The Wirral is not Enough

Mike McGuigan with some hops from the North West of England.A little while back, Mike McGuigan, the owner and head brewer of the Wirral’s Betwixt Brewing Company, dropped in to comment on this post. We were intrigued by his business model and we took the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

B&B: Firstly, a selfish one — when and where might we be able to get your beers down here in London? Any festivals coming up? Or should we get off our arses and come up to the North West?

We currently work as a ‘cuckoo brewery’ – using spare capacity at a decent local micro — Northern Brewing, Cheshire. The economics of this mean we currently don’t sell much beer in cask at all (instead mainly selling bottled beer at local farmers’ markets).

We’re in the process of setting up our own brewery on the Wirral and, once up and running, we plan to sell a lot more cask beer. However, as a small company, with a limited number of casks and a wish to concentrate largely on local sales, it means that I’m afraid we probably won’t be sending a lot of beer around the country.

We are look into dealing with selected wholesalers (those who will look after our beer, pay us fairly promptly for our and beer and return our empty casks in reasonable time!) so we might indeed occasionally pop up in a pub near you.

That said, if any of you fine folks do make it up here, you will be welcomed with free tastings at any of the farmers’ markets we attend! – see our website for more info. And don’t forget all of the other delights that Merseyside has to offer during this Capital of Culture year.

B&B: What advice would you give anyone thinking of setting up in business as a brewer?

Hmmm – a tricky one, the basic stuff would be

  • talk to local folks in breweries of different sizes, offer to dig out the mash-tun in exchange for digging into their minds a little;
  • think carefully about where you might set up – ideally you’d like loads of friendly true freehouses nearby and not much local competition!
  • have some help – it can be lonely and hard work being on your tod and there’s lots of different skills that are needed (physical, logistic, technical, attention to detail, craft/creativity, business accumen, admin, social skills and selling, etc).

Finally, about setting up and the early days of running the brewery, the helpful advice from one microbrewer was “Don’t run out of money!”

B&B: You seem to have settled on farmers’ markets as your main distribution channel — that’s quite unusual, not to say innovative. What are the pros and cons?

Pros

  • Put simply, we make more of the profit selling the beers on our farmers’ market stall – rather than wholesaling the beer to pubs or off-licences etc.
  • As pub landlords are most breweries primary customers, they often don’t seem to have much close contact with those that end up drinking the beer – the pub customers. At the markets, we get immediate feedback from people and customers seem to enjoy meeting the people who actually brew/rear/bake/grow the food and drink they buy. This was something I also enjoyed when working at a London brewpub.

Cons

  • It takes a long while for a market (or our stall) to become established, yet the overheads are all there.
  • Many markets won’t have an alcohol licence, so that’s an added hassle and expense. This also requires printing a huge form in quadriplicate, with copies sent to the local council and police, along with a £21 cheque per market — talk about barriers to trade?!
  • some markets are well-run, well-advertised and supported by the local community — others aren’t. I’m on the committee of this market. It’s community run, works like clockwork, is very well-promoted, works on a non-profit basis and instead funds local community projects and has a great range of quality food and drink. We were recently voted “Best National Farmers’ Market” in the BBC Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards.
  • It can be hard work! On top of a week of brewing, bottling and delivering a weekend of setting up a stall and selling isn’t immediately appealing. Also, without the advertising budget of bigger companies, we instead need to actively sell at farmers’ markets, offering tasting samples, engaging people and explaining what it is that we’re trying to do.
  • Outside markets are at the mercy of the weather – on windy days I’ve desperately hung onto the covered stalls as they threatened to take off. On wet and dreary days us stallholders sometimes find ourselves outnumbering the customers.

B&B: Apart from your own, which are some of your favourite beers?

I’ve really enjoyed Thornbridge Jaipur IPA — an amazingly complex and balanced brew, well worthy of the awards and plaudits. I’m a fan of beer styles from around the world, so the weißbiers from Schneider and Unertl are great, plus Belgie beauties such as De Dolle Brouwers and Duvel. There’s a load of pale or dark German and Czech lagers that I’d be happy to pass a summer’s evening on too, plus some amazingly creative US craft brews from the likes of Victory and Dogfish Head.

B&B: American hops are becoming more and more popular in British beers. Is it a passing fad? What do you think they bring to the party?

I’ve brewed with US hops, largely Cascade, since 1997 and have always been impressed with the quality – so fresh looking, smelling and tasting. This seems to be partly because they have been picked at the right time and very well vacuum-packed.

The hop aroma/flavour from US hops seems not to be to everyone’s taste, but I’m a big fan – by and large they seem perhaps not to be too subtle, but definitely complex and interesting (flavours of peach, grapefruit, pine, etc).

From an eco point of view, I’m not keen on shipping hops around the world, but at least they only make up a tiny proportion of the finished product and won’t have been flown to the UK.

I’m also a fan of UK hops and want to continue to support the sadly dwindling UK hop farmers and merchants. We use Goldings and other UK varieties, plus pick some local allotment and wild hops to use in a couple of seasonal specials – BeLotment and BeWilder.

B&B: We always ask this: how do you feel about the fact that, despite lots of great stouts being brewed in the UK, it’s hard to get anything but Guinness, even in some decent pubs?

I love drinking dark beers of all styles (and currently brew a hybrid beer, based broadly on a dark lager that I brewed in London) but as a drinker I do bemoan that often even in pubs or shops known for their beer quality or range it can be impossible to find anything other than bitters and golden ales of varying strengths.

B&B: You’ve worked at Meantime in the past, and they’re famous for their lagers. What do you think is the secret to making a decent lager?

A few things – good fresh ingredients is really important as the ‘cleanness’ of a lager fermentation means any problems here will be apparent; likewise brewery hygiene is important for the same reason; the clean and rounded-out flavours also come from the length of time and temperature of the “lagering” – cold conditioning process.

As an aside to this, we’ve bought the ale and lager capable brewplant originally from MashandAir (swanky Manchester brew-bar-restaurant) which was later bought by Grand Union Brewery (Hayes, near Heathrow). As well as a range of ales, we intend to brew a quality lager, initially available in cask and bottled form.

B&B: Beer blogs and beer geeks — a help or a hindrance…?

I don’t tend to read very many (mainly Tandleman and Stonch, Pete Brown‘s and yours, plus a trawl around some of the US ones) but in my experience, apart from taking time away from other things I should be doing, I think they’re great. They’re another way for the word about decent beer to get out there, which is all to the good. Perhaps there’s a proliferation of them at the moment, but I’m guessing the well-written and popular ones will live on.

B&B: Finally When do you hope to be up and running with your own brewery?

We have a load of work to do on our new premises — sorting out the floor, upgrading the electric, gas and water supply, and then re-commissioning the complex brewplant, with help from our brew-engineers. If all goes to plan, we hope to be brewing by August.

For more about brewers selling direct to the punter at farmers’ markets, see this post on Tunnel Brewing.

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