Micros In The West Country

Western Daily Post, 25/10/99

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

Think of a pint in the West Country and the image of brimming flagons of farm-produced cider and scrumpy springs to mind. The Wurzels have a lot to answer for. But another traditional beverage has undergone a quiet revolution in the region over the past few years - there are now dozens of small breweries dedicated to hand-crafting traditional cask-conditioned ales.

For the majority of these breweries small is beautiful. Some are found on industrial sites, others in far more idyllic surroundings - farms, old mills, ancient pubs and even former brewery buildings which were closed during the Sixties and Seventies.

Some, such as Smiles in Bristol, RCH near Weston-super-Mare, Butcombe and Oakhill on the Mendips or Uley in the Cotswolds, have been part of the brewery scene for nearly 20 years. Others, such as Moor and Cottage in Somerset, Bath's Abbey Ales or Freeminer in the Forest of Dean, were set up in the 1990s. The Milk Street Brewery, based at the Griffith Inn in Frome, is the baby on the brewing block. It only started brewing at the start of the summer.

What all these enterprises have in common is that they are one of the region's most thriving, but often undersung, industries. They have become part and parcel of contemporary West Country life. Some brew special ales for community events. Others, such as Moor, organise beer festivals which help local charities. All produce excellent ales which many devotees believe are far superior to that produced by the big brewers.

This upsurge is all the more surprising when you consider that British brewing in the 20th century is a history of buy-outs, mergers and closures, of which the latter has recently been seen at Courage's Bristol plant and Flowers in Cheltenham. The emergence of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) in the 1970s is generally considered to have sparked off a revival in the interest in traditional beer. This was mirrored in the mushrooming of small breweries or micro breweries.

Growth, especially in the West Country, was slow. At the beginning of the 1980s there were only around a dozen breweries (including Whitbread and several long-established family firms) in the West Country producing 'real' ale. Now there are nearly 50 and the majority of them are small micro breweries. It seems that the West Country is a magnet for potential brewers.

'The West Country pioneers such as Cotleigh in Somerset, who started up 20 years ago, really were forerunners of the micro brewery boom,' says Chas Wright, managing director of Uley which operates from an atmospheric Victorian tower brewery outside Dursley in Gloucestershire; the attractive building also doubled as kennels for the Kingscote Hunt before World War II. 'I don't quite know why it happened in the West Country. It could be that there's a greater disposable income and people are also more aware of craft brewers, in the same way they're aware of small farmers and small food producers, so it all goes hand in hand. People are also more concerned with quality of life.'

According to Mark Dearman of Castle Cary's Cottage Brewery, a brewery whose excellent Norman's Conquest was Champion Beer of Britain in 1995: 'When Chris Norman, who started the brewery back in 1993, was thinking of brewing he was living in Bedfordshire but he had spent time out here in Somerset, loved it, and thought he would try his luck. It's beautiful countryside, there are lots of free houses (where the landlord owns the pub), and has easy access to the Midlands and London. If Chris was looking to start again he would look to Somerset.'

But you can't live on views. No matter how pastoral the location it's a hard world out there for anyone wanting to make their living from beer. Nowadays, more than ever, the micro breweries are up against large breweries which can offer cheaper beer to landlords. Most small breweries cannot afford similar discounts so they compete on quality rather than price.

'It's much easier here than in other parts of the UK,' admits Roly Willet at Cotleigh in Wiveliscombe, which is also home to fellow veterans Exmoor Brewery, 'but it is getting harder with a sizable amount of former free houses being owned by pub chains, who then ask for discounts for their beers which only the big companies can afford.'

It's a view echoed by Don Burgess of the Freeminer brewery in Sling, which has been producing award-winning beers such as the hoppy Trafalger IPA for seven years. 'The West Country is a good place for a quality of life, but north of Bristol most of the pubs in the population centres have been sewn up with pub company deals which use the big breweries. This locks out the micros. This explosion of micro breweries means that what you have in the UK now is 90% of the beer producers fighting for 4% of the market. That's why I have diversified into bottled beers.'

But the lure of setting up your own brewery is strong. Many brewers talk of the great satisfaction they get from hand-crafting their own beers and then seeing them being drunk and appreciated.

'What I like about brewing is that it combines science and creativity,' says Don Burgess. 'I was in Amsterdam and I saw all five bottled beers of mine for sale in a shop. There was a real buzz factor about that.'

Dave McCredie of Berkeley Brewery in Gloucestershire agrees: 'I have a love of brewing and good beer. I also love the tradition and get really pleased when I'm in a pub which stocks my beer and I hear people order it. It's a hand-crafted product, not made in some anonymous factory.' While Nick Bramwell of the Milk Street Brewery says, 'It's pretty tough but I haven't woken up one morning and thought that I wish I was doing something else.'
These micro breweries are returning beer-making to its roots as a cottage industry. A couple of centuries ago many people brewed their own beer. Pubs, farms, colleges and even aristocratic houses did it. Things are more sophisticated now, but this upsurge of micro breweries in the West Country demonstrates that there is a demand for beer that has a local identity even while big brewers gush forth with ersatz 'Irish' beers and other such tasteless inventions.

Like farmers' markets, farm shops and organic foodstuffs, micro brewing is a development which attracts all those who care about the quality of what they drink. As Chas Wright enthuses in his pretty Victorian brewhouse: 'the beauty of brewing is that you always have another chance. If you're a cabinet maker and you muck it up you have to live with it. If you do one bad brew it's gone and you have another opportunity.'

Profile: Arthur Frampton, Moor Brewery

Back in 1996 as the BSE crisis took hold, Somerset dairy farmer Arthur Frampton turned to drink to rescue his fortunes. His family had been in the village of Ashcott, just outside Street, for hundreds of years. Four generations had farmed on the rolling fields of the Polden Hills overlooking the Somerset Levels. But farming was no longer paying the bills. Always fond of a pint Arthur thought he could do better than some of the ones he was drinking and started up a small brewery on his farm.

He soon discovered that brewing was preferable to getting up on cold mornings to milk cows or dealing with a field of forms. Three years on, Moor Brewery is a thriving micro brewery, and even though the forms and farming have been swapped for the attentions of the Customs & Excise, Arthur Frampton has never regretted his move.

'We had always been small dairy farmers,' says Arthur, 'but there was not much money in it. As a small farmer it was getting to the stage of a joke. Luckily we did this just as the BSE thing broke and it became an incentive to do more.'

Moor Beer is mainly a family operation. Annette helps out on the admin and brewing side while Arthur's father, Mr Frampton senior, does most of the deliveries in a battered motor. Friends occasionally help out. Faded photographs of past Framptons keep watch on the family's fortunes from a wall in the brewery, while ecstatic collies welcome visitors in a yard cluttered with old farming implements. Horses frolic in a nearby meadow, while a cosy barn is home for brace of Gloucester Old Spot pigs who munch away contentedly on used malt.

Looking back to when he started Arthur remembers that Somerset and the West Country were excellent areas to set up brewing. 'When I started, there were a lot of free houses around, especially on the Poldens,' he says, but echoing other local brewers he then adds that 'things are getting tighter with pub companies buying up the free houses. We are selling our beers further away from the area and sooner or later you could get to the situation where a local ale can only be found locally in a couple of pubs.'

This would be a shame as Moor Brewery are great believers in getting involved in the local community. Their beer festival in September raised money for Ashcott's village school and playing fields. Groups such as the Somerset Levels Rotarians take part in regular visits. While a local character has been immortalised with both a beer and sausages named after him. Moor's strongest beer, a dark winter ale called Freddy Walker, has been added to the mix for a local butcher's bangers. It's not for nothing that the company's slogan is: Drink Moor Beer.

Profile: Stig Andersen, Stonehenge Ales, Netheravon

In the beer world Denmark is better known as the home of Carlsberg lager. But for Dane Stig Andersen, who is owner of Stonehenge Ales in Netheravon, Wiltshire, lager brewing is the last thing on his mind.

'I was a manager of a brewery in Denmark,' he recalls, 'and I was fed up with brewing cheap lager for the supermarkets. One day I saw an ad in a brewing magazine with this brewery, which was then called Bunces, for sale. Six months later we moved over here.'

The Grade II listed Old Mill, where Stonehenge makes its home, looks like a traditional tower brewery, designed so that all that the materials can flow from the top. But when it was built before World War I brewing was the last thing on its owners' minds.

'It was built by the War Office,' says Stig, 'who wanted to use the Avon which flows by at the back to generate electrical power for a nearby airfield. This didn't work so the building went through a variety of uses including a print-makers and village hall. During the last war it was home to a factory which made 3-D models of German cities and towns for the Allied air forces. It was only in 1984 that Tony Bunce started brewing here.'

Nowadays it's both home and workplace for Stig, his wife and daughter. Living on top of the brewery might seem strange but it is something that Stig would encourage for all brewers. 'That way you can check out the quality constantly. Brewing is not a 9-5 job. You also save on travelling time. The disadvantage is that publicans sometime call late for beer.'

Stig may come from a lager-making tradition but his beers are firmly fashioned for the British palate. Like many micros though he enjoys producing occasional beers which taste and look a bit different. There's Sign of Spring, a green beer which is based on an old Dansh tradition. The other is an autumn ale called Stig's Swig. This follows an ancient Viking recipe by adding the herb sweet gayle.

As for the future, Stigs recognises that things are tough for many micros at the moment. He's thinking about bottling his beers for the thriving drinking-at-home trade as well as having his own tied pub (he currently has shares in a local hostelry).

'I wouldn't start up from scratch now. On the other hand there are no regrets. I do enjoy it. I'm in charge of my own business and as long as there's a profit at the end of it I'm happy. The only way to survive is to have a continuously good product.'

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Adrian Tierney-Jones