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
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
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
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
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
'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
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
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
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
'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