It can be difficult to get people to talk frankly about the challenges of running a small brewery and especially about the decision to shut up shop but, back in 2013, Jennifer Nicholls gave us a glimpse behind that usually closed door.
When we were working on Brew Britannia we did lots of research that didn’t end up being quoted or overtly referenced in the finished product but which did help to shape our thinking and give us a rounded picture of what was going on. As part of that, we approached Jenni whose brewery, Northcote, had recently ceased trading.
She was kind enough to give substantial answers to our question which, in the wake of several notable brewery closures in the last year, we decided to unearth. With a few edits for readability, and with Jenni’s renewed permission, here’s what she told us back then.
B&B: Can you give a brief history of your brewery?
We set up the brewery in 2010, incorporating on 24 January as Northcote Brewery Ltd, after the road we live on. I’m just looking over out old Facebook page now actually. We got the premises 18 June and the first brew was in October that year.
The beers were first commercially available at the Norwich Beer Festival on 27 October. Cow Tower, our bitter, was the first available – the name comes from a Norman tower in the city. Then came Golden Spire (a golden ale), referencing the the cathedral. Jiggle Juice IPA was named after our friends’ boat that we used to drink our sample brews on, and kind of stuck. Brewed This Way was a raspberry wheat beer brewed in conjunction with Norwich Pride, the name being a little nod to the Lady GaGa track. Sunshine Jiggle was a lower ABV summer drinking version of Jiggle Juice that we called a ‘citrus blonde’. Bishy Barnaby was a red spicy ale, that being a Norfolkism for a ladybird. Snap Dragon Stout was named after the dragon that leads the Lord Mayor’s parade and lives in Norwich Castle. Finally, there was El Salvador IPA, our coffee IPA, made in collaboration with The Window coffee shop
The very last beer we brewed was One for the Road, made in conjunction with the Euston Tap.
B&B: How easy did you find it to get your beer into shops and pubs?
Initially the beer was easy to get out – the honeymoon period so to speak. As the recession bit harder, larger breweries in the area started undercutting to a price that we could not compete with, pubs were selling half the amount they were previously and so our sales declined. We shipped pallets of beer around the UK and tried to overcome the local area doldrums but it wasn’t really enough. We did well selling at local markets and our beers were regularly best sellers in the local beer shops. We won several awards for the beers, so I never got the impression that it was because they weren’t good enough.
B&B: Did you ever, in fact, make a profit from brewing?
While we were brewing I was working full time, and full time at the brewery too. [My husband] Adam left his job to do full time at the brewery as well. If we had both left our jobs the brewery would have closed a lot sooner I think. We saved a lot of money to start the brewery so we were lucky in the respect we didn’t have to take out loans. The issue comes with a small five barrel kit. It doesn’t really produce enough beer for you to be able to employ someone else to help out to any substantial extent so you have to do all the deliveries, brewing, sales, accounts, and so on, yourself. When you spend all week brewing, racking, delivering, and then weekend at markets or delivering further afield, it leaves virtually no time for visiting pubs/shops for making contacts, so something has to give. We had help with deliveries, so that eased things up, but we were never at a level where either of us took a wage. As much as you may love something, we have to make a living and one wage can’t cover everything, including buying new casks and so on. A business is not viable if you can’t make a profit from it, and to develop and grow you have to be making a profit.
B&B: Did you consider yourselves real ale brewers, craft brewers, or something else?
I never really thought about the kind of brewery we were. We were very different from those in Norfolk at the time – it’s a traditional, conservative county. We brewed cask, but had no aversion to keg, and even thought about having some lager made with our IPA recipe at a local lager brewery. We were in an industrial estate, so we were ‘urban brewers’ but brewed what you would call ‘real ale’. Our emphasis was on quality of ingredients, provenance and flavour. We tried to use local as much as possible – local malt from within a 50 mile radius, local raspberries, local printers for labels, and that kind of thing.
B&B: Were there any breweries, or types of brewery, that you saw as ‘the enemy’?
There are lots of breweries up here, big and small. A lot are quite ‘samey’ but we never felt that some were the enemy. Although towards the end, as I mentioned, we know that there were larger brewers doing deals on casks direct to pubs at a price we could not even produce the beer for – that shows you how cheap it was. I felt that was more the desperation to sell rather than a desire to push anyone else out of the market though.
B&B: How did you come to make the decision to stop brewing?
The decision to stop was purely a matter of logic. If we thought with our hearts we would still be going and weeping over the state of the economy. In simple terms the run up to the Christmas period wasn’t as big as it needed to be to get us through the inevitable quiet period at the start of the year. Our collaboration with Euston Tap coincided with Tony[Lennon] and Graham [O’Brien] leaving there and naming the beer ‘One for the Road’ seemed to sum it up for us. We wanted to leave on a high, not having things taken away from us. Who knows, things may have changed, but I think being situated in Norfolk made things harder. Many people have mentioned that if we were in London when we set up we would have found things much easier as there would be more outlets wanting to take the kind of beer we produced. I can’t tell you the number of pubs up here that won’t take anything over 3.8%. Not their fault, you understand – they are rural pubs and rely on the Sunday lunch brigade driving to the pub to make things work. No matter how tasty your IPA is, at 6% they can’t shift it.
We would have needed to get our beers out nationally more to make things work, and that required investment that we didn’t have and were reluctant to look for from banks. We would have needed lots more casks and more distribution routes. The casks are about £75+VAT and when you need several hundred.… then it’s not something that you can sensibly look at without, say, re-mortgaging your house. We always said that we would not borrow money for the business because we knew that fledgling businesses don’t have good track records, and also it was a very difficult time for the economy. When you look at the bigger picture, we know we made the right decision. We have local friends who are still in the industry and who have had their brewery for ten years and still not made a profit. We chat to our brewery friends around here and they all have similar issues or worse now. I know several who don’t know whether to carry on or not – they’re not bad breweries at all, but times are very tough. There are some who are big enough to survive, or who are innovative enough, but innovation on its own isn’t enough either.
I hope I don’t come across as bitter. We loved brewing, we would love to have another brewery, but as things stand it is just not possible.
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Northcote sold its brewing kit to Bowness Bay in 2012. South London brewery Belleville uses the name Northcote for one of its beers which Jenni is quite happy about. She is on Twitter as @Palate4Hire.