The rise of Merseyside’s microbreweries

This article originally appeared in Issue 1 of The Merseysider magazine.


Beer consumption may be falling, but the region’s microbreweries are bucking the trend.

Given our economic and other woes you might think we’d all be turning to drink, but it turns out this is far from being the case. As you’ve probably noticed, pubs have been falling like ninepins: according to recent figures around 14 pubs a week (over 700 a year) are closing down. The rate of closures has actually slowed, but that’s partly because so many pubs have bit the dust already. And beer consumption, whether in bars or at home, is definitely down: the British Beer and Pub Association calculates that sales of beer in the first six months of 2011 were the lowest since they started keeping records in 1997.

But a degree of salvation for the drinks industry could be at hand in the form of microbreweries, the small scale brewers of real ale who have bravely taken on the big boys like Carlsberg (owners of Holsten and Tetley’s) and Heineken (whose portfolio includes John Smith’s and Foster’s). The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) estimates that there are now 800 breweries in the UK, more than at any time since the end of World War Two. The rise of the microbrewery is linked to a sharp increase in the popularity of real ale, sales of which have shot up 25% in the past 5 years.

There are several possible reasons for the surge in microbreweries. Gordon Brown gets a bad press for just about everything he ever did, but he perhaps deserves a smidgeon of credit for introducing (as Chancellor of the Exchequer) the Progressive Beer Duty, which basically means the less beer you produce the lower the rate of duty you pay. The most successful microbreweries are often very small businesses, adept at keeping overheads down and at responding quickly to the needs and preferences of local customers. This focus on a local market parallels trends in the food and restaurant industries, where there is an increased emphasis on traditional, locally sourced produce.

And then there’s the taste of the beer itself. It’s been said that a good bitter is every bit as complex and as satisfying as a good bottle of wine, and many drinkers prefer the strong, varied flavours of real ale to the bland uniformity of keg beers. Whereas real ale is a living beer that continues fermenting in the cask, keg beers undergo pasteurisation and filtration which removes all the yeast – processes designed to prolong the beer’s shelf life and make it ready to drink as soon as it leaves the brewery. The beer also gets an injection of carbon dioxide, giving it a semblance of life by making it fizzy. Real ale enthusiasts argue that the end of all this is a product drained of character and flavour.

The picture here in the North West is similar to the rest of the country: at the last count, Cheshire alone had 26 different breweries. Liverpool microbreweries include the Liverpool Organic and Liverpool One breweries, and the Wapping Brewery (based in the Baltic Fleet pub). Wirral has the Brimstage Brewery and Birkenhead’s Peerless Brewing Company, which recently won four awards for its beers at the Great Northern Beer Festival in Manchester.

One of Lancashire’s leading microbreweries is the Southport Brewery, set up by Paul Bardsley in 2004. Paul explains that the larger brewers’ preference for keg beer has created a gap he and others like him have attempted to fill. ‘The big companies have been getting out of traditional beer and focusing on mass production – lagers, canned beers. But people still want traditional beer and we’re responding to that demand.’

Paul’s own story is typical of many. ‘I worked for many years in horticulture and enjoyed the job, but when I hit 40 I felt I wanted a change. Beer had always been a hobby – I brewed it at home and used to go round the beer festivals. I also thought Southport needed a brewery. The last brewery in the town shut down in 1936.’

He recalls vividly the challenges of turning what had been an enjoyable pastime into a profitable business. ‘It was very hard work, a seven day week. I‘ve heard stories of microbreweries starting up and closing down after a few weeks – I think people don’t always realise how hard it’s going to be. I did it by myself for five years, with a lot of support from my wife Elaine. Then two years ago I felt able to bring in Jason Barton to work with me full time, and he’s been great. But we’ve deliberately stayed small. We very much go for the local market and most of our sales are within a 20-30 mile radius, extending out from Southport to Preston, Wigan and parts of Manchester and Liverpool. We produce it and deliver most of it ourselves. The demand’s definitely out there but I realise there’s a danger the market may eventually hit a peak and start to fall away again.’

Paul though very much gives the impression of someone who knows what he’s doing, both as a businessman and a brewer. Southport Brewery’s Golden Sands was named the Best Bitter Champion at 2009’s Great British Beer Festival and the Independent newspaper recently endorsed the accolade, giving it a ‘Best Buy’ rating and describing it as ‘packed to its head with pleasant citrus tones’. The brewery’s main outlet is of course pubs, but bottle-conditioned ales are supplied to off-licences, and for parties and other functions customers can buy mini-casks or larger poly-pins. You can even have a hand pump attached so you can feel like you’re in the pub without leaving the house.

The brewery’s products are given names which have local associations, such as National Hero, brewed in honour of the legendary racehorse Red Rum, who was trained on the Southport sands. There are five regular bitters, plus seasonal beers such as Old Shrimper, a winter warmer available from November to February. Local MP John Pugh is a strong supporter of the brewery, and recently arranged for their Sandgrounder bitter to be available as a guest beer in a bar at the House of Commons. ‘They sold out in three days,’ laughs Paul, ‘which I’m told is a record.’ Prime Minister’s Questions may have been especially unruly that week.

For a beer drinker’s view of things, I called in at the Baltic Fleet, the Liverpool pub that has the rare distinction of housing its own brewery in the cellar. The pub’s Wapping microbrewery has been operating for more than ten years, during which time brewer Stan Shaw has won numerous CAMRA awards, concocting a seemingly never-ending series of beers to suit all tastes, seasons and occasions: Perch Rock, Liverpool Lou, Hale Rocks, Clipper, Cutter, Ketch – the list goes on. As for the pub, the Baltic Fleet lives up to its name, and from the outside at least resembles a ship, with the building’s narrow rounded end its bow. It’s close to the Liverpool waterfront and is a rare surviving example of a mid-19th century dockers’ pub. In the last few years it’s become surrounded by the forces of the new, with Liverpool One down the road and the Echo Arena across the street, but the pub, which is Grade 2 listed, remains, a lonely defender of tradition in a sea of modernity. Inside, apart from the occasional piece of nautical memorabilia, the décor is minimalist and rather bleak. But it’s not the prospect of comfortable surroundings that draws the customers, as Alan and Andy (from Chester and Bromborough respectively) explain. ‘I’ve brought people here from Kent and Plymouth,’ says Alan. ‘If I’m showing visitors around Liverpool it’s an essential part of the tour. It’s a place that sells proper beer, and it’s got what I always like to see when you walk through the door of any pub – a line of handpumps on the bar, giving you a real choice of what to drink. Wherever I go, I always try to hunt down the pubs that sell the local brews.’

In his days as a merchant seaman, Alan travelled the globe and he offers the surprising observation that the world’s best brewed beer is to be found in Canada. Closer to home Andy says they also like the Philharmonic in Liverpool, and Alan recommends the Red Lion in Chester (near the Town Hall) and the historic railway buffet bar at Stalybridge Station.

Geoff Edwards, Chair of the Liverpool and Districts branch of CAMRA, sees some interesting sociological patterns in the rise of real ale. ‘ When we all first started drinking wine it was generally pretty horrible stuff, but gradually people got to know more and our tastes changed. Something  similar has happened with beer. People won’t put up with what the big brewers are offering them anymore. A lot of real ale drinkers have a higher disposable income, and they’re willing to seek out quality beer and if necessary pay a bit extra for it. More young people are getting into real ale as well. It’s also becoming increasingly popular with women, and that’s probably linked to the smoking ban. In the past, pubs were often smoky places that were not especially nice to visit, but now that’s changed. Women are more prepared to go into pubs, and they’re challenging the male stereotype of the real ale drinker. CAMRA’s now got a lot of active women members.’

Geoff agrees with Paul Bardsley that microbreweries have grown in response to a gap in the market. ‘If you look at the bigger breweries – Coors, Carlsberg – they’ve basically lost interest in real ale. Tetley’s, which was always a great Yorkshire tradition, is now owned by Carlsberg and brewed in Burton-On-Trent –they’ve closed down the brewery in Leeds. That tells you the level of interest these companies have in local beers.’

Geoff’s proud of Liverpool’s role in satisfying the demand for excellent beer dispensed in congenial pubs. ‘It causes a bit of consternation outside the city, but our CAMRA group promotes Liverpool as The Real Ale Pub Capital of Britain. We think in terms of pub architecture, quality ale and microbreweries we’re hard to beat. We’ve produced a map giving the locations of over a hundred pubs. It’s an idea that’s caught on locally and it’s also attracted visitors to the city – “real ale tourism”!’

He is optimistic about the future. ‘I think the outlook is very good. Real ale’s booming and it’s all about the taste and the flavour – people want quality beer, it’s as simple as that. I’m sure the pubs that serve good ale – like the Ship and Mitre [in Dale Street], which is an icon for real ale drinkers in Liverpool – will carry on doing well’.

And if that means the region’s microbreweries continue to produce such exotically named delights as Liverpool Organic’s Shipwreck IPA or Peerless’s Viking Gold, I think we’d all drink to that.