Tastings School - Raising Cains

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Raising Cains

Liverpool brewery Cains seemed to be going nowhere fast until two brothers turned it on its head. Andrew Catchpole reports

When two Asian brothers of Kentish origin bought the loss-making Cains brewery in Liverpool in 2002 more than a few eyebrows were raised.

With no experience of brewing, no local ties, a background in wholesale retailing and only a negligible grasp of Scouse footballing lore, there were dark mutterings that this opportunistic move would do little to revive a proud 150-year-old Merseyside brewing tradition in this magnificent Victorian landmark brewery. How wrong the cynics were.

In 2008, when Liverpool dons the mantle of European City of Culture, Cains is earmarked the official beer for Merseyside’s year-long celebrations. Naturally, it is expected that many millions of visitors will leave only after sampling its brews.

Cains bitters and its recently launched lager – a first among regional brewers who typically prefer to offer a foreign import alongside their traditional regional ales – have already won favourable comment from the critics and look set to become far better known beyond Merseyside.

And the Dusanj brother’s story proves as interesting as Cains beers.

After parting with £7.5million of their own cash for Liverpool’s only working brewery, Ajmail and Sudarghara Dusanj took the view that Cains strongest card was its regional brewing heritage and set about the rapid transformation of this loss-making enterprise.

“We picked up on the sale of Cains in The Times on New Year’s Day 2002,” said Sudarghara. Cains’ owner, Danish Brewing Group, had put out a statement in Denmark to its shareholders to the effect that the business was to be sold.

Smart cookies both, the Dusanj brothers evidently didn’t have rusty heads on that traditionally hazy morning.

“It would have been very easy to miss it and the idea of buying Cains was certainly a quantum leap,” said Sudarghara. “But we discussed it and thought ‘yes, why not, we can do this,” added Ajmail. “We were the first to ring and make an appointment when the sale was officially offered that January.” The brewery provided a new operations base for the brothers burgeoning Midland’s based beer wholesale business, but the brewing changes made shortly after the Dusanj brothers relocated to Liverpool helped silence the doubts of industry and critics.

With the deal in the bag, immediate investment began in the brewery. David Nigs, a respected ex-Banks’s brewer, was brought in as head brewer and joined by David Edwards and David Moore, respectively from SA Brains in Cardiff and Boddingtons in Manchester.

The brief was an enviable one. To up the quality of the hops and barley in the brews, improve the range offered and subtly redesign the distinctive Cains logo and livery.

On top of this, the Dusanj brothers decided on a marketing strategy centred on the strap-line ‘Liverpool in a pint’ to stress the 150 year heritage of Cains. Within two years a business formerly making a £2 million annual loss had doubled its turnover to £30 million, and in 2005 Cains showed a modest profit of £57,000. Better yet is the still evolving selection of beers.

A sight of the brewery, contained within its striking original red brick facades and with satisfying Victorian architectural flourishes, is well worth the short journey from central Liverpool alone. But coupled with the adjoining Brewery Tap pub, with its similar red brick, cosy feel and full range of Cains beers, should help swing visitors towards the rapidly regenerating area of Toxteth as part of their 2008 Liverpool tour. Cains also offers brewery tours – an excellent experience in this fine old building – rounded off with a couple of sample pints and a buffet.

The walk back to central Liverpool from the Tap is fairly sobering though it may be wise to book a cab if you are looking to sample the full range of Cains’ beers in one go.

Stalwarts of the range include a thirst-slaking IPA (3.5%), full-bodied and fruity Traditional Bitter (4%), the hoppy, bitter-finishing Formidable Ale (5%) and the 2008 Culture Ale (5%), lent a generous citrussy hop character through both early and late hopping, and brewed to celebrate Liverpool’s forthcoming success as European City of Culture.

Seasonal brews include the cheesefriendly, raison-infused Cains Fine Raison Beer (5%), the amber, malt-rich Victorian Bitter (6%) for contemplative winter supping, the aromatic springtime Triple Hop (4%), strong brown ale Dragonheart (5%) and the relatively recent addition, Sundowner (4.5%), a golden summer ale. A plethora of awards have been won, from sources as respectable as CAMRA and, in 2003, a top spot for the Raison Ale in the Tesco Beer Challenge.

The Dusanj bothers and their brewing team may be sticklers for good quality ingredients, such as Marris Otter barley, but like many other respected regional brewers they are not sticklers for English hops unless it is felt they are best for a given brew. So while Fuggles and Goldings for traditional brews such as the IPA and FA (Formidable Ale), high quality foreign hops creep in, not least the Czech Saaz hops used for the lager.

Ah, now, the Cains lager. Launched in 2004, with a bottled version introduced in the summer and a keg version produced in 2005, this full-flavoured tipple, cold-lagered for three full months, has been cited by detractors as evidence that the Dusanj brothers are not as fully committed to reviving traditional regional beer brewing as they perhaps could be. Ajmail and Sudarghara – businessmen first and foremost by their own admission - are unapologetic about the growing success of their lager brand.

“We asked why all the British regional brewers take so much pride in their beers but then undercut themselves by offering foreign lagers brewed under licence alongside their own ales in their own pubs,” Ajmail told me shortly after the launch of Cains lager.

“In the 1960s, when the Beatles were around, lager accounted for about one percent of the market,” he continued.

“By 2007 the indications are that lager will account for 75 per cent of the British beer market.” Ajmail’s point, which he made as we supped on his hoppy and aromatic lager in the wonderfully tiled Victorian interior of Cains’ Doctor Duncan’s pub in the heart of Liverpool, is well argued. He feels that by being snobbish about lager the regional brewers are missing an opportunity to generate greater profits by interesting their own loyal customers in a good quality lager and thus help to protect their own tradition of regional beers and ales.

More recently Sudarghara told me that when the brothers first spoke with their team about introducing a Cains lager their sales manager said: “There is no way a lager will ever work”.

But, undaunted, Sudarghara replied: “I like to drink lager and if there was a regional lager I would drink it with as much pride as I would drink a regional ale and I believe other people would feel the same.” Senior management has a way of getting its own say – especially when a reasonable fortune of their own has been invested in buying the business – and so the Dusanj brothers won through. The public favourably received Cains lager and listing followed, at first in regional pubs such as Liverpool’s famous Philharmonic and the nearby ultra-hip London Carriage Works boutique hotel.

Next local stores and regional branches of both bar chains such as Mitchell’s and Butlers and supermarkets including Booths, and then national listings in supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s have followed. The Liverpool lager has also become sponsor to many cultural and sporting events, including the Mitchell Street Festival (the site of the old Cavern where the Beatles one played) and, of course, Liverpool’s forthcoming stint as European City of Culture.

Of, course, the Cains story hasn’t all been plain sailing since the Dusanj brothers came to Toxteth but the glitches so far seem to have been few and far between. Back in 2004 when I first interviewed the pair they spoke of grand plans to expand their modest estate of 11 pubs to 100 regional pubs over the next few years.

By mid-2006 that number had increased to just 12, but Sudarghara recently assured me that the plans to improve and expand the Cains pub estate were still very much in place.

“The problem we have come up against is a difficulty in finding the right quality pubs to buy,” he said. “We have also been busier than we expected with everything else that is going on at the brewery including the success of Cains lager.” Sudarghara did reveal that Cains is next to roll out a bar with a difference in the centre of the city. “We are in discussion over a site in Liverpool where we want to create a different kind of modern bar driven by both lager and ales,” he said. “If this works we plan to roll out the concept with the second bar in London. The name will be Cains because this is what we are working on building.” Questioned about their long-term commitment to developing Cains as a regional brewer, the brothers are adamant still that they have no plans to revamp the place and moonlight out after a highly profitable sale. “This brewery is a platform for all our aspirations,” insisted Sudarghara. He continued: “It gives us what we’ve dreamt of all our lives – a recognisable base from which we can build our business to whatever size we like.

We plan to be here for a very long time.” In so many ways these boys born into the chip shop business in Chatham 40-odd years ago are unlikely saviours for Merseyside’s last surviving brewer. But they do appear to have the passion and interest coupled with sound business skills, learnt through years of wholesaling in a tough, competitive market, and may be just the team Cains needs to survive and flourish.

One can not doubt, though, that investing in this 10 acre site – especially with the regeneration going on leading up to Liverpool’s year of European glory – has been a canny move.

“As we didn’t know anything about brewing it perhaps helped us to address each problem or challenge in a fresh light,” Ajmail told we when we first met. Four years after moving their families, business interest and lives to Liverpool, The Dusanj brothers are still philosophical about their success.

“It was easier for us as a small team to make decisions and act on them unlike the previous owners who were bogged down by layers and layers of management,” Sudarghara now adds.

“We are very proud to be part of Liverpool and have made it our home. We want to be a big part of its success.” One challenge that remains for the brothers is to be accepted as members of an exclusive club – the Independent Family Brewers of Britain (IFBB).

When they investigated the possibility of being counted among its brogue-clad and stripy-shirted members in 2002, the association, formed of Britain’s oldest family brewers including companies such as Fuller’s, Shepherd Neame and the like, said no.

The rules stipulate that a brewer has to be independent, family owned, a member of the British Beer & Pub Association, and brew cask conditioned ales. Ajmail smiled as he remembered suggesting that the Dusanj brothers and Cains fulfilled all these requirements.

“They went away and scratched their heads and then Anthony Fuller sent us a letter saying we had to be in the brewing business for 10 years,” he remembered.

One thing is for certain with these driven but immensely likeable upstart brewers. Ajmail and Sudarghara will be knocking on the door of the IFBB again in 2012. And this time, if they stick the course, they may just be accepted to this venerable club.

History

1850 Robert Cain, then 24, bought a small pub in Limekiln Lane and began brewing his own ales.

1858 Robert Cain bought an established brewing site on Stanhope Street which survives as Cains brewery today.

1887 Work on the distinctive red brick brewery and tower began during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year.

1907 Robert Cain dies aged 81 having amassed a fortune, been honoured with the title Lord Brocket and attracting 3,00 mourners to his funeral.

1911 Cains merged with Walkers of Warrington to become Walker Cains and production switched to Warrington.

1919 Walker Cains listed as one of the top 50 companies in Britain.

1923 The landmark Stanhope Street brewery sold to Higson’s – a name by which it is still widely known in Liverpool.

1985 Higson’s sold out to Boddignton’s of Manchester.

1990 Boddington’s decided to concentrate on pub ownership and sold the brewery to Whitbread, which closed the Cains site. The same year the Danish Brewing Company bought and reopened the brewery.

2002 The brewery was once again put up for sale ands bought by the Dusanj brothers, the first Asian family to ever run a UK brewery.