Raise a glass to brewing co-ops on International Beer Day

Over the last decade, a new wave of beer enthusiasts has revitalised the UK brewing industry. With International Beer Day falling on Friday 5 August this year, co-ops...

Over the last decade, a new wave of beer enthusiasts has revitalised the UK brewing industry.

With International Beer Day falling on Friday 5 August this year, co-ops are helping to support the brewing industry in the UK in a number of ways.

The boom in craft ale saw 249 new breweries opening in 2015, and 278 in 2014. Bidding to make high-quality, independently produced beers with a local twist, the co-op model has been used by start-ups as well as established enterprises looking to secure their future.

Bottling at Boundary Brewery. [photo: Boundary Brewery]
Bottling at Boundary Brewery. [photo: Boundary Brewery]
In Northern Ireland, Boundary Brewing Cooperative has grown to more than 1,000 members in its first year. In 2006, Matthew Dick moved to America – home of vast numbers of microbreweries and local brewers – and worked in a brew pub. He returned to Northern Ireland four years later inspired by the vibrant beer co-op scene in the USA.

A friend introduced him Matt Scrimgeour, an avid supporter of the co-operative model. “I believe in trying to find an alternative – the idea of doing something together with other people makes sense to me,” says Mr Scrimgeour. “It’s an opportunity to do something practical, different from the default capitalist assumption of how enterprises work.”

The two founded Boundary Brewing, crowdfunding the initial capital. They hoped to raise £70,000 in five weeks, but instead reached £100,000 in eight days. In January 2015 they moved into the Old Linen Mill in Belfast and began brewing in March. The next round of investment aimed at £90,000 over five weeks. They reached their goal within 48 hours and extended the target to £150,000.

Boundary Brewing Coop focuses on three core beers: a 7% IPA, a 7% export stout and a 3.5% APA. Additionally, a continually changing list of speciality beers is brewed – some of them only available to the 1,000 members who co-own the brewery. Brews have included the Berliner Vice: Nearly Nilsson (a Berliner Weisse fermented in Chardonnay barrels with coconut and lemon) and Filthy Animal (a chilli porter, with added Chipotle).

The co-operative has been expanding rapidly, with their beers now not only available in the craft beer shops of Belfast, but through the online subscription service Beerbods.

Belfast set to welcome its first craft beer co-operative

Writing in the Guardian, Mr Dick said: “Choosing the co-operative path for our business has been the best decision we’ve made so far. It’s given us an incredible momentum, with fans and brand ambassadors all over the world, but especially locally.”

As well as gathering support at the launch of a new business, the co-op model has given strength to a much valued local enterprise.

The Hesket Newmarket Range
The Hesket Newmarket Range

Founded in 1988, the Hesket Newmarket Brewery in Cumbria was one of the first microbreweries in the region. Most of its ales are named after local fells and mountain ranges in the Lake District, such as Old Carrock Strong Ale or Scafell Blond.

Starting out in a converted barn at the back of the Old Crown in Hesket Newmarket, Jim and Liz Fearnley brewed the beers exclusively for the pub. As its reputation grew, other local pubs also began stocking the beers. When the Fearnleys announced they were to retire in 1999, a group of local people came together to save the brewery and the Hesket Newmarket Brewery Co-operative was born.

Today, the brewery is still in the same barn, with a brand new brewing plant and storage facility. Bottles of some of the most popular beers became available in 2006 and can be bought from the co-op’s website.

Co-op Group edges into ‘local sourcing’ through brewery initiative

An increasing number of pubs are also turning to the co-op model, often to save it from closure. There are now 42 pubs across the UK trading as a co-operative. The Plunkett Foundation is heavily involved in supporting groups who wish to transition a pub into a co-operative.

Co-op pubs are owned and controlled by a large number of people from within the community. They are governed democratically on the basis of one member, one vote.

The co-operative model makes sure that everybody has the opportunity to have a say about what’s important to them

Peter Couchman, chief executive of Plunkett Foundation, says this is crucial.

“We know that most communities are made up of people with very mixed incomes, and the co-operative model makes sure that everybody has the opportunity to have a say about what’s important to them,” he added.

“Co-operative pubs have both open and voluntary membership, which means that new people moving into the community, or those who have not previously been involved, can still become members. They tend to be run by full-time managers or tenants with the support of members of the community who volunteer.”

Along with the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), Plunkett has established the Community Pub Business Support Programme – aiming to increase the number of community-owned pubs open and trading. The support is for community groups looking to take on ownership of their local pub, offering advice, workshops, study visits, plus grant and loan awards.

Co-operatives UK also offers advice and support for new and existing co-operative enterprises.

For example, The Fox and Hounds in Hampshire served as a village pub for 130 years before coming under threat in 2013. Local people rallied together to register the pub as an asset of community value (ASV) and more than 120 villagers invested over £300,000 through a community share fund. They bought the property and have leased it to a family business S.A.D. Pub to run the business.

Unlike other community-owned and run pubs, the Fox and Hounds operates with a standard landlord-tenant relationship – S.A.D. Pub having taken on the business from the co-operative, a relationship landlord Angela Ryan describes as “the perfect solution”.

Customers outside the Fox and Hounds in Hampshire [photo: Fox and Hounds]
Customers outside the Fox and Hounds in Hampshire [photo: Fox and Hounds]
“It works out so much better this way compared to community managed/owned pubs,” says Ms Ryan. “The shareholders don’t have to worry about a thing and can sit back and enjoy coming to the pub they helped save.”

Ms Ryan believes communities interested in taking on a pub or other community assets have a choice to make over who takes care of the management of the business – to do it themselves, or to rent out the properties to people with prior experience.

“They need to consider whether or not they want a close-knit ‘private pub’ with mainly local investor supporters as owners, managers with volunteer staff, or a pub that attracts all other local customers and destination dining customers.

“We see all pubs as community assets. 90% of our customers are non-investors and we are really pleased that we have also been able to attract them to our pub. Not all investors are pub-goers but genuinely wanted to become involved in the community spirit to help save their local. It’s been a wonderful story!”

At the recent Co-operative of the Year Awards, the co-operative behind the saving of the Fox and Hounds was nominated for the ‘Inspiring Co-op of the Year’ category.

Just as the spirit of independence is purveying through the brewing industry in the UK, so too in the running of pubs. So far, the 42 co-op pubs are all based in England and Wales, but with signs of development in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

A spokesperson for Plunkett said: “In Scotland, we’re seeing a growing interest and we’re beginning to work more and more with partners. There is a tradition of community pubs left over from the Temperance movement, so while there aren’t necessarily models that we’d necessarily recognise today, that’s not to say there isn’t a history of communities coming together there.

“There’s an increasing feeling of momentum in Scotland, and we’ve been thrilled to see how well our members, Glenwyvis Distillery, have done on their community share offer, which we supported them on.

“For Northern Ireland, again we are beginning to see interest and emergence in self-help and the co-operative approach, and partner with Northern Ireland-based organisations on a number of our projects, so again a positive outlook going forwards.”

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