Founded in 2002, the co-operative was helped by start-up funding from a range of bodies including the East of England Development Agency and government organisations such as DEFRA. It now offers real ale drinkers a wide choice of brewing styles, ranging from smooth dark stouts and porters to lagers and specialised seasonal beers.
By networking its ‘family’ of farmers in East Anglia, the co-operative can help brewers produce beers made with ‘totally local’ malts and sell them via the region’s farmers’ markets, farm shops and pubs.
Co-operative chairman is Brendan Moore and its operating base is his Iceni brewery situated on the edge of the Thetford Forest, Norfolk. The brewery’s name is derived from the tribes ruled by Queen Boudicca, which occupied most of Norfolk and Suffolk around 61 AD.
Former food industry worker Brendan Moore, who came to East Anglia 30 years ago from County Armagh in Northern Ireland, began brewing beer commercially in 1995. By 2000, he was part of a loose association of micro-breweries. “The main reason we got together was because we wanted to remove the aggression between brewers vying with each other for custom in a highly competitive market,” he says.
“We set out to make a new market to give our beers a premium position, to survive together as small businesses and let more people become brewers.
“We discussed the problems we all had in sourcing barley and decided we needed to have a formal structure to get our own malt supply.We set out to form a co-operative so we could then buy and negotiate on behalf of our members as well as talk about our problems and help each other.”
There are currently around 50 brewers and 18 farmers involved in the co-operative – and it is still attracting new members.
Members include the City of Cambridge Brewery, Colchester Brewing Co-operative Ltd and the Harwich Town Brewing Co-operative, while one of the latest recruits is the Norfolk Square Brewery and Real Ale Shop in Great Yarmouth.
Brendan says: “We all remain as independent businesses but do things together, such as sourcing materials like bottles, caps and packaging – and most of all, sourcing the top-quality malt that members will need to use for their beer. As a co-operative, we are able to bring the cost benefits of buying in bulk and get our own malt supply with full traceability.”
Recent initiatives such as the prestige Barley to Beer Project, involving five breweries and two farmers, showcase East Anglia’s reputation for producing some of the best barley in the world by sourcing the very best ingredients for local brewers, and creating the Extraordinary Ales range. This caters for real devotees prepared to pay a premium price – from £9 upwards. Its portfolio has included very special brews such as A Terrible Beauty Is Born (named after a poem by W B Yeats) – a limited edition of 100 stoneware bottles selling at £30 apiece.
“Traditionally, beer has always been sold as a cheap commodity unlike other drinks such as wine or whisky,” says Brendan, “but there is a real market out there for artisan beer in the UK, Europe and USA.”
He adds: “We knew that if we co-operated together and filled the shops with a great range of interesting beers, offering the same production standards and quality, we would be successful.
“We have developed completely new markets, encouraging members to sell beer where it had never been sold before – outlets such as tourist information centres and visitor attractions.”
The co-operative also encourages members to bottle their beers and sell them in farm shops. This has proved particularly popular with customers, who appreciate the provenance of buying beer from the farm which has produced the barley used to brew it – similar to buying wine from the vineyard where the grapes are grown.
“No other brewer has managed to build this sector as we have and we continue to grow all the time,” says Brendan. “We knew we could find as many people as passionate about buying artisan ale as we are about making it.”
- Read more: Topsham Ales