Tastings School - Good honest values

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Good honest values

On the face of it family brewer Batemans might seem to be a traditional small time regional brewer, but it's anything but. Innovation, good business practice and an emphasis on fun are all part of the mix. Dominic Roskrow reports.

The bottles aren’t much to look at. Dark to the point of blackness, covered in dirt and cobwebs, their metal caps rusted, they stand in their battered case like a bunch of forlorn seagulls after an oil spill.

They are stored in the bowels of Batemans Brewery at Wainfleet, Lincolnshire, and they barely warrant a second glance. But they are special. They are a bridge to brewing’s past, a link back to a different time, and an eerie reminder of the years when the much-loved George Bateman was chairman of the brewery.

The bottles contain BBB, a high strength barley wine beer that the brewery stopped producing more than 30 years ago. They were rediscovered about 18 months ago, not long after George passed away, hidden under the brewery’s fermenting vessels.

“We held a long service awards event,” recalls Stuart Bateman, who along with sister Jackie represents the fourth generation of Batemans at the brewery. “We had six employees who had 216 years of service between them. And during the event one of the long serving employees came up and said that he meant to mention for ages the fact that when the brewery stopped making BBB dad had hidden some cases away to give me on my 21st birthday but they were forgotten about.

“That was 30 years ago and they were still there. So we gave one of the bottles away as a prize but warned the winner that when he opened it he should only drink a drop as it would be cloudy and not nice. When he did open it, it wasn’t cloudy at all – it was clear and beautiful, almost like sherry, like a fortified beer. It had gone up in strength to about 10% ABV and I can only think that the alcohol preserved it. It was astounding.” Amazingly Stuart insists that I take one of the precious bottles, which I open with due reverence before a Six Nations rugby match the following weekend. It is indeed incredible, a mix of rich sherried barley and soft, deep spices, watery and very palatable, the perfect excuse to sip and reminisce about Britain’s brewing past.

Only for a bit though.

Reminiscing is a mug’s hobby, and the folk at Batemans have little time for it, though on the face of it, it might seem otherwise. The brewery is sited in the flatlands of Lincolnshire, and at the tail end of winter, when the snow is blowing across the pastureless fields and the trains struggle through the flooding, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the bleakness of the location.

The brewery itself could also be misjudged. A compact but stylish visitors’ centre tells of its glorious 135 year past, the Victorian buildings stand testament to a bygone era, and the windmill at its centre its most potent symbol. A visitor could easily view the walls covered in old pictures and the display of 4,000 odd bottles and conclude that this was little more than a living museum.

And the visitor would be wrong. Very wrong.

To understand what Batemans is really all about you need to visit the two brewhouses which sit side by side at the heart of the brewery.

The first is called the Victorian Brewhouse, and you don’t need to be a genius to work out why. It’s used mainly for special releases these days, and like much of the rest of the brewery, its walls are adorned with trophies to past times.

But look more closely. Aren’t they labels for a range of flavoured beers that include liquorice, cinnamon, wheat and cloves, toffee and strawberry?

“The wheat and cloves one was pretty much undrinkable, disgusting,” says Stuart with refreshing and typical candour. “We were one of the first brewers to do flavoured beers. There was a problem with the strawberry one because we couldn’t get rid of the flavour and it affected other beers. It became known as Strawberry Fields Forever because it went on and on. We tried everything to get the flavour out of the pipes. Eventually the only thing that worked was cider.” Innovation is a key component to what Batemans is about, and one of three drivers that prove beyond all doubt that while the family brewer knows where it comes from, it is looking forward and not mired in its own history. The brewery counts organic, vegetarian and vegan beers among its range, its Autumn Fall and Combined Harvest beers are made using barley, oats, rye and wheat, and it was one of the first to have a scoring scale of one to 10 on bottles to help customers simply understand a beer’s taste profile. Stuart is even experimenting with a scratch and sniff card to give potential purchasers an idea of what the beer will be like when they find it in supermarkets. This might be a step too far, however.

“The technology is there to do it but there are a few problems,” admits Stuart. “I don’t know what it says about our beers but every time we send them off to a company to create the aroma for the scratch and sniff card it comes back smelling of pig manure.” The second brewhouse, opened a few years back, is called the Theatre of Beers and is the brewery’s powerhouse, where new equipment has been moulded to suit the traditions of brewing Batemans Beer, and not the other way round.

“I wanted a name for it because we have a warehouse that has been up for decades and is still known as the new warehouse even though it isn’t any more. I didn’t want this to be known as the new brewhouse and the Victorian one be known as the old brewhouse because that’s a bit disrespectful.

“I took the name idea from Manchester United’s Theatre of Dreams and like them we let people put their names on plaques on the wall. There are one or two odd ones though.

We have one bloke who put the name of his two teddy bears on one brick.” And if you’re thinking that there’s a whiff of eccentricity about some of this, you’d be right.

Which brings us to the brewery’s second major selling point – its sense of fun.

It’s an understatement to say that Batemans doesn’t take itself too seriously. From the bizarre music you have to listen to as you wait on the telephone to be connected, through to the flashing nose of the pump clip promoting what is arguably Britain’s most successful Christmas ale, Rosey Nosey, through to the large and impressive range of special beer names and accompanying beer clips, there’s a delightful irreverence at work.

Perhaps as a testament to the fact that close by is Skegness, the capital of distinctly British ribald picture postcard humour, there are countless saucy references through the beer range. The current Six Nations rugby ale is called Hooker, for instance, and suffice to say that the pump clip doesn’t feature a typical rugby player in the number two jersey. The monthly Calendar Girls releases will also no doubt be raising a few titters in pubs around the region.

Even newest beer G. H. A, which reflects the brewery’s motto Good Honest Ales, isn’t above the fray.

“It’s only been available for a few days and already people have given it another name which includes the words Great and Hairy,” says Stuart.

“We like that. If people are talking about your beers and it’s causing interest, that’s a good thing.” But all the fun, experimentation and new product launches are for one thing and one thing only; ensuring the future of the family business by making sure Batemans beer is at the centre of the community around it.

“Everything we have talked about is a prop to running a successful community pub business,” says Stuart.

“We are working hard to make sure that there is a reason to go out to the pub. You can watch television at home, drink at home, play computer games at home, but you can’t play community games with other people.

“So we’re looking at that, we’re looking at value for money catering packages, at family packages. We have initiatives like the one in Boston where there are big East European and Portuguese communities. We are doing a competition where there is the chance to win a year’s supply of beer. But you have to play in teams with someone from another country.

Rather than drive communities apart let’s bring them together. It is working very well.” Good business practices are an essential part of this, too, and Stuart and his team have worked hard to build a special relationship with the tenants who run the pubs. They have scrapped rent reviews, for instance.

“Traditionally that relationship has not been a good one in the trade as a whole. But how can you have a proper relationship when one party thinks the other is a thief, and the one thinks the other is a cheat and a liar? Traditionally the relationship has broken down because the tenants have been penalised for making higher profits so they have had a reason to hide their success from the brewery.

“We have attempted to remove all suspicion and doubt by agreeing an acceptable net profit with the tenants and taking 50 per cent of it, as is normal. But if they exceed that profit they keep it all and there are no reviews so they get all the benefit for their hard work. On top of that, we will give them a cheque for half the difference between the profit we agreed and what they actually make, so there is an incentive for them to do well and to be open about it.

“We would normally expect good tenants to be off to get their own place in three years but in that time we are encouraging them to build their businesses up and take them to a higher level. And we benefit from that because most of what they sell to make their higher profits is bought from us, so everyone’s happy.” It all adds up to an impressive success story and Stuart is optimistic that the transparent nature of the family business, the flexibility to innovate fast and the emphasis on community will ensure the company rides out the recession.

“We have no fear here,” he says. “There are no heads on the chopping board if anything goes wrong. We encourage ideas. We can sit round a table, open up the bar and talk and talk, and in that way new ideas come up all the time. It’s that easy.” Sipping the 30 year old BBB a few days later, I can’t help but smile at Stuart’s honesty, passion and irreverence. Batemans is all about great tasting beer, a laugh with friends, and a happy community. Good honest values. Under the current management it feels like the family business is in safe hands.

And you suspect that every one of the previous three generations of Batemans would be very proud indeed.

Tasting notes
Batemans GHA 4.2%
A delicious quenchable citrus rush at first, then a
delightful hoppy backbone to follow, making this
both very refreshing for session drinking but
substantial enough for winter time. A winner.
Batemans XXXB 4.8%
Full and rich copper red bitter with a big mouth feel,
lots of fruit and a delightful rich hoppy and spicy
follow through.
Batemans Victory 6.0%
Big chewy mouth feel, citrus and orange fruits a nice
rush of hops and a spicy finish combined with the
extra alcohol make this a big hitting all rounder.
Batemans Dark Lord 5.0%
Full flavoured, rich and toasty dark ruby ale with an
appealing malty biscuit flavour and some lovely
citrus notes.
Combined Harvest 4.7%
The four grains of barley, wheat, oats and rye give
this a complex and intriguing flavour, but the overall
effect is soft, rounded and chewy with some orange
and lemon flavours.
George Bateman & Son Ltd
Salem Bridge Brewery, Mill Lane, Wainfleet,
Lincolnshire, PE24 4JE UK
Tel: +44 (0)1754 880 317