I Spent a Day at Britain’s Smallest Brewery
When you imagine a brewery, what comes to mind? Huge vats? Swimming-pool sized quantities of beer? Giant mechanical bottling systems?
Chances are you don’t think of a semi-detached house in suburban Prestwich.
But that’s where I found myself, after accepting an invitation to Britain’s smallest commercial brewery, Manchester’s Beer Nouveau.
Because when a man offers to pay you in beer to come down and see his brewery so you can do some research ahead of some copywriting work, you don’t say no.
I’m half an hour late, Steve Dunkley explains as he passes me a cup of tea. The only non-alcoholic drink I’ll see all day. Brewing a beer like “Bottled Breakfast” – a combination of stout, porridge and coffee – will take us all day. As I look around his converted garage, it’s easy to see why.
Budweiser’s brewing kit might have doubled for the Starship Enterprise’s engine room, but Beer Nouveau’s reconditioned kegs, casks and fermenters are a much more humble affair.
In fact, to brew a beer like this, we’ll be doing a “double mash” – making the wort (a sweet liquor that’s basically raw beer) in two batches because Steve doesn’t have a tub large enough for all the grain and water we need.
It’s charming, in a homely sort of way. And if the racks and racks of bottles and casks dotted around are anything to go by, it works too.
With a sack of grain and a few gallons of hot water transferred into a plastic “mash tun,” Steve tells me that brewing is mostly waiting. As we chat over half a pint of “brewer’s blend” (a Frankenstein combination of various pale ales Steve’s created over the past few months mixed together in a huge plastic keg), he tells me that he actually started the brewery as an exercise in procrastination while working on his second novel.
It turns out that he’s not the first homebrewer turned commercial brewer, but most people tend to rent time on craft breweries’ equipment instead of repurposing their garage.
Down the road, the local pub is only just opening. We’re bringing something called sparge water up to temperature and testing a bottle Steve received from a local homebrewer.
Apparently there’s a close knit beer community in the North West. Steve nudges a small metal keg on the garage floor. When one of his containers burst, a local brewery provided him with a replacement to get his beer to Chorlton beer festival.
Seems a far cry from Budweiser taking over whole countries during the World Cup.
The first batch of wort is now being transferred into a new barrel with some fresh grain, coffee and oats. As Steve tips the heated sparge water into the first grain barrel, he jokes that he’s the only commercial brewer who can lift his own liquor tanks.
I’m too busy reeling from a mouthful of unpleasantly bitter hop-flavoured popcorn to react.
Actually, washed down with a bottle of smoked mild from another homebrewer, hop popcorn isn’t too bad.
As we crack open our fourth beer of the day, I’m beginning to think opening a brewery might be a bit of a laugh. Beer Nouveau’s St. Ella is the first lager I’ve enjoyed in about five years, and Steve admits to drinking half the batch himself. All in the name of quality control.
Making beer on this scale requires a lot of waiting. At capacity, Beer Nouveau can produce 38 gallons of beer each week – most of which is snapped up by local bottle shops and craft pubs before the caps are even on the bottles.
As I drain my glass, I marvel at Steve’s ability to resist the allure of so much freely available booze.
Steve and I open our fifth beer. There’s now a fire, and we’re cooking naan bread.
There’s still about an hour left before we have to do any work, and the sun’s out. Steve shares a bottle of Satanic Mills – one of Time Out’s best beers in Manchester. I’m not in a position to disagree with the magazine.
As anyone who’s ventured near a CAMRA pub will know, if you put enough beer in an ale fan, he’ll tell you about hops. Steve is no exception. Apparently while UK outfits like BrewDog are using aromatic American hops to make big, pungent IPAs , the American craft brewers are embracing British hops to make best bitter.
As funny as the thought of a bearded San Fran hipster sipping on a room-temperature Boddington’s clone is, I’m just glad that nobody outside Prestwich is using hops to flavour popcorn.
I’ve finished the hop popcorn. Anything to get the taste of a honey and raspberry homebrew out of my mouth before I slip into a diabetic coma.
Four hours in, and it’s time for some chemistry. Mash one, which we’d moved to tun B, is now being moved into the boiler. We have to check the gravity of the beer to see how much sugar is suspended in the solution, because that’s what the yeast will turn into alcohol.
We’ve got a problem. Apparently oats absorb too much water, and we’re not getting as much wort as we should from the batch. The boiler is only a third full, and there’s no reason to expect that mash two should outperform its predecessor.
“We’ll get less beer,” says Steve. “But it’ll be stronger.”
As we knock back a bottle of brown ale, Steve explains that a for a regular strength beer, duty accounts for around a third of his costs. For higher strength beers, that increases.
Currently, each bottle costs Steve around £0.68 to make, of which 33p or so goes to the Treasury. He adds his margin, the bottle shop adds their margin, and then the government adds another 20% in VAT.
When they turn profits like that, it’s amazing that politicians want us to drink less.
Apparently, Steve’s going to have a fully insulated garage by winter, with a computer controlled system to maintain perfect brewing temperature.
I’m on my eighth beer since 10am. I could do with a nap.
He’ll pay me in beer to write his website. Seems like a deal. (Potential customers, please note – this is not a deal. Beer won’t pay my mortgage.)
One of the neighbours has popped around for a drink. Turns out he works for Hydes’ head office in Manchester, and is no stranger to the pub trade himself.
Most of Hydes’ customers are getting on a bit, and the company’s thinking about branching out into craft beer to attract a younger crowd. It looks like niche beer is now in the mainstream.
I ask Steve whether he thinks the current trend for craft beer is sustainable. He’s fairly realistic. There’s a bubble, and it’s going to burst. But when the bottom falls out of the market, it’ll be the larger companies with million-pound breweries that’ll suffer.
A bloke in his shed with no overheads will always be able to find an audience and pay the mortgage.
I’ll drink to that.
We drink to that again, with a bottle of mild. You don’t get many mild drinkers anymore, do you?
I bet Hydes’ sell a mild.
Old blokes love a mild.
We’re heating up the boiler now, so we can make sure everything is steaming hot when the second batch is added. Apparently adding hops is like making tea. You need to make sure the water’s hot.
Steve passes me a bottle with some solemnity. It’s the most on-trend beer in his brewer’s stash, he tells me.
“Sour Citra Hop-Forward Whisky Farmhouse Lager.”
I take a swig.
I’m spitting something that is definitely not to my taste into the begonias as Steve finishes the bottle. Apparently it’s just the lager from earlier, but with a deliberate wild yeast infection. Turns out the latest craft trend is to slap words like sour and farmhouse onto infected beer and sell it on.
The Belgians do it a lot with their lambic beers. I knew you shouldn’t trust the Belgians.
As we tip the remaining wort into the boiler, we’re only a few litres off our predicted volume. A quick gravity check suggests that the beer’s strength has dropped down to a pleasant 4.6% to 5%.
Steve’s unimpressed. He wanted something closer to six.
I point to the word breakfast on the beer recipe. He shrugs and turns back to scraping protein scum off the top of the boiling wort.
The smell of boiling hops permeates the garden. We compensate by building another fire and opening a bottle of smoked beer.
I think I’m pissed at work.
The boil has finished. The beer needs to cool down so Steve can move it to a fermenter and add the yeast. Two weeks or so later, it’ll be bottled, and Bottled Breakfast will be released into the wild.
That’s a job for tomorrow though.
We celebrate the end of a hard day’s work with a bottle of what Steve calls an easy-drinking IPA.
I’ve learned something here today. More and more homebrewers are becoming micro, pico and nano-brewers. They’re making brilliant beer. And the bigger organisations are beginning to notice. Soon, we’ll reach peak craft beer, and Wetherspoons across the land will be replete with screwed up faces slurping down aggressively sour farmhouse milds.
But more than that, I’ve learned something really important.
It is very, very easy to hold a pissup in a brewery.
Update – October 2015: Since my visit, demand for Beer Nouveau’s beer has skyrocketed, and Steve is now the proud owner of The Temperance Street Brewery in Manchester. The irony in the name is perfect.
Bottled Breakfast, brewed by Beer Nouveau in partnership with 603 Copywriting, is now in stock in a number of bottle shops around Manchester – but it won’t be around for long. To track down a bottle, ask Beer Nouveau on Twitter. If you’re not thirsty, but need some professionally-written content for a website, brochure or beer label, contact 603 Copywriting today.
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