New wave of brewers on road to success: Entrepreneurs are revitalising real ale, writes David Nicholson-Lord

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The Independent Online
TWO YEARS ago you might have spotted Alan Gill sporting a corporate logo and fiddling with a telephone line. Today you will find him brewing strong, dark beer in a converted wash-house in his back garden.

Mr Gill, 42, is one of Britain's growing band of real-ale entrepreneurs - men and women who have left routine jobs for the challenge of independent brewing. Eighteen months ago he took voluntary redundancy from his pounds 17,000-a-year job as a British Telecom engineer to set up Springhead Brewery near Newark in Nottinghamshire.

The venture cost pounds 18,000 - about two-thirds of his redundancy money. But despite Springhead's size - the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) says it is 'possibly the smallest brewery in the country' - it has proved enormously popular. Mr Gill sells about 270 gallons a week to 60 pubs in a 50-mile radius and agencies take his beer to Scotland, Wales and the West Country.

'It was a gamble I had to take,' he said. 'Brewing had always been a hobby - three years ago I built a home-made brewery, producing 36 gallons a week and building up a small regular following among pubs. I had obviously got the product right - so when redundancy came I thought I would go for it.

'Financially it is just starting to get slightly better than BT. As regards job satisfaction and peace of mind and enjoyment it's about a 1,000 per cent improvement. It would have been worth a pay cut to do what I am doing now.'

The number of real ales brewed in the UK rose last year, for the first time, to more than 1,000, according to Camra's 1994 Good Beer Guide, published today. Fifty new brewers have been included in the last two editions of the guide, a rise of more than 30 per cent. Brewing has returned to places where it has been absent for generations, and in forms few could have predicted.

In Branscombe, east Devon, former dairy workers have started beer-production in two old cowsheds owned by the National Trust. Near Alton in Hampshire a hop kiln has been converted into a 10-barrel brewery. In Keighley, west Yorkshire, the Goose Eye Brewery has opened in a converted carpet warehouse.

In Tring in Hertfordshire and Lichfield in Staffordshire, beer is being brewed for the first time in 60 years. In Tweedmouth, Northumberland, beer-making has resumed on the site of the 17th-century Border Brewery, idle for the past half century.

Steve Cox, Camra's campaigns manager, says some of the new generation of independent brewers are former staff of big breweries that have closed down or been taken over. Others are 'lifestyle' refugees - people fed up with being 'small cogs in large machines'.

'We are in the middle of a recession and everybody in the trade is saying how grisly business is and yet these people are throwing their money into brewing beer in competition with businesses that are 10,000 times bigger. It is quite astounding how well they do,' Mr Cox added.

Camra feels vindicated. The claim of its 1994 guide - that 'real ale is the drink of the nineties' - is backed by research from the big breweries, which predicts cask ale will outsell keg by 60 per cent to 40 per cent by 2000, reversing the present ratio.

The growth in cask beer sales contrasts with an overall decline in the beer market and is attributed to a shift in attitudes towards heritage, natural products and 'quality of life'.

Camra warns aspiring brewers that ale production is hard work and the failure rate of businesses daunting. Back in his wash-house, Mr Gill is looking forward to the day when his eldest son, Ben, 15 - contemplating a university course in beer technology - can join him in the business.

BEERS OF THE YEAR

BITTER: Caledonian Deuchars IPA (Edinburgh), Hanby Drawwell (Shropshire), Nethergate (Suffolk), Otter (Devon), Plassey (Clwyd), Taylor Best (West Yorks).

BEST BITTER: Adnams Extra (Suffolk), Batham Best (W Midlands), Cropton Two Pints (N Yorks), Exmoor Gold (Somerset), Reepham Rapier (Norfolk), Taylor Landlord (W Yorks).

DARK AND LIGHT MILDS: Adnams, Bateman (Lincs), Coach House Gunpowder (Cheshire), St Austell XXXX (Cornwall), Tetley (W Yorks), Woodforde's Mardler's (Norfolk).

(Photograph omitted)

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