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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 August 2006, 19:57 GMT 20:57 UK
Brewing up profits in Cumbria
By Toby Poston
Business reporter, BBC News, in Cumbria

Microbrewer Anita Garnett about to give her Copper a good clean
Microbrewer Anita Garnett knows her trade inside out

Just over a year ago Anita Garnett spent her working week trimming fringes, doing highlights and blow-drying wayward tresses.

Twelve months on, she has sold her hair dressing salon and spends much of her time mucking around with mash tuns, coppers and fermenting vessels.

She has become a rare female addition to the growing army of UK microbrewers.

Together with partner and fellow real ale aficionado Paul Swann, Ms Garnett has set up the Ulverston Brewing Company in a spruced-up farm shed on the outskirts of the Cumbrian market town.

Although she is the brewery's only full-time employee, it marks the realisation of a long-held ambition for Mr Swann, since the demise of the local Hartley's brewery in 1991.

"I knew Ulverston was big enough to have its own brewery, and that someone else would do it if I didn't," he says.

"I just woke up one morning and decided it was going to happen."

Another Fine Mess

A key early task for most brewers is to come up with a catchy name that both registers where the product comes from and appeals to real ale drinkers looking for a new brand.

Paul and Anita didn't have to look far for inspiration, which came in the form of one of the town's most famous sons, comedian Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame.

"I had already decided on the Stan Laurel connection, and had his films buzzing around my head for 15 years," says Mr Swann.

Sure enough, the Ulverston Brewing Company's early brews have been named accordingly: Lonesome Pine, Laughing Gravy, Harvest Moon and Another Fine Mess.

Paul Swann and Anita Garnett serving up a pint of their finest beer
The brewery has named its beers after Laurel and Hardy films

Like other would-be microbrewers, the first step for the pair was to book a place on one of the start-up courses run at the University of Sunderland's Brewlab.

The couple then ploughed the best part of 35,000 into finding some premises and installing the essential equipment, most of it second-hand.

Getting noticed

The brewery started production in mid-March and is currently producing 17 nine-gallon firkins from its weekly brew.

It supplies about 25 regular pubs and a growing number of beer festivals.

But the difficulty the brewery faces, together with many others, is that most pubs are owned by big pub companies or brewers that don't allow guest beers - or if they do - only one at a time.

Most of its business comes from the relatively low number of free houses that have the ability to pick and choose the beers they offer.

"Don't come into this industry thinking you will get rich, do it because you are passionate," adds Mr Swann.

"Overhearing a conversation where people are saying how much they enjoyed your beer gives me the same buzz that I used to get from giving a good haircut," Anita adds.

Champion Beer

Fifteen miles up the road, near the shores of Coniston Water, another Cumbrian microbrewery has proved that there is money to be made from mucking about with malt, hops, yeast and water.

The Coniston Brewing Company was set up in 1995 by Ian Bradley, whose family owns the Black Bull Inn in Coniston.

Another graduate of the Brewlab course, Mr Bradley made a small profit supplying his family's pub and a few other local outlets until things really took off in 1998.

Also known as "cask conditioned" beer, the difference between real and other ales is that the yeast is still present in the container from which the beer is served, although it will have settled to the bottom and is not poured into the glass.

Because the yeast is still alive, the process of fermentation continues in the cask or bottle, ensuring a fresh and natural taste.

Source: CAMRA

That was when his Bluebird Bitter - named after the boat used when Donald Campbell broke the world water speed record on Coniston Water in 1967 - was voted Supreme Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival.

Together with his five staff, Mr Bradley now produces 130 firkins of ale a week, a quarter of which goes to the Black Bull, the rest to about 50 pubs in the local area.

The brewery also licences another brewery in Oxfordshire to produce a bottled version of its Bluebird Bitter, which sells 750,000 bottles a year.

One of the keys to running a successful microbrewery is consistency, Mr Bradley says.

"Making beer is straightforward, but making it the same week-in, week-out, is difficult. There can be big differences in the quality of the hops and malt crop each year."

Paul Bradley and some of his award winning ale
Major beer awards have driven the success of Coniston's brew

Another important part of the process is the laborious task of cleaning. Much of a microbrewer's week is spent scrubbing and washing the casks, kettles and vats that turn the ingredients into beer.

Beer duty

The Ulverston and Coniston microbreweries are just two of 22 similar enterprises up and running in Cumbria, which now has the largest range of small regional brewers in the country after Yorkshire and Norfolk.

A key reason for the recent growth in the industry was the introduction of the progressive beer duty in 2002, which gave big tax breaks to smaller brewers.

Ian Bradley reckons this change halved his beer duty charges, saving the Coniston Brewery 50,000 a year.

Across the UK, the industry is in rude health, says Roger Protz, editor of the Good Beer Guide.

"The 2006 edition of the guide had 80 new breweries listed in the UK, and there will be at least 60 more in the 2007 guide," he says.

Firkin - 9 gallons
Kilderkin - 18 gallons
Barrel - 36 gallons
Hogshead - 54 gallons

Including beer bought in shops, real ale's share of the UK market has sunk to just 7%, but Mr Protz says there seems to be sufficient demand for most of the new microbreweries springing up.

"We also list the breweries that are closing down each year, and there are not many - they are mainly larger regional breweries that have been taken over by their bigger rivals who are buying them for the pub chains that they own."

Mr Protz's advice for any would-be microbrewers is to try and ensure a shop window for their beer, whether that means finding some local pubs that are willing to stock your product, or even buying your own pub.

He also suggests joining a delivery scheme like that run by the Society of Independent Brewers, which enables small regional brewers to trade with the big pub companies and retailers.

This is the second in a series of features about the Cumbrian economy.

Graphic: The brewing process

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