More than a mild surprise

INSIDE BUSINESS
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The Independent Online
MILD ale has been in decline for many years. Its market is ageing. Competition from alternative brands is fierce. Fewer working men demand a low-gravity beer to slake epic thirsts.

So who in his right mind would want to buy the country's only brewery producing mild almost exclusively? No bitter. No lager. Just mild all the year round and short runs of Old Ale in the winter.

Step forward Steve Nutall, a fresh-faced 29-year-old who looks as though his preferred tipple might be Becks or Czech Budweiser. Perish the thought! Mr Nutall is a mild man these days. Along with his partner and head brewer, Neil Bain, he raised pounds 600,000 and persuaded his employers, Bass, to sell them the Highgate Brewery.

Something of an anachronism in a conurbation such as the West Midlands, the quaint Victorian tower brewhouse has survived against the odds in a leafy part of Walsall. This is the edge of the Black Country, perhaps the last bastion of serious mild drinking, though even here it is in decline.

Yet the new owners of Highgate are confident that they can expand production from 15,000 to 20,000 barrels a year in the short term, and reach full capacity of 50,000 barrels.

How are they going to do it? Plans are afoot to expand the company's portfolio with a porter and, for the first time since the 1950s, a Highgate Bitter. They also want to build on the core business by using the brewery as a marketing tool. Not even Mr Nutall could conceive of trying to make mild trendy. "But," he says, "we can develop the images of quality, tradition and integrity. Under Bass, I always felt that Highgate was like a classic car left in the garage. It's time to bring it out into the open and show it off."

He wants to convert a long-disused bottling plant into a centre for visitors and invite pubs, clubs and Camra branches from across the West Midlands to watch the brewing process.

Oak vats will be polished. Brass fitments will be cleaned until they gleam. Even long-standing employees will be expected to play their part in turning this working brewery into a tourist magnet. "Nine of them have been here for 109 years between them," grins Mr Nutall. "If they haven't picked up any anecdotes in that time, they'll have to start thinking. "The stage is perfect. All we need is to improve the acting. If coach parties spend three hours here it needs to be a three-hour advert. When they see our pump clip on a bar, they'll remember it."

The new managing director already has a considerable marketing success under his belt. He was the senior brand manager at Bass who led the team that developed Caffrey's Irish Ale. "I was in the right place at the right time," he says. But from a marketing point of view, he was able to spot how important Irishness was to the product.

"Customers immediately attribute certain characteristics to the product - cold, creamy and powerful. It wouldn't have worked as an English beer."

Today, Caffrey's is outselling draught Bass. No wonder the parent company took Mr Nutall seriously when he offered to take Highgate off its hands. Here he was, engineering a management buyout from the brewery that is still sponsoring his Master of Business Administration diploma at Leeds. He must be the only student to buy the subject of his thesis before he has completed his course.

Highgate's target this year is to break even and cover start-up costs. Four salesmen have been added to the payroll, and Tim Munton, the Warwickshire bowler, is taking care of public relations, during the winter months at least.

Two banks and two venture capital companies will be watching the brewery's progress with interest. Perhaps only the Caffrey's Kid could have persuaded them to invest in mild ale.

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