Beer & skittles: Breweries going beyond brewing

Gaëlle Laforest

10 December 2015

What better place for customers to learn about your beer than your very own bar, pub or bowling alley? Gaëlle Laforest meets with the brewers who are branching out

According to CAMRA there are more than 1,400 breweries in the UK, with new ones opening seemingly every week. So no wonder, perhaps, that brewers are seeking ever more innovative ways to grab the attention of consumers.

‘In today’s craft climate, where breweries are opening up regularly, you have to be doing something that no one else is doing,’ says Tom Newman, from The Celt Experience. The Caerphilly-based brewery launched in 2011 with a range of craft beers that now stands at around 15 core beers, plus another 20 brews in smaller batches.

And on top of brewing, it organises brewery tours, hosts the yearly Fire Festival to celebrate the beginning of spring, has a meadery in the works with beehives on site – oh, and Craftbowl, its own bar-cum-bowling alley.

‘People are excited by the creative nature of the industry,’ Newman continues. ‘Now you make beer as extreme as you can make it to have a great flavour. This has created art and a passion for the industry. It’s created people who want more of everything, not just a craft beverage.’

And for many, opening a venue has become an essential part of the brewing activity – whether it’s called bar, pub, brewpub, tap room, beer den, or whatever the latest trend might be.

Destination brewery
‘It’s hard to make an impact if you don’t have your own pub,’ says Colin Johnston, operations manager at Glasgow-based Drygate Brewing Company, which combines brewery, bar and restaurant in the same building. ‘It’s a norm in the US: you open your brewpub first, then you start selling the beer out of your brewpub.’

Using your brewery as a drinking establishment is a key financial part of the brewing equation; a shortcut to punters that avoids distribution fees, and allows brewers to start returning on investment right after brewing. At Drygate, almost all profit from the first month came from the bar, Johnston says.

Similarly, London brewer Meantime recently opened its Tasting Rooms, a bar and restaurant situated in its brewing premises in Greenwich. But while in-house retail has always been a part of operations, and makes a decent return, marketing manager Rich Myers says the main aim for the new venue was educational, rather than profit-driven: to create a space to give customers a greater appreciation of beer, via education on the brand and beer itself.

‘All the trends show how customers are interested in the story behind both the brand and the products; they want to know what ingredients go into it,’ says Myers. ‘They’re asking more questions, so it’s a perfect time to tell more.’

Education has been at the heart of Meantime’s offering for a while. The brewery tours started in 2012, and they’re proving increasingly popular, with the 10,000-visitor mark reached as early as September in 2015. The Tasting Rooms build on that, with tastings taking place in the bar, along with parts of The Knowledge.

This just-out series of in-depth courses in all things beer is aimed at both curious consumers and the trade, and gives people the opportunity to come and ‘learn as much or as little as they want’.

While Myers insists it’s not a big marketing campaign, it’d be foolish to exclude that aspect. A venue of your own means punters can immerse themselves in your brand and its concept – especially in the case of a brewpub.

‘Customers aren’t just walking into a pub – they’re walking into the brewery,’ says Myers. ‘They can see the transparency in the brewery; what we put into the beer, hopefully see some of the brewers, and realise we’re real people making real beer.

‘From a retail and marketing perspective, it’s a great way to build advocacy. We’re trying to interact one on one with different people, and really allowing them to spread the word on our behalf.’

However, that’s not to say that opening a venue is without its risks. In the case of a brewpub, (unless it’s one of the rare, lucky ones that happens to be in a city centre), the location can make things difficult.

For Drygate, the gamble was high: they opened in a low footfall area, about 15 minutes away from any other venue.

‘Being fresh and relevant and exciting all the time is tough,’ Johnston admits. ‘You can easily go into a “we know what we’re doing now” mindset. We’re constantly engaging with new partners, but it’s really hard because consumers are a fickle lot.’

One positive aspect of it, though, is the ability to gain instant customer feedback, so less mainstream ideas (such as Drygate’s soon-to-be-launched Fearless range) can be fine-tuned.

‘When you own a bar and you make your own beer, you can stand behind that tap, you can pour the beer that you made, you can hand it to a customer and have a conversation with them there and then,’ says Johnston. ‘No amount of marketing spin can replicate that. That’s what craft is.’

There’s also the ‘what’s on?’ question. Whatever the style of venue, doing more than brewing usually goes together with having a bar that’s about more than beer.

For Newman, craft beer is about crafting ideas as well as crafting beverages. ‘If people are going to pay £6 a pint, or even a half pint in some cases, what can they get for that? I’d like to think the experience of drinking a great-flavoured beer comes hand-in-hand with the atmosphere.’

So at the Celt Experience, your pint comes with crêpes from the in-house crêperie, that you’ll eat while bowling the night away at the brewery’s bowling lane.

Meanwhile, Scottish craft beer giant BrewDog is branching out of its ‘traditional’ venues with yet more alternative concepts, such as the game-focused Shuffledog in Leeds – not to mention a craft beer hotel at its Ellon brewery, the first of its kind, with plans for draught lines in all rooms.

A touring theatre group has been going to Fuller’s pubs around the country during the summer months for three years now, with the aim of ‘creating great memories for customers’, as Fuller’s Inns MD Jonathon Swaine puts it.

Increasingly, it seems, brewers’ venues are aiming for a customer base they did not previously have access to: non-beer drinkers. Whether through a drinks offering going beyond beer, or the programme of events, most places’ USP stands at hospitality, rather than beer.

Somerset brewer The Wild Beer Co just opened its first bar in Cheltenham, The Wild Beer Co at Jessop House. The brewer’s name is above the door, but there’s more to it than that.

‘Whilst we are showcasing our beers, this isn’t a craft beer bar,’ says co-founder Andrew Cooper. ‘It’s a Wild Beer bar that’s all about great product. We’ve sourced fantastic, unusual wines; we have a small but very interesting cocktail menu. The food menu doesn’t have a burger on it!’

This wish to attract all is echoed by Drygate’s Johnston. ‘We wanted a space that locals could use, and to make sure that it was open to everybody, not just craft drinkers. The layout is designed so it’s very flexible – we can get high chairs and wheelchairs and buggies and dogs. People come to us because we’ve got everything under one roof.’

Old dogs, new tricks
What’s really interesting is that more traditional and established brewers are joining in the craft beer bar wave too. Earlier this year, Brains – over 130 years old – opened the Cambrian Tap, its first craft beer bar in the heart of Cardiff.

A refurb of a previously traditional Brains-owned pub, it’s now got pork pies on slates and a wall of illustrations showing the collaborations the brewer has done along the years, while the list features small-brew beers from Brains as well as other brewers around the globe. ‘The intention was to create a venue that showcases Brains’ brewery credentials and craft beer offer to an emerging audience of younger beer lovers,’ says senior brand marketing manager Melanie Murgatroyd.

It’s the same story at Fuller’s. There’s the craft-oriented refurbishment of Wine Vaults in Southsea, which now includes craft lager bar Beer Vaults, complete with neon signs, meet-the-brewer events and tasting sessions. Another recent launch is craft house and kitchen The Hydrant in London, which serves Fuller’s beers as well as craft ales, cocktails and raw fruit juices.

‘We’ve been seeing the growth in craft beer, here and across the USA too,’ says Swaine. ‘In our existing estate, we’ve got a variety of pubs that were already embracing craft beer. With The Hydrant and the Beer Vaults we thought we’d try something a little different.’

The Hydrant, especially, fits well into the story-telling idea mentioned by Meantime’s Myers, which Swaine echoes. ‘We wanted to give it a sense of place and history, but with a modern and progressive food and drink offer,’ he explains. It’s the venue’s location next to London’s Monument to the Great Fire of 1666 that gave it its name.

Fuller’s is also involved in south-west England pizza and cider restaurant group The Stable, another ‘very craft and artisan’ project, says Swaine. Is that where the future of brewers large and small might lie?

‘As far as I can see, craft is about getting your story across,’ says Swaine. ‘The big multinational breweries will be looking to augment their big proprietary brands with smaller independent brewers. That’s what people care about – they want to see quality and authenticity.’

However, both Fuller’s and Brains say that craft venues remain at the periphery of their businesses. In truth, it’s a thin line to walk between a truly innovative and creative venue, and something that’s no more than a gimmick.

‘In the market we’ve seen a lot of brands beating their customers with a big stick, saying: “You have to drink craft now because it’s different, and fun, and sexed up”,’ Johnston says. ‘We take a very different approach. We think it’s a tremendously exciting space, with a world of flavours and experience.’

And what better place for customers to get acquainted with your beers than at the counter of your own bar?

‘I think destination breweries are the way forward – people taking time out of their schedule to visit a brewery to discover the culture and the community.’ Tom Newman, The Celt Experience

‘Creativity is a really base human instinct. When you’re in a creative job or a creative space you suddenly feel better. With us you can get hands-on. You can hire our brewery; you can work with our brewers. That’s probably one of the key drivers of why we’ve been successful.’ Colin Johnston, Drygate Brewing Co

‘We’re always looking for something new. We’ve got the Beer Box, we’ve got trucks going to festivals, we’ve got people winning beer on social media… We’ll always try to find the next thing, because people tend to remember the first.’ Rich Myers, Meantime Brewing Company

‘Recently, there has been a craft beer revolution with consumers looking for more complex flavours and a wider choice of ales. It’s important for established brewers to keep up with the market.’ Melanie Murgatroyd, Brains

Additional research by Claire Dodd.

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