The Evolution of Handmade Beer

In late August 2013 ‘The Handmade beer Company’ started selling beer. The journey started with me, a keen homebrewer of 20+ years, plus a rented brewery setup in a farm shed. The brewery equipment had been cobbled together by the previous tenant and had been left unused for a few years. Inevitably there was quite a bit of frost damage to pumps and valves (and the toilet!), and… well lets just say it was a little bit rough. But it was a good base to build on so, with a help of a friend I ripped out and redesigned the pipework, stripped down the plate chiller, fabricated a hopback, put a new burner and valves on the steam boiler, installed a cooling system for the fermenters, painted the floor and gave everything a good clean. Oh, and I fixed the toilet. At the same time I fought my way through all the necessary red tape and then… I was off.

Over the next 2 years I developed a core range of ‘Classic’ style beers. I also brewed the occasional IPA or Belgian beer and built a small local customer base, lots of good feedback and an upward trend in sales helped me through the initial ‘hard times’.

Fast forward to January 2016 and I decided it was time for a new adventure in the Handmade saga.

Things were getting a little bit stagnant and I needed to rekindle my enthusiasm for the industry. My previous career had been in graphic design and my creative side was crying out to be released further. Recipe design and development was what I enjoyed the most along with the branding and marketing activities. I also craved the infrequent opportunities to interact with other members of the brewing industry. I needed to get out of my farm shed and into the big wide world of ‘Craft Beer’.

So the first decision to be made was to go ‘Gyspy’, the term I prefer for an itinerant brewer. Gypsy/Cuckoo brewers don’t have a brewery (home) of their own. Instead they rent space in other breweries that have spare capacity. So I’ve ended the lease on the rented brewery and i’m hitting the road. Maybe not that simple but you get the idea.

My first stop is , The Mad Dog Brewing Co in Cwmbran, A relatively new brewery, captained by Alex an enthusiastic, hardworking brewer who makes some great beers. Alex is currently in the process of replacing his tiny sub 1 barrel system with a shiny new 6 barrel system and will have some spare capacity for my beers. So a deal has been struck and for the next twelve months at least the majority of ‘Handmade Beers’ will brewed at his place.

I also aim to spend more time with other brewers sharing ideas, knowledge and enthusiasm.

…anyone up for a colab – give me a shout.

Gypsys, Cuckoos and Craft Beer

(A New Way of Thinking for me and The Handmade Beer Company)

I recently discovered that there are a band of souls existing surreptitiously within the brewing industry, who have foregone the kudos of owning a brewery and are content to brew, or get their beers brewed at someone else’s gaff. As more and more brewers set up their own micros there must an excess of production capacity crying out to be utilised. Could this be the future for Brewery startups on a budget?

My interest in this business model was initially ignited whilst watching the documentary ‘The Architect’ about Danish Brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller brewing fame.  This guy is a rockstar in the brewing world, however he doesn’t have a brewery and he doesn’t get involved with the production! How so? It seems he’s quite content to develop his beers on a homebrew sized pilot system and then send his recipe to a trusted brewery to brew the production batches. To me this sounds like an interesting idea. …and no Mash tuns to dig out – always a bonus.

The Hunt for UK Gypsy Brewers.

Following the Mikkeller documentary I was straight into Google and searching for ‘UK Gypsy Brewers’. Mmm, Nothing exciting to speak of, just a few references. However, digging a little deeper and posting on the UK craft beer network facebook page, I soon discovered that in the UK, the popular name for itinerant brewers is ‘Cuckoos’. Not such a romantic descriptor, but mentally I couldn’t help take the metaphor to it’s limit. I had visions of creeping into an unsuspecting brewers nest and leaving a rogue recipe egg for the host brewer to nurture until it was ready for the big wide world of Craft Beer.

Low overheads, reduced environmental footprint, experimentation and collaborations.

Back in the real world, there seems to be a good argument for this business model. My research has found that there are a few established UK breweries that started as Cuckoos and at least one that plans to continue with this model for the foreseeable future.

From an environmental and also economic angle, I can see that it would be better to run 1 brewery at full capacity than 2 at half capacity. Taking away the necessity for large upfront capital for a production facility is going to have a positive impact on your cash flow and allow you to get going with minimum investment. Your ‘contract fee’ also helps the host brewery with their costs, so a win-win situation really.

Finally it’s a great opportunity to work with other brewers, experiment with recipes, exchange ideas and encourage each other when the going gets tough.

The only downside I can see is equipment availability, there may be busy times when the host brewer has no spare fermenter for you. Of course you could buy your own fermenter(s) if there’s room to house them, it’s still a cheaper option. Another option is to find a second host brewer and share the load.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind when planning the finer details of this business model.

But first let me just say: This information is the result of informal conversations with other cuckoo breweries. Please if you decide to go down this route, speak first to the relevant authorities and check that they’re happy with your plans. Trust me you don’t want to start on the wrong foot with HMRC.

You will have to decide whether or not you want to register as a Brewery. Yes, there’s a certain amount of esteem in being a registered brewery, but it’s not the only way.  You could become a wholesaler (on paper that is) and still design recipes and brew your test batches. You won’t be able to sell your test batches, but that’s just a good excuse for extensive taste testing. Someone has to keep production records and file a duty return every month and unfortunately, if you are a registered brewery, you are responsible for all the paperwork and payments. If you are a wholesaler, the responsibility is with the brewery brewing your beer.

Next, you have to decide the details of your contract. Here are a couple of options I have been made aware of.

Getting your beer Brewed Under License

For this one you just contract another brewery to brew your beer, pay the brewer and take away your packaged beer. BE WARNED, If beer is ‘Brewed under licence’ for another brewery, it is no longer eligible for the 50% duty relief offered to small brewers. The contract brewer will have to pay the full duty amount so, it will cost you twice as much as any other small brewery which is not good for competition or profit margins.

Renting space in the host brewery

This is a contract with another brewery to rent space and equipment to brew your own beer. How involved you are with the brewing processes is a discussion between you and your host.

So, If you don’t want to be paying the full duty amount it seems the only choice is to rent space in a brewery that is eligible for the small brewery relief.

And so, here comes the announcement bit – I am forsaking the world of brewery ownership (although I was actually renting my previous brewery and equipment) and jumping into the world of Itinerant brewing with both feet. I have found a brewer that I respect and trust and I can’t wait to get started. – I’m going to concentrate on the recipe design and development as well as championing the virtues of the gypsy brewer. Oh yeah, I’m looking forward to some exciting collaborations too!

Why not follow my journey

See you again soon.