Highgate Brewery has survived the developers and now stands proud as one of the bright spots of the Black Country. Phil Mellows tells a tale of success.
As any web surfer who has ridden that wave called Uglywalsall.com will know, the West Midlands town is not exactly a holiday hotspot.
There are those who still love it, of course, and at least there is one landmark which it can claim is something special. Highgate Brewery rises incongruously above the ordinary suburban homes that surround it, an imposing Victorian brown-brick edifice that has somehow survived the developers.
It has also, by the way, survived Uglywalsall.com and it is surviving everything the 21st century brewing battleground can throw at it.
Times are tough for the smaller brewer but Highgate has decided the best form of defence is attack. After nearly a century as a one-brand brewery it has become a company which, in the last few years, has produced about 50 different beers.
One of the latest was a revival of Davenports Bitter, not seen since Greenalls bought and closed the Birmingham brewery 10 years ago. There are a host of others, lagers as well as ales, plus some contract brewing including M&B Mild for Coors, and Highgate broadens its portfolio further by helping to distribute beer for other small brewers in the region - Wyre Piddle, Lichfield and the Warwickshire Beer Company.
It also sells Kingston Press ciders into pubs for its parent company Aston Manor Brewery, the off-trade specialist and third largest UK cider producer, which bought Highgate a couple of years back.
There are plans, too, to expand the company's pub estate to 50 from its current 11, which includes the flagship City Tavern, a traditional house off Birmingham's trendy Broad Street which was recently named a runner-up in the city's Pub of the Year competition.
Highgate has an unusual history. It was founded in 1898 and made its name with a single beer, Highgate Mild, later tarted up as Highgate Dark.
It was taken over by Mitchells & Butlers in 1938 and by that route became part of the Bass empire, now divided between Coors and Interbrew.
Highgate had for a long while been an anomaly within Bass, the smallest plant and still making only one beer, if you don't count the seasonal Highgate Old. In 1995 it was acquired in a management buy-out led by Steve Nuttall, a marketing man hot from the wildly successful launch of nitrokeg pioneer Caffrey's, and Neil Bain, still head brewer at Highgate today.
The new owners made the daring move of introducing a second beer, called Saddlers Bitter after the other thing that Walsall is famous for, and started to buy pubs.
Since then the Highgate business has expanded from a 180 barrel-a-week operation to producing 600 barrels a week at latest count, recording a 25 per cent year-on-year growth since the Aston Manor takeover in 2000.
The brewery now has a packaging line and, for the first time in its history, it is brewing more bitter than mild.
The managing director's chair is now occupied by Bob Norton. Unfashionably he believes that Highgate's future lies in building a pub estate alongside the brewing operation.
"As just a freetrade brewer we would be subject to very fierce competition," he explained. "Discounts are getting very high and the opportunities to win freetrade business as a guest ale are getting less and less.
"But if we have more pubs it creates a greater presence for us and helps to generate demand for our beers in the freetrade pub and club market - and we make bigger margins from selling in our own tied estate.
"I'd like 50 pubs, preferably around the West Midlands," he continued. "It's finding them that's the problem. The big corporations are snapping up most of the freehouses that come onto the market. But we have the advantage of local intelligence."
In the brewery the strategy is one of constant innovation. "We are always looking for new brands and new styles of beer," said Bob. "As a guest ale organisation we can sell in a brand to a pub only so many times, so we have to create more opportunties for ourselves."
Seasonal ales are one way of doing this. The summer produced a honeyed beer called Bee-Zone and this winter will bring a chocolate ale. Fruit beers are lined up for next year.
Unlike most small brewers, however, Highgate does not stubbornly stick to cask ales. The working men's club market in the Midlands demands nitrokeg beers, so that's what Highgate gives them. Horror of horrors, it also produces a lager!
FGL officially stands for Fletcher's Gold Label, named after James Fletcher, the brewery's founder. Unofficially, it's known as Flipping Good Lager - or something like that.
"That's been a real winner for us," said Bob. "We can sell it into the freetrade for 30p or 40p less than Carling."
Bob believes that Highgate has "enormous potential". "It's about acquiring pubs for us now. We don't have an enormous marketing budget so we have to use the pubs to promote our beers, then we can compete on price and quality."
Seasonal Highgate ales
- Steady - a combination of American and English hops - 3.6 per cent ABV
- Davenports - a classic Birmingham beer - 4.0 per cent ABV
- B-Fuggled - a bold and powerful brew - 6.0 per cent ABV
- Powder Keg - a bonfire brew with a treacle taste - 4.4 per cent ABV
- Piddle in the Hole - mellow brew from the Wyre Piddle Brewery - 3.9 per cent ABV
- Highgate Fox's Nob - highly hopped refreshing ale - 3.8 per cent ABV.