Tastings School - Tiger in the tank (Everards)

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Tiger in the tank (Everards)

Everards is a family brewery with lots of plans. Dominic Roskrow paid it a visit

First impressions can be deceptive.

Drive up to the Everards Castle Acre Brewery in Leicester and you’re not exactly writing missives back to your family.

It sits on the edge of the city’s newest and biggest retail park, just after a busy motorway intersection. It is neighboured on one side by a supermarket covering more space than the average football stadium, and on the other there is a furniture store with more room lay-outs than most housing estates.

Everard’s is, in a word, modern – as far removed from the bubbling brooks and idyllic green fields so often associated with English cask ale as you can get. And the company acknowledges as much.

“We use city water here,” says brand manager Erika Hardy. “We could hardly use anything else. It would be hard to claim we drew it from a spring under the shops.”

Don’t be fooled though. Beyond the big wine retailing operation, the mass of branded lorries and the mountains of metal kegs is a brewery with its roots planted firmly in tradition. Everards is first and foremost a brewery about cask-conditioned ale; and its future is being moulded around its core cask brands.

Let’s take a look at the location first. Things aren’t quite what they seem. Everard’s moved here some 20 years ago, when Fosse Park (as it is known) was little more than a pound sign in a property developer’s eye. Back then it was farmland, so rather than the brewery going to the retail park, it was the other way round.

Search beyond the dark brick and green plant reception area, too, and you’ll discover a compact and relatively complex brewery where keg and cask products are produced and packaged side by side through a giddy mix of modern technology and good old-fashioned craftsmanship.

Everards was established in 1849 and its heartland is Leicestershire. It remains a privately-run family firm but the Everard family are of the view that it takes experts to produce and successfully sell fine beer so only one member of the family is ever involved with the business.

The present family incumbent is Richard and he represents the fifth generation of the family since the brewery was first founded in 1849. He oversees an estate of 161 pubs.

In some ways it is a typical regional brewer, operating in the space above the microbrewery level but well below the big national pub companies which are currently swallowing pub estates and turning them in to homogenous alcohol shops. It describes itself as a traditional pub property company, owning its estate and pretty much basing it around the brewery in its Leicestershire heartland.

That doesn’t mean it’s standing still, though. Modern economics wouldn’t let it, and its pubs now spill out of the county and into Oxford, Cambridge and Northampton.

The challenge it faces is how to survive and prosper when it can’t command the economies of scale that the predatory pubcos can. Its answer – agreed last year and currently being acted upon – is to focus on its ale brands – present them in the best possible way by making sure that they’re served in perfect condition by trained and knowledgeable bar staff - and in so doing turn its East Midlands heartland into a fortress before stretching its limbs and moving further afield.

I should declare a personal interest at this point. I grew up with Everards. When most 18- year-olds were downing lager and going to discos I preferred the rural tranquillity of the beer garden at the Cherry Tree, Little Bowden, Market Harborough, where my drink of choice was Old Original. On match days we’d drink Tiger. Despite the city location, Everards has always been about long evenings in the farming villages of South Leicestershire during harvest time, and in the warm country pubs with their welcoming fires when the weather swept in from the east.

All well and good, of course, but that was then. Times have changed beyond all recognition in the pub game these last 25 years or so, and it takes a lot more than happy memories of country cricket matches to survive these days.

Which is why Stephen Gould is now the managing director of Everards. He’s young, affable and clearly a man with a mission. And he’s as good a representation as any of a company as it looks to its future and prepares to adapt with the times.

The company’s statement of intent came some three years ago when it took the decision to convert its estate from managed houses to tenancies. At a stroke it reduced the company’s workforce from 900 to 150 and meant a radical change in thinking on behalf of the company.

“We went from one business operating a managed estate to a business with 161 individual businesses,” says Stephen Gould. “We needed to have a clear vision to make this change work.

“Our view was that we needed to support each of our licensees to help them to become the best operators in their regions. To do that we felt we had to look at each of the businesses in the context of its own market place. We knew we had the right brands for the pubs but we put an emphasis on real ale and on the Everards brand.

“We could have gone down the modern route of debranding the pubs but we felt we would lose the biggest point of difference we had over the pub companies – the fact that they were Everards pubs with Everards real ale products.”

At present the brewery is producing a little more than 100,000 barrels a year, split 40:60 in flavour of keg products. But it is the cask ale that gives the company its point of difference and it is here that much of the effort and work has gone. Like all brewers creating a living product, the challenge for Everards is to make sure that the customer drinking the beer receives it in his glass in the way the brewery intended.

Ensuring this isn’t simply a case of training licensees in good practice and cellar management; it’s by offering them a mutual partnership through which each tenant is given proper support and back up whenever required.

This job falls under the remit of quality assurance manager Mark Tetlow, who believes that a family brewery the size of Everards has an advantage if it gets this part of the business right.

“A larger pub company might have the economies of scale of a large estate but it can struggle to match a company like ours for after-sales service,” he says. “We are small enough to know the licensees individually and can be flexible enough to listen to what they are saying to us and to act accordingly.”

Everards produces three core brands – Tiger, its flagship brand; session bitter Beacon; and premium ale Old Original, notable for its full body and rich fruitiness. Both Tiger and Beacon are produced in both keg and cask formats, and there is a range of seasonal beers produced every two months to augment the offering.

Of these the summer offering, Sun Chaser, has been added recently to the core range to take advantage of the current trend towards golden ales. But it’s still a relatively niche offering – with Original and Sun Chaser still accounting for only about 10 per cent of sales, compared to Tiger’s 60 per cent market share and Beacon’s 30 per cent.

Everards uses primarily Maris Otter barley and occasionally Crystal malt, which provides a richer more malty taste. For darker beers chocolate malt is also used. Huggles and Goldings are the main hops used, normally in pellet form. But the brewery will also use Challenger and Target on occasion, and Hallertau Hersbrucker is imported when a more fruity beer is required.

Mark Tetlow also says that oats and aromatic barleys have been used on one-off occasions and the brewery has experimented with organic beers in the past.

Everards was purpose-built 20 years ago so it is designed to accommodate expansion. Its production areas are built into its centre, with the quality control, casking operations and collection areas built out from the centre on one side. Should it need to, it could effectively double its production by recreating the existing lay-out on the other side of the production hub.

For the time being, though, Mark and his team are concentrating on quality standards within the existing estate. As part of its Passion for Excellence campaign, and tied closely to its recently launched ‘Support Your Local’ initiative, the company has developed a training programme in three stages.

The bronze and silver stage are one day course, with the silver award integrated in to the British Institute of Innkeeping’s Beer and Cellar Quality Award, so that successful participants leave with a nationallyrecognised award.

But Mark’s eyes really light up when he talks about the longer gold qualification that he is still developing which will take the brewery into unchartered territory.

“We’re looking at providing a course that is the bee’s knees, something really special,” he says. “One of the ideas is to even get licensees brewing their own individual beer to sell in their pubs.

“To make it work practically we can’t just brew one barrel so the idea would be to get a small number of brewers effectively forming a small club, with each licensee taking it in turn to have his beer stocked by the group of pubs. We’re talking about each of them having their own personalised beer pump for it. It would be a real talking point.”

Back in his office Stephen Gould is bullish about the future, confident that a family brewer such as Everards can thrive despite – or perhaps even because of – the continued growth of the larger pubcos.

Finding workable quality outlets to expand into is hard, he says, but with the company benefiting from a brand design makeover and the support of the supermarket chains, the Leicestershire beer is probably enjoying a higher profile than it ever has before, and increasingly that’s outside its heartland.

There’s much to do, he says, but there is a clear sense that the company is moving forward. Cask ale, says Stephen, is where the company’s future lies.

“We sense there is a growing interest again in cask products but we’re not shying away from the supermarket or retailer sector,” he says. “We see them working together. Supermarkets have helped create an interest in ale through selling bottles. We hope that people who have tried one of our beers in this way will be tempted to have one if they see them in the pub.”

With quality beer, motivated licensees and first class pubs, it’s all looking very positive for Everards.

Now if it could just find a quaint brewery by a river…