Brewing up a storm…
North Wales is at the heart of the craft ale boom, with scores of small operations thriving. Dave Rothnie reports.
When it comes to mixing hops, grain and water, North Wales has a proud tradition that dates back to the Druids 1,500 years ago and, more recently, includes producing Britain’s first lager brew in Wrexham in 1892.
Wrexham Lager put the region on the map until its apparent demise in 2000, when the company ceased production and the brewery was turned into a retail park. Thankfully, in 2001, Martyn Jones, a former microbiologist at the company and then MP for Clwyd South, brought the rights from Danish brewer Carlsberg for £1 and set about finding someone to produce the beer locally. His efforts seemed in vain until he met Ian Dale, the head of brewing at the old plant, and Mark Roberts. Both men were keen to bring back Wrexham Lager in the form of a microbrewery and, in October 2011, their vision became a reality when the lager was launched at the Buck House Hotel in Bangor on Dee.
Wrexham Lager stands as a proud symbol of regeneration but Wales’s brewing story is not confined to the bringing old names back to glory. As anyone who enjoys a tipple will know, drinkers are spoilt for choice when it comes to ale and increasingly lager, thanks to the efforts of a growing, yet tight-knit bunch of passionate entrepreneurs who share a passion for what some locals will recognise as two of the most important things in life – Wales and beer.
Lawrence Washington, who founded Purple Moose in 2005, developed his passion for brewing at university. Although originally from Gloucestershire, his love of Wales came from working as a volunteer on the Ffestiniog railway. After working for his father’s printing firm in Cheltenham, the pull of brewing proved too great. “I wanted to set up a brewery away from home. I considered Scotland but the market was fiercely competitive at the time. I knew Porthmadog, and I love the mountains which are important when it comes to down time.”
Meanwhile Jonathan Hughes, who set up the Great Orme Brewery in a converted cattle store and potato shed on his parent’s farm in 2006 before moving to Builders Street in Llandudno, and recently to new premises in Mochdre, is another of the brewers riding the ale craze. “In the 1970s we had 70 odd breweries across the UK with their own pubs attached. They had a monopoly and had no real incentive to produce quality brews. Fast forward 30 odd years and there were around 1,700 brewers in the UK by the end of 2016. There are around 15,000 brands of beer. The consumer has never had it so good.”
Born and bred in Glan Conwy, Hughes was working as a management consultant in the food and drink industry when he had his brewing epiphany. “I was stuck in traffic for the umpteenth time on the M25 when I decided wouldn’t it be nice to move back to Wales and brew my own beer.” He bought his first brewing kit and began experimenting in the kitchen of his flat in Milton Keynes, then returned to Wales in 2005 and launched his first commercial beer, Extravaganza, which has since changed its name to Celtica, with only his 12th brew. “Looking back now that seemed like a very bold, even foolhardy thing to do, but thankfully the beer won an award from CAMRA and set us on the way.”
When Hughes set up Great Orme, his was one of five brewers, but by the end of 2015, the total registered with CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) stood at 32. Customers develop a strong loyalty to their favourite tipple, so having a strong, distinctive brand is almost as critical to the success of a brew as the closely-guarded recipe that makes it. Washington named his brewery after his favourite colour and initially launched his Madog’s Ale and Glaslyn Ale. Purple Moose now produces five cask ales and Great Orme Brewery a range of eight – and both are constantly evolving new brews to cater for more eclectic customer tastes.
Another North Walian brewery is the Wild Horse Brewing Company, which was established in 2015, and offers a mix of lager-ale hybrids, American Pale Ales and porter. Among other newer entrants Bragdy Heavy Industry which launched in Denbighshire in 2012 and now has a range of ten beers with names like Electric Mountain and Dr Jekylls’ Last Waltz. Meanwhile, The North Wales Brewery in Abergele has among its range an alcoholic Dandelion and Burdock, as well as a Chilli beer using homegrown peppers. While Gwynne Thomas of Conwy Brewery and Dewi Jones of Bragdy’r Nant in Llanrwst have both witnessed tremendous growth.
The newcomers have joined established independent brewers and it is estimated that these breweries employ around 150 across Wales and have helped restore Wales as a burgeoning beer powerhouse. Hughes’ range of ales and lager can be seen on the shelves at Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s, as well as hundreds of pubs and independent retailers. He has also attracted attention from abroad. “The world is waking up to British beer,” said Hughes, who began exporting to Japan last year. “We are also looking at Scandinavia and the United States, which are big markets.”
Ale is big in the United States, where micro-brewers have coined the phrase ‘craft brewing’ – a phrase interchangeable with real ale but which signifies innovation in taste and branding. US providers have adapted Indian Pale Ale, a British innovation dating back to the days of the Raj known for its strength and intense hoppy flavour, and sold it back to the UK with considerable success and it has also jumped on the IPA trend with the launch of Antlered IPA, its 5.2% India Pale Ale which is one of three new craft ales it has added to its portfolio to reflect evolving consumer tastes.
Ale accounts for around 20% of the beer market and with record numbers of micro-brewers slugging it out, lager is the next big market opportunity. Great Orme produces Snowdon Lager and it is also developing its own Pilsner, while in April Purple Moose launched Mŵsh, a lager based on the Cologne regional beer style, Kölsch.
The flourishing of the independent brewing scene has created strong competition, and amid the success stories there has been a shake-up with Waen Brewery closing in 2016 and Celtic Experience being sold.
But there is also a strong sense of camaraderie that has forged innovation. In Conwy, The Albion stands as the only pub in the UK that is run by four rival brewers, a concept that came together after The Great Orme Brewery, Purple Moose Brewery, Conwy Brewery and the Nant Brewery worked together at the Conwy Food Festival. In 2010, Hughes, was approached by a former IT professional who had bought the Albion in Conwy, a once-great pub that had fallen into disrepair. Over the next few years, it underwent a restoration that retained its period features, complete with Art Deco fireplace and the pub re-opened in 2012 to huge critical acclaim. As anyone who has visited knows, The Albion has become a buzzing hub at the weekend. The brewers have repeated the trick by buying the Bridge, also in Conwy in 2014, and The Australian in Porthmadog which, since January 2017, has been leased and run solely by Purple Moose.
Some of the micro-breweries such as Great Orme and Wild Horse have broadened their appeal and host events on their premises, from brewery tours to live music and arts events in the evenings. In addition to the great pubs and vibrant micro-breweries, customers can also take advantage of the growing number of ale festivals and tours.
Meanwhile, the rise of the independent brewer has not gone unnoticed among global brewing giants, who are starting to snap up some of the smaller brands. Meanwhile BrewDog, Scotland’s biggest craft brewery, have moved from maverick outsider to the mainstream and recently sold a £10m bond to investors.
The independent brewing sector has grown at such a clip that it’s tempting to wonder how long it can continue at this pace. Some in the profession are already raising questions about whether everyone will survive. But in Wales, they have already proved that co-operation and healthy competition can live side-by-side. We say ‘Iechyd Da’ to that.