Pin stripes meet heavy rock in Stockport, Greater Manchester. Robinsons is one of Britain’s oldest and most revered breweries, a giant of the north-west with more than 300 pubs. It’s now run by the sixth generation of the family, cousins Oliver and William, who are proud of the company’s heritage, but are looking firmly to the future.
Oliver Robinson, charming, elegant and beautifully suited, greeted me in a reception area yards from the Unicorn inn where the business started in 1838. William Robinson added a small brewery and his son Frederic expanded the brewing side, from which developed a mighty Victorian powerhouse of production.
Oliver Robinson whisked me to the new visitor centre, opened in 2013 where, among ancient delivery vehicles and sepia prints of old taverns and be-whiskered gentry, my eye was caught by a different and very modern image of a snarling, skull-like figure brandishing a Union flag.
It’s the logo for a beer called Trooper, the result of an unlikely collaboration between Robinsons and heavy metal group Iron Maiden. Bruce Dickinson, the group’s singer, is a passionate ale drinker and he designed a beer with Robinsons that’s become a worldwide phenomenon.
The family has built — at enormous cost — a brand-new brewhouse that they confidently thought would allow them to grow beer volumes over the next few years. But Oliver Robinson told me that last autumn they were brewing at full capacity, the vessels filled not only with such flagship beers as Unicorn, Dizzy Blonde and Old Tom, but also Trooper.
“We’re selling Trooper in America, Australia, Sweden, Russia and Brazil,” he says. He pauses and repeats, almost in disbelief, “Brazil!” Iron Maiden get little air time in Britain but they’re a top-ticket group around the world and introducing fans to British-brewed ale in previously uncharted territory. In total, Trooper is sold in 25 countries.
The new brewhouse was an expensive necessity and installed with enormous precision — with vessels lifted in through the roof — that avoided any loss of production.
“We had just 10 days to connect the new kit,” Robinson says. “We never stopped brewing, but we closed the old plant in February 2012. It had hardly changed since the 1920s and some of the vessels were bulging at the seams and leaking.”
The new vessels are German-built by Steinecker. Both Robinson and his head brewer, Martyn Weeks, are full of praise for the precision of the Germans and their meticulous eye for detail. But as a company with a passionate belief in using British malts and hops, Robinson and Weeks regret that home-grown companies couldn’t supply the kit they needed.
“We wanted a Rolls-Royce brewhouse that will see us through for 15 or 20 years,” Robinson says. “We’re selling beer around the world and we need consistent quality and control.”
The new brewhouse can produce 120 barrels at a time, but has the flexibility to go down to 60 barrels for shorter-run beers. This means Robinsons can have a much greater range of beers — regular brands and seasonals. The capacity is 85,000 to 90,000 barrels a year and 85% of that production goes to the firm’s 338 pubs, all tenanted. Beer sales grew by 7% in 2013 and the brewery supplies Enterprise, Nicholson’s and Punch, with bottled beer available in most leading supermarkets.
The eye-watering cost of the new brewhouse — £6m if you include such essential add-ons as floors, stanchions and staircases that meet with health & safety guidelines — underscores the family’s deep-seated belief in the future of beer and pubs.
Thanks to the success of Trooper, Robinsons’ exports have quadrupled and the brewery now sells its Unicorn premium bitter and the 8.5% ABV strong ale Old Tom in foreign markets. But the bedrock of the business remains the tied estate.
Oliver Robinson says the company sold 30 pubs last year, which has brought criticism from an otherwise supportive local branch of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale. Robinson is bullish on the subject.
“You could say there are almost too many pubs in the UK,” he says. “If a pub is run down and struggling and in the wrong location, should it be kept open? We believe in fewer but better. Customers today want good food, decor and toilets. We will avoid closing pubs wherever possible. We’ll rejuvenate pubs and the money we make from any we’ve sold will be invested back into the business.
“We’re training barstaff and remind them we’re producing premium cask beer. We bring them to the brewery and get them enthused. All the investment is ruined if we sell just one pint of bad beer. We employ wine and food experts to visit all the pubs and give advice to tenants and staff on what to buy, cook and serve.”
Are there any clouds on the horizon? “Duty!” Oliver Robinson says. “We want a freeze on duty in this year’s Budget and we’re lobbying MPs in our trading area to speak to the chancellor.”
The European Union has been muttering for years about possibly investigating the British tied pub system as “a restraint of trade”. A touch of steel — or perhaps heavy metal — shows through his urbane bearing.
“Can I buy a Costa coffee in a Starbucks or a Burger King in a McDonald’s?” he asks.
Can you hear him, Brussels?
Robinsons will discuss the keys to successful beer collaborations at the Beer Innovation Summit on 26 February.