Rupert Thompson is in bullish mood as he surveys the building work going on at the Hogs Back Brewery in Surrey, which will enable production to more than double.
“There’s a shift from global brands to regional brands,” he says. “All the growth is coming from the micros as people shift to local beers. The big players may control the market, but consumers are looking for choice.”
He believes the global brewers will look for growth in the emerging ‘BRIC’ nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China. That will give more scope and opportunity to regional and small brewers.
Thompson points to a large hole in the roof of his brewery. “That’s where we dropped in a new 160-barrel fermenter,” he says. The offending vessel stands proud from floor to ceiling, visible proof of the expansion underway at Hogs Back. Outside, parts of the buildings are draped in tarpaulin and surrounded by scaffolding as Hogs Back prepares to install four additional fermenters.
The brewery is enjoying a sales growth of 30% a year and output in 2013 is on target to hit 10,000 barrels. When the new kit is in place, the brewery will have the potential to grow to 23,000 barrels a year.
Hogs Back celebrated its 21st birthday this year. It’s based on a farm at Tongham, near Guildford. The brewery was founded by Tony Stanton-Precious and Martin Zillwood-Hunt, who brewed just 10 barrels a week at the start. They built sales substantially over the years, based largely on the success of their leading beer TEA, which stands for Traditional English Ale, but cleverly plays on the British love of a cuppa.
When Stanton-Precious decided it was time to stop and put his feet up, he sold his share of the business to Rupert Thompson, who has vigorously developed the operation over the past 11 months. He worked for Bass and Morland before creating Refresh UK, which bought the Brakspear brewery in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, when it was put up for sale. Refresh merged it with the Wychwood brewery in Witney, Oxfordshire.
When Marston’s bought the Witney business, Thompson recharged his batteries and then took over at Hogs Back. Martin Zillwood-Hunt is a still a director and is a familiar figure at beer festivals, driving the Hogs Back motorbike complete with a sidecar shaped like a beer cask.
The brewery is buzzing. While the multi-award-winning TEA accounts for 70% of production, new products are being added at a rate of knots. Hazy Hog is a cloudy cider that was launched this year to great acclaim.
It is brewed for Hogs Back by Thatchers and is based on the Normandy method, unfiltered and with fresh young cider added to the mature, finished version.
Hogs Back has had similar success with its first lager, the 4.5% ABV Hogstar ‘New English Lager’. It’s made with five hops and has a six to seven-week production cycle, including a month of cold conditioning.
At present, the lager is brewed for Hogs Back, but it will move in-house when an 80-barrel dual-purpose vessel is installed that will act as both fermenter and conditioning tank. Thompson believes that there is a big potential for properly brewed lager in Britain.
The brewing team has been expanded to help keep pace with the demand for beer. Mo Zeiher is first brewer and has been with Hogs Back since its inception. She’s been joined by a new head brewer, Miles Chesterman, who has come from Molson-Coors in Burton-on-Trent, Staffs.
All the beers have been boosted by a major rebranding exercise, with new pumpclips and labels that emphasise their devotion to the hog. The 4.2% ABV TEA, is taken by Enterprise, Punch and Spirit pubs, as well as the freetrade.
Rupert Thompson, with his depth of experience of brewers big and small, is optimistic about the future. Hogs Back has a solid base of free-trade and pub company sales.
The bulk of bottled beer sales come from the brewery’s spacious and impressive shop that stocks brands from Belgium, Germany and the US, as well as its own brands, which account for 90% of business. Thompson plans to add a visitor centre, with a bar and kitchen, to draw in more customers.
He fires one warning shot about the future of the industry. “The number of breweries is not sustainable,” he says. “Many micros are happy to brew 3,000 barrels a year, but their problem will be when a second brewery opens up down the road. There are only so many freehouses available and consolidation is inevitable.
“If the industry can’t grow the overall size of the beer market, then consolidation is inevitable. And if breweries merge, their combined production could mean they wouldn’t qualify for progressive beer duty, which could mean a loss of £180,000 a year.”
A sobering thought. But there are no furrowed brows at Hogs Back and no thought of mergers.
The only worry at the moment is that yet another hole may have to be knocked in the roof when the 80-barrel lager tank arrives.