Turning Out the Lights: When Breweries Close

Nortchote Brewery logo.

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.

Illustration: "Wodge of cash."

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.

* * *

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.

4 thoughts on “Turning Out the Lights: When Breweries Close”

  1. CAMRA keeps on declar­ing as good news that there is a record num­ber of brew­eries, but it should be obvi­ous that the oppos­ing trends of falling alco­hol sales and clos­ing pubs on the one hand and an increas­ing num­ber of small brew­eries on the oth­er are going to col­lide. Judg­ing by this post, that process is well well under­way; we can expect more casu­al­ties.

  2. Real­ly inter­est­ing stuff thanks, espe­cial­ly the bit about how the loca­tion of the brew­ery and its pri­ma­ry mar­ket impact­ed sales.

  3. A local brew­er in my area rang me to high­light some of the facts men­tioned. He was par­tic­u­lar­ly frus­trat­ed by brew­eries of late, flog­ging beer too cheap­ly – ridicu­lous­ly cheap! Price per cask was less than he was brew­ing it for.
    He was sug­gest­ing it would be an inter­est­ing sub­ject to high­light in my news­pa­per col­umn.

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