Self-taught brewers have transformed British beer over the past decade, but times are changing again. A new industry-wide apprenticeship scheme is expected to get the final sign-off from the Institute for Apprenticeships next month. Will Hawkes reports
It has the potential to revolutionise the British brewing industry. The scheme will last between 18-and-24 months, during which time apprentices will be expected to learn everything from the principles of brewing and fermentation to the ability to monitor quality control.
Depending on how many breweries decide to take on apprentices – and there are compelling reasons to do so – it will mean a steady stream of trained brewers coming into the industry from organisations of all sizes. The hope is that it will lead to better quality beer across the board.
The structure of the apprenticeship standard has been agreed, and the only thing left to decide is the funding. Hayley Connor, people manager at Brewhouse & Kitchen, the brewpub chain that has led the move towards establishing an apprenticeship standard, says that is likely to be agreed in May.
It’s the funding model that makes this new scheme significant. It will mostly be paid for by a 0.5% levy on all brewing companies with a payroll of more than £3m. The aim is for it to be accessible to breweries of all sizes, and small companies will have to pay just 10 per cent of the expected £12,000 cost per trainee. Big companies, meanwhile, will be able to claw back most or all of their levy by training apprentices themselves.
Led by Brewhouse & Kitchen (B&K), around 25 breweries have been involved in the group that created the scheme. These include big names like Heineken, family brewers like Fuller’s and Adnams, growing craft brewers such as Wimbledon and Five Points, plus tiny operations such as Ignition, a brewery in Lewisham, south London, which is run by disabled adults.
'It’s a real collaboration between all these different breweries,' says Connor. 'There was always this craft vs mainstream idea, but when we all got together we realised that everyone wanted the same thing: quality. The kits are different, but a brewer that works at B&K should be able to do the same at Marston’s, for example.”
B&K expect to be running the standard as soon as it is approved, as they already have a scheme modelled on it in place. For founder and general manager Simon Bunn, the appeal of apprenticeships is obvious.
'We’ve recruited from all over Europe over the past few years; we even brought a brewer over from the US,' he says. 'Generally, these brewers are as good as gold, a bit green but they have the technical skills.
'The trouble is, they’re not as vested in the pub as someone we’ve trained, who started with us as a bartender and then became a brewer. We need someone who’ll help out behind the bar when things are getting out of hand.'
Bunn and his team did consider running the scheme internally, but decided that it was an innovation that the whole brewing industry needed. There are lots of breweries in the UK, but not enough properly-trained British brewers.
Nine members of staff at B&K have become brewers while working for the company. The company currently offers four apprenticeships a year, although that is expected to rise to eight next year.
One of the most interesting things about offering apprenticeships, Bunn says, is the variety of people who want to get on the scheme.
'It’s really accessible to any age group,' he says. 'We’re seeing quite a lot of people who are coming to us looking for a career change – from banking or whatever. It’s not just 18-to-24 year olds, it’s all age groups.'
He acknowledges, too, that former apprentices will often seek to move on once they’ve demonstrated their skills.
'They tend to go into jobs at bigger breweries, or as head brewer at a small start-up,' he says. 'We don’t have too much turnover; I think we lose four brewers a year.' He cites Roberto Basilico, who went from being head brewer at their Highbury site to chief cidermaker at Hawkes in Bermondsey.
The team at Brewhouse & Kitchen is convinced that the new standard will lead to better beer, which is good news for publicans and drinkers alike.
'The apprenticeship standard is just about making quality foolproof, making it sustainable,' says Connor. 'You’ve got all of these breweries opening, a lot of it is brewers coming in without the quality knowledge: that’s a risk for the industry. We need quality.'