Otter Brewery: a hidden gem

By Hamish Champ

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Cask ale, Beer

Driving around the Devon countryside looking for the Otter Brewery I can't help wondering if this was how Livingstone saw his hunt for the source of...

Driving around the Devon countryside looking for the Otter Brewery I can't help wondering if this was how Livingstone saw his hunt for the source of the Nile; I know it's out there somewhere, but I'm buggered if I can find it.

After nearly half an hour of going round and round the Blackdown Hills near Honiton, I flag down a passing postman who offers directions and 10 minutes later I reach my goal. I put it to David McCaig, who founded the business 20 years ago after a lifetime making beer for other people, that a sign at the end of the lane leading to the brewery might be a good idea. He laughs. "No. We'd just be bombarded with people hoping to buy t-shirts."

As popular as it's become in recent years, what with awards for its beers and its approach to corporate social responsibility, keeping out of the way suits the brewery.

Nestling almost out of sight on the side of the Otter river valley - a move partly designed to appease local planners and partly to take advantage of the energy-saving properties afforded when one builds two-thirds of a cellar building underground - the operation feels at once thoroughly modern and reassuringly traditional.
Environmental credentials

Modern kit in a farm building-turned brewhouse produces 20,000 barrels of cask ale a year, with brands such as Otter Ale, Otter Bright and Otter Amber beginning to make their mark on the world of the UK beer lover.

And the beer cellar, open earlier this year, has environmental credentials that would have Jeremy Clarkson crying into his gearbox. A sedum roof and its mainly underground situation mean no energy-sapping refrigeration technology is needed, while new cask filling and washing machinery saves labour that can be used elsewhere.

Cellar and brewhouse cost around £3m, paid for partly through Otter's own cash resources and some bank funding. A new function room - known as the 'Green Shed' because of its environmental credentials - completes the picture. For now.

Paul McCaig, son of the founder, looks after the marketing and is conscious of the need to develop the brewery as a modern going concern, while at the same time maintaining the traditional aspects of what brewing cask ale in this - or indeed any other part of the world - entails.

"We're a family business and our 30 staff are part of the family too," he says. As well as Paul, two other McCaig brothers run the brewer's pub, the acclaimed Holt in nearby Honiton, while father David and wife Mary Ann still have a hand in the day-to-day running of the business.

A family affair it may be, but McCaig's team is deadly serious about the business of brewing and selling beer. The brewer has its own fleet of trucks to supply its ales to hundreds of freetrade accounts across the South West - its drivers adding the finings to each barrel of cask ale before its loaded - while a number of wholesalers help with deliveries further afield.

An expanding distribution network; awards for its beers; plaudits for corporate good practice; it's all good. But with success come a number of predicaments. Including, where next?

"We've got a lot more capacity here but we're not prepared to chase volume, which in our view would undermine the value of what we do. But yes, we want to grow, so we are looking at doing other things," McCaig says.

Looking at lager

One of the things being looked at is the possibility of Otter creating a lager range. "We're doing research in this area and we could be doing 10,000 barrels within five years," he says.

But hang on. Otter is a cask ale brewer. Won't going to the trouble and expense of creating a lager production line inevitably result in eyes coming off balls and disasters ensuing? McCaig disagrees. "I've always been fascinated by lager. We believe we could capitalise on our popularity round here and make a really good local product. We could replicate in a lager the quality that we're renowned for in our cask ale," he points out.

Looking ahead, the brewery would like to add a few pubs to the Holt, but it has no concrete plans to do so thus far.

Meanwhile, cash gets ploughed back into the business, and while there's plenty of work to do with its brands and extra capacity a possibility, McCaig says Otter is keen to expand its network of pub customers while at the same time holding onto its Devonshire roots.

"The more people who get to try our beers the better," he says. "But we won't lose sight of who we are."

Glad to hear it.

Related topics: Beer

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