Ridleys Brewery is strengthening its retailing and brewing divisions. Lorna Harrison visits the picturesque site to determine its plans.
Nobody would disagree that the declining beer market has resulted in a distinct shift to pub retailing by many of our brewers - both big and small.
Ridleys of Essex is fully aware of the fact that retailing is where the money is, particularly in managed houses. It also admits that brewing is a difficult business, especially in an older established brewery where ageing equipment results in high maintenance costs and repairs.
So this being the case, why hasn't it taken the route that so many others have? - quit brewing and ploughed the resources into establishing a money making pub estate.
The explanation is simple, according to Greg Jephcott managing director. "We will keep the brewery because it is there and keeps 50 people employed. The choice has been made for us.
"Of course we would make more money being a pub group and buying our beer elsewhere. But that is not going to happen. Ridleys Brewery is the heart of a community and it will continue for 100 years and beyond."
And he's right. The company owns some 18 houses surrounding the brewery which is set in countryside at Hartford End. Some brewery workers have lived there for most of their lives and generations of families have worked for Ridleys.
Knowing that the brewery will play such an important part in the future has helped the company develop its longterm strategy.
At present one third of its business is generated from the 65 tenanted houses it operates, another third from its guest ale market and the remaining third from direct freetrade accounts. All areas are seeing some changes.
The pub estate is on the up. By the year 2005 Ridleys will boast 100 tenanted outlets which will be situated further afield than the current locations which are "within a horse and dray ride of the brewery".
But what about those all important managed houses?
"In 20 years time I see us with 120 pubs and we may even have made moves in the managed division," said Jephcott.
"Logistically managed houses are a nightmare and we would be looking to have at least 10 where we can make serious money out of food.
"Each outlet would cost us about £500,000 and £5m is money we simply haven't got at the moment."
On the brewing side, many pubs nationally are already stocking Ridleys' ales as guest beers and it has recently ventured into the off trade with bottled brands in leading supermarkets.
Drinkers abroad can also expect to buy Ridleys products in the future with exporting being considered as a serious option.
Seven ales are now brewed, compared with one four years ago. It also brews a number of ales for other companies including Whitbread. Ridleys' bottling plant also plays a big part in bringing in business.
Yet despite all the activity, the brewery continues to produce just 15,000 barrels a year, under-stretching its capacity of 25,000.
"We want to see the brewery operating at optimum capacity rather than maximum," said Jephcott. "We are always on the lookout for any brewing we can do and bottling for other companies helps recover valuable overheads."
On top of its growing brewing business Ridleys is actively increasing its freetrade accounts, which now stand at about 470 compared with 120 at the start of 1996.
So despite the declining beer market, Ridleys is not giving in.
It has already made huge progress over the past couple of years in expanding its estate, beer portfolio and freetrade accounts and has no plans to take the easy way to a more profitable future - a heartening strategy in today's market.