Did anyone see a particularly excellent piece in CAMRA's What's Brewing this month? In case you didn't, it was about how some of Britain's oldest brewers, Family Brewers, are starting to look wider than the house bitter their great granddads brewed, by installing flexible in house micro breweries.
It is fashionable to imagine that the Family Brewers live in an ivory tower and are completely unaware of the changes around them in the beer world. I rather doubt that they are and talking to the ones I have talked to, they are usually pretty smart cookies. Those that couldn't be bothered, or just wanted the money have, in the main, cut and run already. The rest are in it for the long haul and of course, most have already hauled their companies a long way since their Victorian or earlier foundation. They've seen a lot. But there is a feeling that the world is moving a tad faster these days and that just doing the same won't cut it any more. Those 100 barrel (or more) brewlengths are millstones round the neck of innovation and just doing something different. When you have to get a seasonal beer right first time, there is a tendency just to tweak what you already have and boy, do the customers notice that. The answer to many is a micro brewery within their own existing breweries. This allows the experimentation and small runs of speciality beers that give a point of difference and overcome an almost inbred reluctance to sell any beers but their own. They allow bespoke beers that are genuinely different and give the brewers something to play with. Brewers need something to play with I've found.
So we have Thwaites, Brains, Wadworth, Shepherd Neame, Badger, St Austell, Elgoods and not quite in the Family Brewer's category, Sharps. It is very telling to listen to the reasons given for these "pilot plants". I like these two best: First from Alan Pateman of Elgoods: "It has nothing to do with what the craft brewers are doing. But, as more of our beers are sold into the free trade, we need to be able offer a greater variety of beers. Brewing has become fun again." And from the ever practical Stuart Howe: “Pilot plants are indispensable ......it allows you to explore your wilder side without the risk of making 30 tonnes of pig food.”
Now whether you think it really is taking on the micros, or avoiding feeding the pigs, this is a good thing, provided they use this flexibility to be bold and different. Brewers need room to experiment and a 10 (or less) barrel brewery allows just that. I have a self interest of course. Manchester still has four family brewers and lots of their pubs.
Of course I've been beating the pilot plant drum at Lees too. Fingers crossed on that one.
There are plenty other good arguments for pilot plants, but hopefully you get my drift.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, CAMRA Chairman and (local) activist, beer author, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010 and 2011. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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