Ed Murray used to spend much of his time stuck in the car; working as a self-employed management consultant meant that a large proportion of his week was spent driving to different parts of the country. Now, it is fair to say, his commute to work has been reduced – in fact, it is barely 700 yards, the distance from his home on one side of the Oxfordshire village of Horspath to the other, the location of his new working premises ever since he and his wife Pip decided to start their own business.
If you think that alone sounds like a good enough reason for a career change, it gets better, because Ed is now doing for a living what many thousands across the country must dream of – making beer. Their new venture, the Shotover Brewing Company (named after Shotover Hill, an area of woodland that overlooks Oxford), is the result of a passion for brewing that has lasted for decades on the part of Ed, who got the bug from his father. He has made beer himself as a home brewer for more than 20 years, and didn't stop even when working as a VSO volunteer in Sierra Leone, where he used his bath in Freetown to make ale.
Ed and Pip are just one of many beer lovers who are turning their hobby into a profession. Beer sales in the UK may be dropping, with 52 pubs closing each week according to the British Beer and Pub Association, but microbreweries – small, independent breweries – are going through something of a purple patch. According to the Good Beer Guide, 71 microbreweries were set up between September 2008 and September 2009, with more opening all the time.
"It is massively exciting," says Pete Brown, who last December was named Beer Writer of the Year by the British Guild of Beer Writers. "We've now got more breweries in the country than at any time since the Second World War, which can only mean that it's good for choice." Microbreweries are not a new concept, but in 2002 a reduced rate of excise duty was introduced for breweries that produce less than a certain amount of beer. "We have a passionate and really interesting home-brewing culture in the UK," says Pete. "A lot of them have been encouraged to move it out of their sheds and start doing it on a bigger scale and commercially."
For Ed and Pip, the idea of opening up their own brewery had been burning away for the last 10 years. However, it took a Business Studies A-level project by their eldest son in 2003 to make them properly consider the idea. "He did a feasibility study for a microbrewery in Oxford," said Ed, "and he got an A for it as well. His recommendation, by the way, was that we should not open one." Yet in 2008 the idea surfaced again, and after spending Christmas debating the idea, in January last year they decided to go for it.
With Ed already knowing the principles of the craft, thanks to his home-brewing experience and having gone on a short course back in 2003, he just needed to take a further one-week course on techniques to help him with making the beer on a larger scale. The biggest issue, once they had decided to go ahead with the project, was to decide where their brewery would be sited. "We are in the Oxford green belt here, which makes trying to get planning permission for anything here really difficult," says Ed. "At first we looked at industrial estates, but they are quite soulless as well as being not that big and very expensive."
Luckily, a farmer from their village did have some space available, and although his first proposal of a barn was not feasible, his second suggestion – a disused stable in a block – was a success. Unfortunately the 200-year-old stable, which was still divided into stalls for horses, required a bit of an overhaul. "We had to work on everything," says Ed. "The masonry walls had to be rendered because wash-down walls are required in the food preparation business." The floor needed to be given a new surface so if the beer spilt it wouldn't poison the environment, and a separation tank was installed to treat the effluent.
Working to a tight deadline and doing as much work themselves as they could – "We've got the backache from the jobs," jokes Ed – they managed to get it all done before the installation of the brewing equipment last November. Of course, all the blood, sweat and tears that went into constructing the brewery would have gone to waste if the actual beer itself wasn't much cop.
With his experience of brewing, Ed decided that there was a large market for very hoppy, lightweight beers, which are known as session ales. "If you're a home brewer you don't tend to make sessions ales," he says. "If you're going to make beer you might as well make a big one, say with 5 per cent alcohol. Therefore the session ale was designed to hit a market segment."
After a number of pilots, they ended up with Prospect – a 3.7 per cent pale-copper bitter that is full of hops. "I don't think there is any point in a small brewery like us trying to make beer like other people," he says. "We set out to try and make something very distinctive that people would drink and think 'Oh, that's different!'."
Completing their current line-up of beers is Scholar, a dark copper-coloured beer that at 4.5 per cent is a bit stronger.
Pete believes that the ability to produce unusual beers is one of the great strengths of microbreweries. "Brewing is a very traditional industry," he says. "What is nice about microbreweries is that they've still got one eye on tradition and they respect it, but they are not afraid to experiment either. They are starting to create new and exciting beers, using different ingredients and processes, and mixing things up a bit."
Of course, not every small brewery in the country is producing fantastic beer. Pete believes that the quality varies massively and that "the best beers I have ever tasted and the worst beers I have ever tasted have come from UK microbrewers". Still, there are plenty of great beers being produced. "Some of these beers are as good as any kind of wine, and some are even getting into spirits territory – some of them could be a good substitute for a brandy or a single malt," he says. "And if you just fancy a decent pint, then there are lots that are just very good in that respect as well."
He believes that the popularity of microbreweries is part of a general increase of interest from British consumers in food and drink. "I think beer is left a few years behind things like cheese and wine," he says, "but people are now starting to wake up and realise that you don't just have to drink a tasteless mass-produced lager, and that there is actually some quality and variety out there."
There is, believes Ed, a real sense of community amongst brewers. "Beer people talk to each other all the time," he says. "The microbrewing-fraternity are really quite cooperative. We don't regard each other as the enemy, if you know what I mean. People are remarkably open, even commercially open, about things like the price you can get for the beer, recipes, problems with yeast or temperatures or whatever."
Of course, for Ed and Pip brewing the beer is only half the story. They also needed to work out how to sell it. "When we were planning the business we didn't even know what it was going to be called, or what the branding would be," Ed says. "We ended up having almost like little focus groups around the table. We would have a dinner party, and say 'Ok, let's play with brewery names'." Along with local name, the labels show the silhouette of the Oxford skyline. It is a connection Ed believes drinkers will respond positively to. "People are starting to look for local products," he says.
Iain Loe from the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) agrees, and think breweries are well placed to benefit from this trend: "Ideally, I think, you should drink a microbrewer's beer close to where the beer is brewed, and preferably have the brewer explain what the flavours in that beer are all about."
Having produced its first batch last November, the Shotover Brewing Company has already managed to get its beer into some pubs, mainly thanks to local press articles and word of mouth. Now Ed and Pip plan to take stock and decide how to proceed.
"Now we can sit back and think about what days of the week we should be brewing, how much stock we should hold, and things like that," says Ed. "Since September, when we started the building programme, we've been non-stop." One of their next tasks will be to set up a business website: the brewery already has its own fan page on Facebook, set up by their youngest son, with 270 fans and growing.
Small wonders: Britain's best microbreweries
Hop Back Brewery
It started life as a brew pub in Salisbury in the Eighties, but the Hop Back Brewery – now in the Wiltshire village of Downton – has grown substantially. Its leading beer is the award-winning Summer Lightning.
Crouch Vale Brewery
Making beer since the early Eighties, the Crouch Vale Brewery in Essex brews a range of seasonal beers as well as its regular brews.
The Harviestoun Brewery – in Clackmannanshire in the heart of Scotland – was set up by Ken Brooker, a former Ford worker. In 2007 their session ale Bitter & Twisted was named 'World's Best Ale' at the World Beer Awards. www.harviestoun.com
Otley Brewing Company
A stylish Welsh brewery that has attempted to introduce a new audience to real ales, the Otley Brewing Company was started in 2005 and has a range of beers that are regularly recognised at awards.