Topsham Ales

1 August 2014 is International Beer Day. Co-operative pubs have been making a lot of headlines, but what about the pints themselves?  Community-owned brewery Topsham Ales has been...

1 August 2014 is International Beer Day. Co-operative pubs have been making a lot of headlines, but what about the pints themselves? 

Community-owned brewery Topsham Ales has been in business for the past four years, with its beers sold in pubs in Exeter, Exmouth and around the south west.  

Run entirely by volunteers, the Devon-based brewery was set up in 2010 – the first of its kind in the region and only the second in the UK. Since then, other breweries have followed suit in places like nearby Totnes. The co-operative has also developed twinning links with its namesake town in Maine, producing special beer tailored to American tastes.

Brewing operations are based in a building behind the Globe Hotel. Landlady Liz Hodges had already earmarked this as a micro-brewery site and she was more than happy to let the community brewery move in.

Head brewer Greg Towning
Head brewer Greg Towning

Co-operative secretary Alastair Mumford, who heads up the day-to-day running of the brewery, recalls: “It all came about when a friend of mine, Greg Towning, who has years of brewing experience and is now our head brewer, sent me a text saying some brewery equipment was for sale.

“I read the message as £1,500, but it turned out to actually be £15,000! We decided to go ahead anyway.

“We thought, well, this is a semi-affluent kind of place and there should be lots of people interested – so we got together about 10 people and when it became clear we would need more money to set up the brewery, that grew into a share offer which attracted over 60 members. In the end, we raised £70,000.”

Topsham Ales has a management committee which meets regularly and an annual AGM which all members can attend. In its early days there was a lot of practical support from Co-operatives UK and the Co-op Enterprise Hub on everything from putting together a business plan and co-op business model to a formal constitution.

“We’re still learning around the processes and improving our ales all the time,” says Alastair, but we now produce two main beers which we sell to pubs in the locality, as well as beers for different seasons and special occasions. We have started bottling beers and we would like to get to the point where there are paid members of staff, but at the moment volunteering is key to breaking even.

“We run on a not-for-profit basis, and any money is reinvested back into the co-operative. Like everyone else in the beer trade, we’ve been through a difficult period, but we are now over that. We’re looking to start producing two brews a month. We also donate beer to local charities and community organisations to help them raise funds.”

The brewery puts great importance on its co-operative status. “We are built on a foundation of one member, one vote,” says Alastair, “and everyone has a chance to have input into the business. There is a social economic and environmental aspect to what we do – it is important to have that right co-operative ethos.”

The co-operative is currently working on a new cask sponsorship scheme, enabling members to support investment in new processes and equipment. There are also plans for another share issue to engage more people, and a Friends Of Topsham Ales group to boost funds and goodwill.

Sustainability is key to the brewery’s operations, which began following discussions with the local Transition Towns group.

Alistair says: “We have always been interested in sustainability and it is important every community has a level of self-sufficiency. We use a lot of water and electricity, but our suppliers are from as close by as possible, and we make sure we are as resource efficient, non-polluting and low carbon as possible.

“We are committed to using ethically sound materials and suppliers and everything that can be recycled is. All our electricity and gas use is also monitored so we can keep an eye on things.”

In the long term, it is hoped to move the micro-brewery to a larger site and extend brewing operations. But major expansion is unlikely to be on the cards for a co-operative that is so very committed to its local roots.

“We never wanted to be a massive brewery,” says Alastair. “We keep carbon impact as low as possible and have a level of production which fits in with being financially viable. We saw this as a good opportunity to do something positive for the town, to set up something people could be proud of and feel a part of.”

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