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Welcome to West Berkshire: head brewer Will Twomey (with beard) shows visitors around the new brewery

West Berkshire Brewery firing on all cylinders

West Berkshire Brewery has opened what it claims is ‘Europe’s most advanced brewing and packaging plant’.

Housed in 38,000 square feet of former cowsheds, the £6 million project includes a 60-hectolitre ‘continental style’ brew kit, 1,080 hectolitres of fermenting capacity, a kegging plant and a dual-purpose bottling and canning line.

Sitting on 160,000 hand-laid tiles that alone cost £250,000, all equipment has been supplied by CFT of Parma, Italy – “the only company that could make everything we needed,” according to West Berks chairman David Bruce.

Alongside the production facilities, separated by a £80,000 glass screen, is a visitor centre licensed for 200 guests that will by next spring open out onto a £120,000 beer garden looking out over the brewer’s own crops of barley and hops.

A few hundred yards from its previous brewery and shop near the village of Yattendon, the four-acre site at Frilsham Home Farm is within sight and sound of the M4 motorway and is West Berkshire’s fourth home in 22 years.

Bruce, who made his name with the Firkin brewpub chain in the 1980s before advising the new wave of US craft brewers and who now also heads City Pub Company, has been the driving force behind the expansion, raising £9.75 million through Enterprise Investment Scheme funding.

“We can brew in 16 hours what we used to brew in three days,” he says. “Not because the brewlength is very much bigger but because this equipment is so much more efficient and we can brew on it three times a day.”

The brewhouse includes a lauter tun and combination copper-whirlpool that help to maximise malt and hop extract respectively. Recipes can be simply programmed into the system giving the versatility needed to brew a wide range of beers.

With an option to expand into another cowshed, total capacity could increase 10-fold. The company is actively inviting brewing and packaging contracts from other brewers.

Under Bruce, who purchased the West Berkshire from founders Dave and Helen Maggs in 2013, sales have been growing at 20% a year. The Renegade craft range, launched just 18 months ago, now accounts for 20% of the business thanks to listings with Tesco and Waitrose.

Renegade has recently been rebranded to remove the word ‘Brewery’ as, Bruce explained, “we realised we’re selling a brand and not who brewed it”.

Its growth has been driven by the 4.5% abv Craft Lager and a second Vienna-style lager has now been added to the portfolio.

Following a successful collaboration with Northern Ireland’s Farmageddon Brewing Co-op, resulting in Red Eye PA being named Champion Beer of All-Ireland at the Belfast Beer Festival, a Renegade pilot range will hit the shelves in time for Christmas.

Packaged in cans designed by a tattoo artist, it will include Snake Oil DPA, Tropic Like It’s Hot Pineapple Pale Ale, Cocoa Nut Milk Stout and Khan Red IPA.

The decision to bring all packaging in-house as part of the project, ending contracts with Hepworths and Ramsgate Breweries, was an inevitable decision driven by “strong market demand for beers in keg and can,” said Bruce, who archly describes the bottling and canning line as “my £2 million train set”. It can package 8,000 500ml bottles or 12,000 330ml cans an hour.

“We realised we could go to the next level, so we thought, let’s do the ultimate. We’ve calculated that it means we make an extra 45p more profit on each bottle we sell, and because of the flexibility of the system we can offer other brewers small production runs, too.

“And canning also gives us the potential to export our beers at some point.”

The visitor centre will be another future profit stream and is being marketed to coach companies for brewery tours and local businesses for events. The furniture is built from wood recycled from the byres and it boasts a £120,000 kitchen including a Josper oven. The centre has views into the bar’s beer cellar as well as the brewhouse and the Berkshire countryside.

Remaining funding will go towards buying a tied pub estate of managed houses in urban areas. The first, The Depot off London’s Caledonian Road, is already serving the West Berkshire range plus guests from local craft brewers. The second is the Old Suffolk Punch in Hammersmith and a third in the capital will be confirmed in December..

“Competition in the craft beer market and discounting by brewers that benefit from progressive beer duty has driven the decision to have our own pubs,” explained Bruce. “We’re aiming to open 12 in three years.

“I know from my experience with City Pub Company that the big beer volumes are in cathedral cities or university towns where we can charge more for our beer and get better margins, and we’re targeting places like Bristol, Birmingham and Southampton as well as London.”

Yet despite the dramatic changes at West Berkshire, the company has retained strong links with the past. Not only are Good Old Boy Best Bitter and Maggs’ Magnificent Mild still in production, they might even be brewed by the son of the founders, Griff Maggs, who is employed as a senior brewer alongside head brewer Will Twomey.

Phil Mellows
1st December 2017

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