us, about 12 months ago, that is exactly where we were.

With the advantage of having some money to invest, combined with our real desire to create a different sort of business with a product we had an enormous passion for, the future seemed obvious.

But where do you start on this kind of adventure? Well, luckily brewing has the advantage that it is one industry that can be replicated to some degree at home in miniature. So we began brewing full mash beers as often as humanly possible to try, and hopefully begin to understand, the chemistry and methods of the commercial brewers. Our 'Burco Brewery' was working at full steam around the clock to experiment with every combination of recipes and ingredients we could find. Amazingly the results seemed to vanish with as much velocity as we could create them, so cross referencing was very tricky; the ones that didn't pass the 'drunk within two days' test, were immediately considered rejects. We worked at length with the main component of the real ale you are hopefully enjoying while reading this: pale malt. From the palest of golden beers to the darkest Baltic stout, the bulk of the grain used will be a type of pale malt. What becomes an amazing art of the brew is the careful use of dark malts from browns through chocolate to black, which create an incredible range of flavours beyond the wildest dreams of any wine buff. And that is without even starting on the amazing variety of hops.

Alongside the chemistry, we started researching the actual business we hoped to one day break into and, of course, our research took on many forms. From 'how many beer festivals can one person reasonably attend' to how does this industry actually operate in this day and age? After all the huge changes that have occurred in recent years how would we, as a total new comer, fit into the massive growth in the number of new micro-brewers? Astonishingly, there are now around seven hundred independent brewers in the UK; that's the highest proportion anywhere in the world. There are also only a limited number of pubs who are free of tie when it comes to buying your product.

The brewing industry is a very closely knit family and we quickly found that everyone seems to know everyone else and everyone's business. All those involved are very passionate about their products. If you share that passion, then most brewers will happily open up and readily entertain you with tales of their experiences and knowledge. However, being a profession that reaches back to the earliest days of human civilisation, with many different methods and folklores, we found that if you ask ten brewers for their opinions you will get at least eleven different answers back. We travelled the length and breadth of our own, and other foreign lands, talking and drinking with as many brewers as would let us through their doors. It is possible to make a small fortune in this business, but only if you start off with a large one.

Along the way we encountered some odd reactions from the people we met. It's hard to imagine for us and probably to you, our fellow beer aficionados, that when you have spent all your drinking life enjoying the best liquid known to man or woman, that there are actually deprived people out there who do not understand our passion. "So, what exactly is beer?" or "Why aren't there any micro breweries in Britain?"... Strangely, large numbers of people are put off our favourite tipple and they are not helped by some very out dated attitudes and misconceptions. Much of the current marketing does little to alleviate these misconceptions.

As the passion grew we started to look for the components to build our dream, it became apparent that the range of equipment available to a new rooky brewer is mind boggling. As with many things in life, the kit list, and all the optional extras, caters to every budget and esoteric whim. In the search for exactly the right equipment for us, it became increasingly apparent how true the opening line of this story was. Kit manufacturers will tell you that they get over 40 calls a day with 'I want to start a brewery', so they take a bit of persuading that you really do mean business and are not just yet another Friday afternoon hopeful.

The search for exactly the right specification and mix of equipment continues, but the biggest hurdle, both from an operational model and financial factor any new business encounters, is where to locate. This will be the biggest make or break decision for our fledgling company. After spending time looking over several potential locations we are now fortunate enough to have the fantastic opportunity of creating a new brewery within North Oxfordshire in a popular tourist site close to transport links. If all goes well, we hope to create a distinctive type of brewery that provides an inclusive experience for all our visitors and customers in to the beer making process.

Beer is a fantastic product and we believe it is enjoying a renaissance. People want something more than bland, mass-produced products from a handful of big global players. Over the coming months you can join in with our journey of learning, discovery, location development, equipment and business plans.