“I remember when the word ‘craft’ belonged to crepe paper and wooden lolly sticks, and the idea of starting a brewery was greeted not with a look of envy but a laughing splutter into a pint”
It’s been an odd couple of years at best, a devastating two at worst, and I doubt there isn’t a single one of us who doesn’t look at the world a bit differently to how we did at the start of 2020. Much of the brewing industry is picking itself up off the floor, dusting itself down and putting a pack of frozen peas on its bruises after its time with covid. I expect many hardened brewers have been wondering whether they have the energy to build the business back up again, and equally, I suspect there are many insurance brokers and the like contemplating their life choices and considering starting a new career in beer.
All of this comes to Grain at a time when we turned fifteen years old, those awkward teenage years. I’m pretty sure it was Russ at XT Brewing, a brewery of similar size, perhaps slightly younger but also members of the Malrex Owner’s Club of brewkits, who described us as an ‘old new brewery’. We started in 2006, when the word ‘craft’ belonged to crepe paper and wooden lolly sticks, and the idea of starting a brewery was greeted not with a look of envy but a laughing splutter into a pint. So we don’t have the benefit of stability, money and a big pub estate like many of the age-old breweries, nor do we have all the flashing lights and fresh excitement of the new kids on the block.
I went to a ‘brewer open day’ at Brewdog HQ a few years ago in Aberdeen. At 49 I was the third oldest person there, not just of those at the open day, but amongst the entire 350 people working there too. A brewer who looked even more uncomfortable than me was number two, and the Brewdog finance director was the eldest. ‘What have you done with all the old people?’ was asked at the Q&A session, and it does reflect the new-age brewing industry we find ourselves in, but not necessarily those it is trying to appeal to. Whilst at that Brewdog thing, I buddied up with some great guys from your classic ‘have a go’ – two year old – five barrel brewery. They were there, hoping to get some secret insights into how to make it in the ever-crazier brewing industry, and I asked them what their brewery ethos was. ‘We do things differently’ was the answer. I asked that question to a handful of other brewers that day, and they nearly all gave the same answer.
It’s tough. Finding an identity that suits you, appeals to customers, makes you stand out, yet stands the test of time, is hard to do, especially in such a saturated market. I went through a phase of panic a few years back, seeing these new breweries pop up around us (that’s probably what drove me to the Brewdog Open Day). They were younger than us, had hipper beards than us, and were brewing all the latest beers the moment a new style was discovered. For a short while I began obsessively searching social media, following all the trends, and having a go on our trial kit to create that new beer. It was exhausting. Whether it is my age, a distrust of fads, or the feeling that I was turning my back on what we set out to do, but I knew it was not for me and not what Grain is about. I would just end up as dad, dancing at the wedding.
I now often remind myself of who we are, and where we have come from, and it helps me to relax a bit and do what we are good at, and concentrate on perfecting our art. We do some great cask beers, and we also do some great keg beers now too, with our keg range edging more and more to European styles. I am very pleased with our Pilsener and Tunbecker lagers, I think the Weizen is spot on, and our recent dark lager Munich Dunkel is a great example of its kind. Are they exciting? Probably not, but like the majority of our beers, they absolutely hit the spot and nearly always return for another. When Alan from Old Chimneys Brewery teamed up with us to continue brewing Good King Henry, it was the perfect fit. ‘Craft – whatever is that?’, yet no-one would deny that his beer doesn’t wear the crown in the craft market.
So I see ourselves as a scuffed but still solid pair of old brogues – well built, authentic, with a touch of class yet outside of a fashion pigeon hole. Many breweries just become that new pair of ripped jeans, straight from a catalogue, and on many they look good. And where others may spend hours with hydrogen peroxide and salt to make the new corrugated tin of their brewery look old, I view those rusted tin sheds at South Farm with a frown, as roofs that will soon need fixing.
We are neither craft nor traditional, and instead see ourselves as just a brewery, comfortable in our stainless steel skin, but by no means stuck in our ways or afraid of trying new things. Our ethos is do what we do to the best of our ability, and we are all proud of the beers we brew, and I’ve emerged from lockdown with a renewed sense of purpose, but with a reassurance that we often get it right. We are Grain, and the soul of every great beer is the grain, but that’s a blog for another day.