The craft beer movement has seen a substantial rise in the number of microbreweries operating within the UK with numbers the highest they’ve been since the 1930’s.
The demand for aromatic beers full of flavour that are still able to hold their strength has opened-up doors for those looking for new business opportunities, and for the Reynolds family, this was an opportunity they couldn’t miss out on.
The start of the brewing journey
Andrew and Jo Reynolds and their two sons Sam and Harry have been farming in Warwickshire for generations. However, as dairy farmers, they were hit hard by the low milk prices.
The realisation that the ability of the farm to operate as a viable business was becoming an ever-increasing challenge that saw the family make the bold decision to look at alternative ways of utilising their assets to generate a more stable income.
“In November 2012 we sold our dairy herd. Not an easy decision for anyone, but it was a step we felt we had to take. We couldn’t keep farming in the climate we were up against,” explains Jo.
“However, having done our research, we knew there was the demand for craft beer within the UK and so this is the route we decided to take.”
What began as a hobby to produce beer for rugby watching sessions in the ‘man shed’ quickly became a burgeoning business, not least because the farm and family seemed perfectly designed for a brewery.
“Andrew is never one to throw anything away, and so we started the brewery by utilising as much of the dairy equipment as we could; using the milk bulk tanks as fermentation vessels and the paddles to stir the beer.
“The well on the farm provided the water we needed, and our hops and other ingredients were and still are sourced as locally as possible.”
As the family realised the potential of the business and the demand for their hand-crafted beer was evident, they applied for a grant through the RPA to build a 20 brewers barrel plant that would allow the family to produce up to 80 barrels of beer per day.
“The grant funding provided us with the deposit to invest in the infrastructure and this has been fundamental in allowing us to scale-up the business and meet demand,” says Jo.
Some would say that the craft brewing bubble must be set to burst at some stage, but Jo disagrees. “People think that brewing is an easy line of business to get into, but unfortunately it’s not quite that simple.
“A lot of businesses open and close soon after as they are unable to meet demand or supply a consistent product – hence our investment into the plant which means we are able to deliver consistency.
“On the other hand, some of the bigger breweries like BrewDog and Camden Town, have ‘sold their soles to the devil’ and been taken over by much bigger breweries. The uniformity and nationalisation this has resulted in is something that people are falling out of love with.
“Consumers love variety and they love a story behind a product. Our story is our USP and it is one that people invest in. People are coming back around to supporting local, independent businesses that perhaps have more to give compared to the larger companies, and this provides opportunity.
“You only have to go to your local beer festival to see the variety of beers, ales and ciders on offer to realise that the market is an open book.
“All that is needed is for you to do your research and consider what you may be able to offer that others aren’t currently. That could be flavours, alcohol strengths, your story, but the key is to do your research first before you dive straight in,” says Jo.
Challenges and successes
With any business, there are always ups and downs, and when starting a new business your learning curve is always going to be steep. “One of our biggest challenges is making enough beer.
“At the end of the day, we are dealing with a product with a shelf-life and judging how much it too much is something that is learnt over time. It’s a supply and demand scenario that we have to learn to manage,” says Jo.
“Getting new customers is also a challenge we come up against. You can’t expect to place your beer in a pub or restaurant and expect it to be there 12 months later.
“The customer wants variety and pubs have to supply this. But for us, it means we are constantly on the lookout for new outlets for our beers.”
On the other hand, Jo explains that the fact after five years they are still in business is a great achievement. “When we were milking cows, prices were as low as they could be. Andrew was getting up and milking cows 365 days of the year with very little return.
“Now he is making beer. We’ve made no sacrifices starting Church Farm Brewery. What we have given up is milking cows for no money. The sacrifice was then and not now.
“As a family business where we are all involved it can be difficult to maintain a work-life balance but with farming you live where you work and work where you live and so our family has grown up with it.
“It’s a lifestyle we are used to, and we are lucky that we have all found an area of the business we can ‘own’. I focus on sales, Andrew and Harry make the beer and Harry also does all our lab testing. And Sam develops the recipes alongside a full-time job as an accountant.”
Having only been established for five years Jo and the family have big plans to continue developing the business and building on their success.
“Our next plan is to start bottling beer. We’ve just won a contract with the Co-op to supply 40 local shops. However, we would like to look at supplying more of the major supermarkets but need to be more efficient with our bottling before we can take on more contracts.
“When we say our beer is bottled by hand, this is literally what we are doing and so with our current set-up there are not enough hours in the day to be able to meet big orders, hence the need to invest in a bottling facility.”
Jo also adds that in the next two to five years they would also like to start producing a low alcohol beer with more people now looking for alcohol-free alternatives, as well as producing Church Farm Cider, having planted 145 cider apples when they started the brewery.
“Ten or fifteen years ago, we would have never of dreamt of being where we are today, but we are very proud of what we have achieved.
“We have had some luck along the way, being in the right place at the right time, but it’s our hard work and passion that has got us to where we are today,” says Jo.
Farm diversification, rural business ideas, brewing, Church Farm Brewery
Jo’s top tips for anyone looking to start a brewery:
Church Farm Brewery fact file: