Real ale used to have an image problem. It was the perceived tipple of bearded middle-aged men in tank tops sipping from foamy tankards.
Thankfully, and just in time to save the British brewing industry, things began to change. As a nation we woke up to the provenance of the things we were consuming. Our eggs, milk and meat became local and free range.
In the vanguard of this food awakening has been the rehabilitation of real ale. The UK now has almost 1,000 microbreweries and one of the most successful in terms of accolades is Moorhouse’s in Burnley, Lancashire. This state-of-the-art brewhouse is the result of a recent £4.5m redevelopment of the original 1870 brewery site and currently produces 16,000 brewers’ barrels a year. That’s four million pints of perfectly brewed hops, malt, yeast and pure Cumbrian water.
Moorhouse’s is clearly good. With eight years of growth and a 38pc sales surge for 2011 with the commissioning of the new facility, it’s on a roll. As well as its six freehold pubs in Burnley, it sells beer to 500 other outlets including pub operators Enterprise, Punch and Wetherspoons.
Recently Moorhouse’s bottled ales have been stocked in Morrisons, Tesco and Asda, a move managing director David Grant believes will build brand awareness, particularly with women.
Keeping ahead of the competition is a constant pressure. As Mr Grant explains: “It’s a matter of quality and conﬁdence. We want to make sure that our consumers are conﬁdent that the next pint they try will be as excellent as the last. Our reputation is only as good as the last pint they tried.”
The impeccable new brewhouse has allowed for the necessary consistency. This, combined with the best ingredients including English hops and malt, means the product is as good as it can be.
“We refuse to use cheaper alternatives. The malt we wanted had become extinct, so we asked our growers to reintroduce it. The yield is lower and it’s expensive, but it’s right for our beer, so we use it,” says Mr Grant.
The challenge now for Moorhouse’s is marketing, spreading the message that this is an artisan product made using a traditional process by people passionate about what they’re doing. Without the budgets of the bigger breweries, Moorhouse’s has used wit and guerrilla tactics to market its beers.
A recent campaign involved sponsoring an artist to paint the date 1612 in giant numerals on a nearby hill to mark the 400th anniversary of the Pendle witch trials and a new beer called 1612, although the plan was scrapped when it failed to win support from the local council.
A further wheeze later this year sees Moorhouse’s hosting a beer festival featuring Britain’s best brewsters (women brewers).
As Mr Grant puts it: “We want to get away from the sandals and beer-bellied image and give our festival more of a Royal Ascot theme. Chilled beer served in frosted ﬂuted glasses is the image we’re promoting.”
It’s a sensible move. Women currently account for only a tiny percentage of real ale sales.
Almost 50pc of turnover goes in alcohol excise duty and the margins from supermarket sales can be slender. But with such a conﬁdent investment in new plant and clever branding combining tradition and heritage, it’s easy to see Moorhouse’s ales rippling out across the country.
Watch out for Blond Witch or Black Cat on the bar of your local very soon.
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