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.

One thought on “The Wirral is not Enough”

  1. Mike’s an old mate of mine and more impor­tant­ly, brews very good beer indeed. Good arti­cle folks. Very well done.

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