Rise of the microbrewery: Small but perfectly formed

Artisan breweries are enjoying a rise in sales while mass-marketed lagers and keg beers suffer. By Roger Protz

You have to admire Keith Bott's chutzpah. He runs the Titanic Brewery in Stoke-on-Trent, birthplace of Edward John Smith, captain of the ill-fated liner. Bott has weathered the storm of the endless jokes about his beer going down well and has built on Stoke's association with the Titanic with a selection of beers called Steerage, Lifeboat and Iceberg.

Bott is a leading figure in the craft-brewing revolution in Britain. He is so enthused by the success of the beer minnows that he has accepted, for the second time, the chairman's role at the influential Society of Independent Brewers (Siba).

According to Siba figures, there are around 700 British breweries, twice the number when the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) was founded in 1971. Of the 700, 450 are Siba members. Bott acknowledges that a further 100 or so aren't in his association, mainly because they are so small and brew only a few gallons a week that they don't see the need to join.

At a time of falling beer consumption, the smaller craft breweries are recording growth of between 3 and 7 per cent a year. The revival of consumer interest in cask-conditioned beer or real ale has boosted the fortunes of the craft producers, while sales of massively promoted premium lagers and keg beers are in serious decline.

To meet the demand for cask beer, new small breweries are opening at the rate of 40 or more a year. Bott says there are two main driving forces behind the surge of new breweries: Progressive Beer Duty (PBD) and "localism". Until 2002, all British breweries, regardless of size, paid the same level of excise duty. The burden on the smaller producers was crippling. For 21 years, Siba campaigned for the introduction of a European-style system in which smaller brewers paid a lower level of tax. In 2002, the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, introduced Progressive Beer Duty and, at a stroke, saved several hundred breweries from going out of business. Brewers who produce fewer than 60,000 hectolitres (approximately 40,000 barrels) a year now pay lower rates of duty on a sliding scale.

Bott is convinced that craft brewers are meeting a consumer demand for "provenance" or locally produced products. A growing number of people wants to know how their food and drink are made and where the ingredients are sourced. Where beer is concerned, there is a growing gap between global brewers who make their beers with large amounts of corn, maize and hop extracts, and the craft producers who buy, at a premium, the finest malting barley and whole hops from local farmers.

Titanic Brewery is a classic example of the success of small brewers. When Bott took over at Titanic, he knew he was up against the leading cask beer in Britain, Draught Bass from Burton-on-Trent, which had a great following in Stoke. Bass was once worth two million barrels a year, but successive owners sidelined it as they pursued the greater profits from such lager brands as Carling and Stella Artois. Titanic, which brews around 8,000 barrels a year, can never match Draught Bass's former volumes but it has plugged the gap by continuing to make cask beer available to consumers in the East Midlands.

Bott has won countless awards for his ales, in particular Titanic Stout, a beer that has helped breathe new life into the dark beer sector. In 1995, he moved next door from his original site to a larger plant and now supplies four of his own pubs as well as 300 other accounts. His philosophy is one followed by other Siba members: "I don't move beer further than necessary – our trade is local. We recycle every container, we've reduced energy in the brewery, and we use water for one good reason: to turn it into beer."

While some Siba members are happy to remain small, others show dramatic growth, none more so than Dark Star in West Sussex. It started life in 1994 in the cellar of the Evening Star pub in Brighton using equipment only marginally bigger than a home-brew kit. The beers, including a stunningly bitter Hophead, proved so popular that a new brewery with a 15-barrel plant opened in Ansty in 2001. Demand and growth continued at such a pace that in January Dark Star moved for a third time to a custom-built plant at Partridge Green near Haywards Heath with an annual capacity of 20,000 barrels – that's twice the size of some long-standing family brewers.

The most spectacular success story involves Moorhouse's Brewery in Burnley. It started life in the 19th century making non-alcoholic beer for pubs run by the Temperance movement. It switched to cask beer in the 1970s, but a series of owners failed to make a profit until it was bought by the local businessman Bill Parkinson in the mid-1980s. He has invested heavily in the company, and its fortunes were boosted by winning Camra's Champion Beer of Britain award in 2000 for its Black Cat mild. This turned the spotlight on Moorhouse's beers, the premium bitter Pendle Witches Brew in particular.

In spite of being in an area of urban decline, Moorhouse's has met the demand for its beers by buying six pubs. The company is currently building a new brewery that will provide it with an annual capacity of 40,000 barrels.

Few craft breweries have an entrepreneur such as Parkinson to fund them. Most are built on a passion for beer and limited investment. On the other side of the Pennines, Dave Hughes and his wife, Judi, came from the restaurant business to run the Acorn Brewery that has recreated Barnsley Bitter, a much-loved beer that disappeared in the 1970s when the Barnsley Brewery was taken over and closed by John Smith's.

The Hugheses managed to get a sample of the old Barnsley Bitter yeast that is critical to the flavour of the beer. Acorn opened in 2003, and the bitter has won 40 awards from Camra national and regional competitions. In January, its Gorlovka Imperial Stout won the champion stout class at the National Winter Ales Festival: Gorlovka is Barnsley's twin town in the Ukraine, and the beer recalls the time in the 18th and 19th centuries when British brewers exported vast amounts of strong stout to Russia and the Baltic states.

Acorn has also recreated another famous British export: India Pale Ale. Many craft breweries have an IPA in their locker but none can match Acorn's devotion to the style. It has brewed 36 versions of the beer, using a wide range of hops from England, continental Europe and the United States. Acorn brews 100 barrels a week but that will grow when extra fermenting vessels are installed.

In the Derbyshire Peaks, Thornbridge Brewery, launched in 2005, has rapidly built a reputation as one of the most innovative breweries in Britain. It started life in outbuildings at Thornbridge Hall on a tiny 10-barrel plant. Last summer it moved to a custom-built new site at Crompton Mill near Bakewell, where Richard Arkwright harnessed the power of the River Derwent in the 18th century to build a spinning frame that helped launch the industrial revolution. The new Thornbridge plant, using equipment sourced in Italy, can produce 30,000 barrels a year and is capable of making lager as well as ale.

The main brands at Thornbridge are Jaipur IPA and St Petersburg Imperial Russian Stout, which bow in the direction of Britain's industrial past. The stout has been used as the base for storing beer in oak casks obtained from the malt whisky industry in Scotland. The experiments have caused such interest that the brewery is now using wine and Cognac casks as well. The use of whisky casks was prompted by the success of the oak-aged beers produced in Scotland by Innis & Gunn, using barrels bought from the American bourbon industry.

Earlier this week, the Meantime Brewery opened a new micro plant in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London. In the 18th century, the college had its own small brewery where it made porter, the forerunner of stout, for sick and injured seamen. Brewmaster Alastair Hook, who trained at the world-famous brewing faculty of the Technical University of Munich, has recreated a porter for the newly opened Old Brewery and will dig into recipe books to make more lost or forgotten styles. His main brewery, opposite Charlton Athletic football ground, will move later this year to new premises with room for expansion to keep up with demand for such brands as India Pale Ale, Chocolate Porter and Belgian-style fruit beers.

Bott believes only pub closures can prevent further expansion of the craft brewery sector. With nearly 40 pubs a week shutting for good, he thinks the solution lies in the Government tackling the problem of supermarkets selling beer as loss leaders. He will argue with the Government that cask beer is such a uniquely British product it should be given much lower rates of duty than global brands to sustain one of the country's last remaining major industries.

Roger Protz is the author of '300 Beers To Try Before You Die!' www.beer-pages.com

The regionals: enjoying a renaissance, thanks to cask ale

Many family-owned and bigger regional breweries have closed in the past 30 years, unable to compete with the price-cutting and heavy discounting of the giant national producers. But the breweries that remain are now enjoying a renaissance thanks to the revival of cask beer.

Greene King and Marston's sell their beers nationally, own several thousand pubs, and major on such cask ales as Greene King IPA and Marston's Pedigree. The family-owned Fuller's Brewery has been brewing for 350 years in Chiswick, West London, produces 200,000 barrels a year, and its London Pride is now the biggest-selling premium real ale in the country. It's closely followed by Wells & Young's in Bedford with Bombardier best bitter, Ordinary and Special from the much-missed Young's Brewery in south London, and Courage Best and Directors bought from Scottish & Newcastle.

George Bateman & Son proclaims its family association in the name. Built around a former windmill in Wainfleet, Lincolnshire, the company has been brewing since 1874 and has won many prized for such "good honest ales" – the company slogan – as XB and XXXB. A new younger generation of Stuart Bateman and his sister Jaclyn are now in charge and they recorded their best-ever sales in the history of the brewery in 2009. A new brewhouse has been added and bottled versions of the beers are widely exported.

In Cornwall, the St Austell Brewery, founded in 1851 by Walter Hicks, was struggling 20 years ago with the problems of declining tourism, clapped-out equipment and poor brand recognition. It was kept afloat by a large tied estate of 174 pubs but salvation has come in the form of a dynamic descendant of Hicks, managing director James Staughton, and a passionate head brewer, Roger Ryman. A revamped brewhouse, a bottling line that cost £750,000, and excellent new brands such as the golden ale Tinners, the fruity Tribute made with aromatic hops from Oregon, and the floral Proper Job have boosted the fortunes of the company.

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