Pint-sized brewing – The London Economic

By Guy Dorrell @GuyDorrellEsq

Apple and Microbreweries

Steve Jobs never had much of a taste for alcohol, the few references that can be found of him drinking refer to the very occasional glass of wine. But while beer may not have had an effect upon him, he had a profound effect upon it.

In the late Seventies, when the idea of Apple was coming to fruition and the incorporated company began to grow, America consumer markets were changing before its eyes. Jobs and notable others set about disproving IBM chairman Thomas J Watson’s prediction that “there is a world market for about five computers”. The actions of a few pioneers of disruptive technologies was rapidly to break the virtual monopoly that IBM held on the computing market in North America and the world until that point.

Around the same time, an American nuclear engineer set his sights firmly at breaking the cosy cartel that saw the largest five breweries in the States controlling 75 per cent of the domestic market. In 1979, Charles N. Papazian founded the Association of Brewers, having founded the American Homebrewers Association in the year previous.

In Charlie Papazian, craft beer had found its spiritual leader.

By the time of the 1981 election in the US, America saw Republican candidate Ronald Reagan returned as the 40th President and with him came a particular type of libertarian, free-market ideology. When talking of personal responsibility, he stated: “It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

Creative brands

With this thinking permeating American society, many started to shun the mainstream brands that generations had bought “just like Pop did”. Some took it to its logical conclusion and created alternative brands. Lucas Arts, Barrett Firearms and MTV all started with a vision to challenge the orthodoxy of American corporate culture.

This creativity was passed on to brewers and the American beer market blossomed, with amateurs and enthusiasts starting hundreds of breweries, few with a capacity over 100,000 barrels annually, most with somewhere around 5,000 barrels. The microbrewery was born.

Over in the UK, the big breweries still reigned supreme. Lager was still the poor relative in beer sales, with it accounting for only around a third of all beer consumed. Times and tastes were changing however.

The same free-market thinking as Reagan displayed was extolled on this side of the Atlantic by Mrs Thatcher who went on to say: “There’s no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women”. As with the States before them, dedicated individuals began to challenge the big brewers’ market dominance, as well as the public’s taste buds.

Homebrew had been a popular pastime in Britain since the middle ages, with wartime privations increasing its popularity. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was, and is, a pre-eminent voice in craft brewing who helped promote beer festivals and pronounced on the quality of individual beers.

Gradually, the techniques and equipment evolving across the Atlantic started to filter in to the UK. Craft brewing in Britain could never hope to approach the volumes and sales that its US counterparts could achieve, even those localised and niche US breweries serving a county within a state.

Hops across the Pond

So another US innovation, the microbrewery, found its way across the water. Britain’s first microbrewery is not an easy claim to substantiate, but some of the early pioneers have become household names, albeit in beer-drinking households. Bath Ales, Rebellion and Meantime all started as microbreweries and have grown steadily thanks to their loyal followings.

Today, more people than ever are embracing free market libertarianism and setting microbreweries up. This is despite the economic downturn and the decreasing numbers of pubs on the high street. CAMRA figures from 2013 show that brewery numbers reached a 70 year high at 1,147 across all regions of the UK.

Even the greatest advocate of microbrewing would concede that the quality of output varies greatly, but passionate brewers, advocates and drinkers clearly see that as part of the appeal; there’s a type and flavour of beer for every palate.

For those that don’t find the beer they fall in love with, there’s the option to start your own brewery and compete. At around £10,000 to buy the basic equipment capable of a brewing output of between 400-500 litres, start-up costs are not as daunting as they once would have been.

Would-be brewers can also take heart from another recent, technology-driven innovation; crowdfunding. Among the crowdfunded alumni of microbreweries are Quantock Brewery, Hop Stuff and Scotland’s now largest independent brewery – BrewDog.

Hard cheese

As to actually producing beer, first-time brewers can take further heart from the fact that, according to industry-insider Chris Giles of Surebrew (www.surebrew.co.uk): “With four ingredients, it’s easier to brew beer than it is to make cheese. Of course the difficulty is to brew good beer. That’s where expertise is called for.” Organisations like Surebrew and Twitter-based @LearnToBrewUK exist to lend that expertise to brewers, whether new or long-established; beer is a social business.

So secure yourself a minimum area of around 20 square metres, gather supplies of the ingredients, come up with a snappy brand name and you are up-and-running. With a small city car’s worth of funding, or – if you prefer – one year of university tuition fees, becoming an owner of a brewery couldn’t it seems be easier.

Except, like all technology, the microbrewery equipment that you just bought for your brand-new brewery might already be out of date. Just as mobile phones, laptops, USB memory sticks and all other gadgets shrink, so has the microbrewery. Welcome the nanobrewery.

A definition of the size, or lack of it, that makes it a nanobrewery is difficult to pin down. Rather, it is its characteristics that define each nanobrewery. General rule of thumb reckons that capacity for a brew run will be less than three barrels (one barrel being 288 pints). This sits nanobreweries squarely in the territory of large-scale homebrewers.

Don’t, however, mistake the two; nanobreweries are serious commercial concerns serving a defined market. Mike Hess, of San Diego’s Hess Brewing, estimates that running his nanobrewery takes around 20 hours a week of his time for his 1.6 barrel output. All of his operation, including the ‘tasting room’ exist is a space of 800 square feet, or roughly 28 feet by 28 feet.

Taking commercial nanobrewing to its extreme is the Tynllidiart Arms in Aberystwyth. Their operation is housed in a palatial five square feet, in a converted outbuilding whose former role was dealing with the other end of the brewing process.

All the talk of micro, nano and smaller might make the dream of owning and running a brewery as your full time job seem remote, but perhaps reflect on the fact – over a drink – that a 21 year old Steve Jobs began by selling a mere 175 Apple 1 computers.

1 Response

  1. tim

    rather misleading article, 10K may buy the absolute smallest basic kit but all you can do on that is brew. To be a commercial brewery you also have to spend many thousands of pounds on casks, and a cask cleaning kit, at least one van for distribution costs, the costs for the space you set up in, which most people would have to rent, advertising & branding (no matter how minimal), raw materials, cleaning equipment, licensing (if you want to sell on premises), the list goes on! and thats before you even start looking at bottling or canning. realistically you would struggle to create a sustainable brewing business for under 80k. Anyways the market is oversaturated with new breweries,unless a new brewery was offering a very interesting USP it would be hard pushed to stand out. Everyone makes a bitter, everyone makes a pale ale. It just wont cut it.

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