Tastings School - How to set up your own micro brewery

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How to set up your own micro brewery

We've all thought about it...Nigel Huddleston shows us the way

Hundreds of beer-mad individuals in Britain and the States have jacked it all in to pursue the dream of owning their own brewery. But how exactly did they get where they are today and what’s the best way to go about it if you want to follow in their footsteps? We offer some basic pointers on the path to becoming a micro...

1. Get the know-how If your previous brewing experience extends no further than a few bucketfuls of homebrew then you’ll need to learn the science properly. In the United Kingdom, the classic path for a would-be career brewer is to take a brewing degree at the International Centre for Brewing & Distilling at Scotland’s Heriot Watt University, the Oxbridge of the brewing world.

But if you don’t want to give up four years finding out if brewing’s really for you, a preferred option is to take a course with Brewlab at the University of Sunderland.

A three-day Start Up Brewing Course costs £570, with courses scheduled for April, August and November in 2007, though there are more advanced courses if you want to stretch yourself at a later date. “It’s a very good course because it tells you all the bad bits as well as the good bits,” says one British microbrewer. “It tells you everything you really need to know in three days.” Once you’re established Brewlab also provides analysis services to advise on such matters as quality control and excise compliance. They’ll also store yeast for you.

2. Find the dosh Obviously anyone can go to the bank manager with a sound business plan, just as for any other good business idea.

But you should also look into what grants and other assistance is available locally, it could save significant sums on the start-up and initial running costs.

For example, Keswick Brewing Co, founded in 2006 by Phil and Sue Harrison, tapped in to North West Development Agency and EU money through a project called Distinctly Cumbria that helps develop non-tourist reliant industries in the region in the wake of the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001.

Because they’re also trying to run their boiler on vegetable oil, they’re also in line to receive cash from a local sustainable development fund. “If it all goes horribly wrong it means we’re not stuck with huge debts,” says Phil.

Richard Keene, owner of Cotswold Brewing Co in the UK, advises: “The thing for people who aren’t of a brewing background is not to overstretch yourself financially,” and adds: “Keep up the day job.” But he also warns against bringing in outside investors which means you end up sharing ownership along with the risk. “If it’s your baby, you want to retain control.” Another microbrewer said: “It should cost about £50,000 for the basics. You’ve really got to question why if you’re spending more than that.” 3. Finding premises Unless you’re very lucky, you’re not going to stumble on the perfect unused Victorian tower in which to reinstall an authentic gravity-fed brewing plant. Modern micros are everywhere from modern light industrial estates to old stable buildings and disused railway stores. “You need a good supply of water and good drains,” says Phil Harrison at Keswick. “You also need plenty of space.” Keswick has taken over a disused canteen and road sign store in a local council depot, and Phil advises newcomers to put practicality before aesthetics. “It’s not necessarily very romantic, but the best place for a brewery would be on a modern industrial estate, because you get lots of space, it’s usually clean and you get very high ceilings and good access.

Good floors are vital to keep everything clean. The more sanitised it is, the less chance you have of getting a bacteria infection and having to shut everything down for a week.” Richard Keene at Cotswold adds: “A cute little building in a town centre may look great but you’ll have issues explaining to the planners the copper boil-off smells and why your vehicles are blocking the roads.” “Though it’s best to start small, it’s also a bonus if you begin somewhere that allows you room to expand if the business takes off.” 4. Take advice And we don’t just mean ours. Of course you can do it all yourself by scouring the trade mags for second-hand fermenters and storage tanks, but if you’ve no previous experience, by the time you’ve got everything you need, the chances are you’ll be ready for retirement.

There is a small but efficient army of brewing consultants who’ll take charge of sourcing the right equipment and designing the brewery layout for the space you’ve got and beers you want to produce. They can also steer you towards ingredients suppliers and yeast sources.

The consultants are usually professional brewers who’ve set up their own businesses, and investment in their services – while initially another cost – can save you money in the long run, because you won’t have to go round correcting so many start-up mistakes. If you go on a brewing course as above, the institution should be able to point you in the direction of someone who has done dozens of set-ups already.

You can buy equipment new or second-hand from specialist suppliers, though Phil Harrison at Keswick suggests that “for the sake of an extra £2,000 you can get everything new, so you might as well.” Richard Keene at Cotswold advises erring on the side of caution. “Set a budget,” he says. “Start small and inexpensive.” He even advises getting an established local brewer to contract brew on your behalf at first until you get a brand name and sales base established. “There are a lot of brewers out there and it’s a cluttered marketplace,” he says. “I was stupid enough to say I wanted my own train set, but there’s less risk if you’re from a brewing background.” As well as paid-for consultants, it’s also worth contacting other brewers. The microbrewing community is tight-knit and relatively friendly, and most will be happy to share their experiences and pass on advice, providing you’re not encroaching on their territory.

The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) is also a good source of advice and networking, and has a dedicated web forum for sharing ideas, exclusively for members.

5. Test the market The outlay on equipment will be determined by your initial target brewlength, and that in turn should be influenced by how much you think you’re going to be able to sell, so tap up a few local freehouses before you start brewing to see what interest there would be in taking your beers. The publicans’ bush telegraph should also beat a trail to other pubs who’d be willing to buy your beer.

Most micros start off with a brewlength of five barrels, but you might want to increase this to 10 if your research shows a dearth of good micros in your area or unexpected enthusiasm at the thought of another new arrival.

One brewer says: “I started at 10 barrels because I thought I might as well go for the size I wanted it to be rather than spend the first year struggling to make enough and then having to expand. You can always configure the brewery so that you can brew at half capacity if you need to.” Also check out the Direct Delivery Scheme run by the Society of Independent Brewers, which provides access for microbrews to large customers such as supermarkets and pub groups.

ABUK Used microbrewing equipment: www.abuk.co.uk
BREWING, FOOD & BEVERAGE INDUSTRY SUPPLIERS ASSOCIATION Information on equipment and raw materials: www.bfbi.org.uk BREWLAB Brewing courses: www.brewlab.co.uk
INTERNATIONAL CENTRE FOR BREWING & DISTILLING Full-time and distance learning courses in brewing: www.bio.hw.ac.uk/icbd/
SOCIETY OF INDEPENDENT BREWERS Advice, networking and source of trade contacts for members: www.siba.co.uk