Sunday, 25 October 2009

What is a Microbrewery?

Being the one who brews the beer, when sat around in the evening chatting to customers, I often get asked a lot of the same questions. The most common question is about volumes. Queries about how much I brew and how big my brewery is are common. I would get irritated answering the same questions all the time, but it's about beer which is a subject I like to talk about. Elaborating the answer helps to make it more interesting for me, but then that tends to encourage more stupid questions.

I can answer very easily questions about my own brewery. After all, if I don't know the answers then who does? Admittedly, the ever increasing risk of dementia might be an issue. The one question that does crop up time and again is that of the definition of a microbrewery. Just how small does a brewery have to be to be a microbrewery? I often get asked that question and because I'd really like to have the answer I'm going to explore the concept here.

To lay down a bench mark I'm going to start with the sub 60,000hl per year definition of a "small brewery"1 as determined by HMRC2. To put that into context I brew around 60hl per year. I could get up to around 300hl per year if all I did was brew beer, however, I have a pub to run. So the reader can clearly see, even if mathematically dyslexic, that I am nowhere near in danger of having to pay increased beer duty rates.

Just in case numbers do baffle you, I'll give some illustrations. I'd have to increase my brewery size by 200 times to reach the threshold. 5 fermenters of 240hl each should do it. A mash tun of around 5 tonnes grist capacity to feed them. I'd need around 9,000-12,000 firkins if I expected to sell most of it as draft, although bottling would help reduce this number. I don't know if the reader can imagine what all this might look like, but to me it is anything but micro.

I'll have a little stab at my own view of the volumes I think define a micro brewery. Please bear in mind this is only an opinion and I'm sure the reader will have their own view. If we think in orders of magnitude, if I'm saying that a brewery of 2 orders of magnitude bigger than mine is too big to be a microbrewery then something around one order of magnitude, or ten times the size of mine might be.

So, my definition of the maximum size might be a 30hl brew length and around 500kg of grist. You can just about mash that volume by hand, so that, in my view, is a good level to consider. At this size the production, sales and transport activities would justify perhaps 5-8 full time jobs and it's likely to have a sole trader or partnership model of business. A nice family owned company I'd suggest.

There is another level in the beer duty definition. Below 5,000hl per year a brewery gets a full 50% discount on all it's duty. My imaginary brewery above, if it had 3 fermenters, would be unable to brew more than this. This makes me confident about this definition.

The 60,000hl per year brewery by contrast will have mechanised mash rakes I'd guess, will probably fit the limited company model, will employ around 50 people or more and start to feel corporate. At this volume it will probably have sales of up to £10 million per annum. This is starting to sound familiar, but I promised not to mention that particular brewery for a while and a promise is a promise.

Lets take another brewery as an example, the White Shield brewery. At about 10hl brew length it easily fits my size criteria. Owned by Molson Coors however makes it part of a large multinational, but do we care? Of course, the head brewer cares, Steve Wellington cares very much about the beers he makes. When personification of the metalwork occurs, I believe Steve calls the brew house something like "The Old Lady", then you have a real life relationship that breathes character into the beer.

But then perhaps size doesn't really matter at all. If a big brewery can still think like a microbrewery then perhaps that is what really matters. In America they use the term craft brewery and craft beer to describe their quality beer scene. Of course some are very large, like Sierra Nevada for instance, and will be very corporate in their business outlook. But they all produce good beer and there is such a vast difference between that and the output from the vast mash filters of the huge multinationals as to render the definition clear and easy.

In the UK we seem to have a more difficult time defining what we think is good and worthy for the beer connoisseur. Are the outputs from the various Marston's breweries not good craft beers for example? Despite the White Shield brewery being part of a huge multinational it's beer is well revered and rightly so. Robinsons, Fuller's, and Green King have all produced at least something that has impressed me, even if just a little. Perhaps their main outputs are as dull as dishwater, but then perhaps that's what the masses want anyway. The key thing for me is how do we compare these breweries to the likes of Sierra Nevada or Stone for instance who produce some very interesting beers and probably are similar in size to our "regional" brewers.

I am of course asking rhetorical questions, which by their very nature have no clear answer. The reader will have their own views, which of course I'd be happy to know about. Indeed, that is the point of this post, to explore where we think the boundries lie between microbrewing, craft brewing and whatever else we would like to define.

At the end of the day though, does it matter how big the brewery is, so long as the beer is good?


1Details for this can be found in HMRC Beer Duty Notice. hl=hectalitre or 100 litres or about 176 pints or 0.61 of a brewery barrel.

2Her Majesty's Robbing C***s


Curmudgeon said...

Can you provide an English translation, please?

Woolpack Dave said...


Coors is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think that the mash tuns in Marston's are big, but that's just peanuts to Coors.

Any good?

Lew Bryson said...

"At the end of the day though, does it matter how big the brewery is, so long as the beer is good?"

Bingo. To some people, yes, it does, it's all about monoculture and local support and down with big business. But when a bigger brewery makes a great beer and it's actually sitting there in front of me...I'm going to not drink it because the tank it was made in was bigger than a number some guy thought up when he wasn't even drinking? No. I'm drinking it.
Good post, Dave, and a great pay-off!

Curmudgeon said...

I was thinking more of what all these hectorlitres meant in terms of English barrels ;-)

Crown Brewer Stu said...

you can brew 59 brl per week every week and still stay under the 5000hl limit.
i wouldn't want to mash by hand 500kg that would be hard work I've mixed a 10 brl brew mixed by hand and it was bloody hard work!
sales on your 20 brl brewery would be about 1.3m per annum.