John Paulson Describes How He Built Big Shed Brewery, His Real Ale Business Start-Up
In episode #010 of The Artisan Food & Drink Business Show I talk to John Paulson, owner and founder of Big Shed Brewery, a family firm that is also the newest kid on the Shropshire real ale block.
John describes how he built his brewery from scratch, how he chooses the ingredients for his range of real ales and how he sells and markets products in what is, as he says himself, a crowded and competitive market.
This is the first of a two-part series. You can listen to part two in the next episode of the show.
Listen Now to the Episode with Big Shed Brewery
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If audio isn’t your thing, you can download a transcript of the show here: Ep #010 Big Shed Brewery Part 1. Building a Real Ale Brewing Business From Scratch. You can also find the full transcript of the show at the end of this post.
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Building a Business: It’s All About Problem Solving
I think of John Paulson as a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci; a Renaissance man who has performed brilliantly in many different fields, including electronic and chemical engineering, personal computer design, development of scientific instruments, computer aided design, aerial acrobatics (and being a coach, judge and member of the national team), and most recently, the business of real ale.
If you are contemplating setting up an artisan food or drink business, and this applies whether or not it’s for brewing real ale, the value for you in this episode of the show is that it gives you a good insight into how a person with a track record of being a successful entrepreneur, who has a highly systematic, logical and scientific approach to problem solving, goes about building an artisan business and an artisan brand.
Key Points from the Show
- It can take up to 18 months from when you set up your real ale brewery to when you brew your first pint of real ale.
- Setting up a brewing business requires you to comply with a host of regulations above and beyond the regulations for a business not involved with alcohol.
- Being able to consistently reproduce your product, week in, week out, is every bit as important as the quality of your product. In fact, consistency, arguably, is simply another measure of quality.
- It’s common for microbrewers who would like to offer their real ale in bottles to send their beer off for bottling to breweries with a bottling plant. This is one way of avoiding the investment required for a bottling plant.
- The manufacturing side of a manufacturing business like real ale brewing is only half the story. The other half is the sales and marketing sides of the business, which are labour-intensive and expensive. Remember, though, that if you spend all or most of your time and money on the former, your business will inevitably suffer.
Very Sounds Bites from John Paulson
Check out the infographic below for some direct quotes from John during the show.
Thanks to John for generously giving his time to come on the show and talk about his real ale business. To connect with Big Shed Brewery online and to find out where you can buy its real ales check out the Links and Resources section next.
Links/Resources Mentioned in the Show and Other Useful Links
- Big Shed Brewery website
- Big Shed Brewery on Twitter
- Warminster Maltings Ltd
- How to start your own brewery. A short, London-focused article from The Observer Food Monthly, which mentions the purchase of a bottling plant for £65,000.
- Excellent explanation of the concept of ‘tied houses’ as mentioned by John in the show. This piece also explains how the multinational brewing companies nearly killed off the real ale sector in the UK.
- An article from The Guardian on getting started in real ale. It also features a write up of questions and answers from real ale company owners and industry professionals like Pete Brown and Tom Stainer.
- The Monty Python Watney’s Red Barrel sketch.
- The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is a voluntary organisation that promotes real ale and community pubs.
Thanks for Listening
Thanks for listening to the show. If you are a food or drink producer, or industry professional who would like to appear on the show (it’s free!), don’t hesitate to get in touch with me by using the Contact Form on this website or by tweeting me @FoodDrinkShow. To hear when each new episode of the show is released simply sign up for my newslsetter.
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Transcript of the Show
Catherine: Hello, and welcome to Episode #010 of The Artisan Food & Drink Business Show, the show where artisan producers tell you their brand story and share the secrets of success. I’m your host, Catherine Moran.
This episode of the show is the first of a two-part series about the business of brewing real ale. And by way of introducing my guest, let me ask you a question. What do you get if you cross an electronics and chemical engineer with a designer of personal computers, with a developer of computer aided design software with an aerobatic pilot who coached, judged and competed for the national team? You get John Paulson, the founder and brewmaster of Big Shed Brewery.
Big Shed Brewery is a family owned and family run company based in Shropshire, England and in this episode of the show John talks about how he built his brewery from scratch, how he chooses the ingredients for his range of real ales and how he sells and markets products in what is, as he says himself, a crowded and competitive marketplace.
Here, now, is my conversation with John Paulson from Big Shed Brewery.
Catherine: Sounds like you have a fascinating business background.
John: I think it’s rather boring. I do my best to leave it behind. I hate it, really, when most people say, ‘And what do you do?’ I tell them, ‘I’m retired’, as I did, till recently. Then they say, ‘What did you do?’
In actual fact, going back, I have a background as an electronics and chemical engineer. And I used to work in scientific instruments. And from there I established a personal computer company. When they were first invented I used to design personal computers — PCs — and act as a consultant and then built a design consultancy business. And we used to sell the software and systems and build the systems that are used for product design; CAD, as you will see it mentioned these days. A lot of that went to chemical and process and pharmaceutical industries and even into beverage manufactures, such a brewers.
Catherine: Ah ha! Coming full circle!
John: So we do come full circle and I retired from that in 1998 and then I spent fifteen years, a very happy retirement. I spent most of my time as an aerobatic pilot. Competing, coaching and judging, ending up on the national team. And for a couple of hobbies fitted in quite a bit of diving and shooting. And then, five years ago, we moved down to Shropshire. We needed somewhere larger because I’d retired from flying and I bought a traction engine. One of those big old black steamy things, and spent several years down here playing at old vintage traction engines. Unfortunately, the engine has gone to fund just about half the brewery. I’m fresh out of toys at the moment.
Catherine: Then that was the catalyst… the passion for doing something that really interested you was the catalyst for setting up Big Shed Brewery?
John: Well. I really was… I suppose we’d done the majority of work round the property here. We’ve got a whole host of outbuildings. We’d done what we needed to the house. We had renovated a couple of stables. We had rebuilt the old Dutch barn that became the modern big shed. We’d also renovated another outbuilding as a guest annex. So all of that building and DIY and carpentry had come to and end and I was twiddling my thumbs. I decided I was going back into business. And since I had also been home brewing quite seriously, friends, neighbours had been nudging me and saying, ‘Why don’t you start a brewery?’ ‘No. I won’t.’
Well, I changed my mind and went ‘Yes, I will.’ So, there we are. Eighteen months after making that decision, or a little less than eighteen months, we were in production and selling beer. In fact, one piece of advice is that if anybody does decide, expect it to take eighteen months from start to finish before you brew your first pint.
Catherine: Have you been brewing for… is it about six months or so?
John: Yes. Just about exactly six months since we supplied our very first… in fact it might be six months this week, since we trotted around to a local pub with our first delivered barrel.
Catherine: How exciting. And were those twelve months taken up with, apart from getting the premises ready, business planning, that sort of thing?
John: Oh, crikey, yes! Very serious business planning. I’m probably more over the top with that than most people. My business plan goes to thirty odd pages. And it went through a lot of iterations and versions before it ended as something fairly final that went into practice. There’s a lot of regulatory issues you do need to be able to brew beer. Very definitely. And putting a brewery plant together is not an instant thing. That in itself is very likely to take you a minimum of six months. Even if you buy a ready-built plant for hundreds of thousand of pounds, your supplier will want a good few months before they come and plug it in for you.
Catherine: Literally plonk it down, a ready-made plant, virtually?
John: You can. We bought new equipment from Germany. The same company will install pretty much… They will design and put together your entire brewery and it will come and plonk down and you could be up and brewing quite quickly but you will need a lot of money indeed. And I mean an enormous amount of money if you hand it over. Fortunately, I was able to apply a lot of old skills and do a fair amount of the work myself. In various respects. Electrical work, woodwork, building the cold store and that type of thing.
Catherine: And so, talking about your malt, hops, yeast and the water…
John: We actually use the most expensive malt that you can buy. It comes from a company called Warminster, down in Wiltshire. And they are one of only three traditional Victorian floor maltings in the country but they produce a superior malt. It costs 20% more than the malt we can buy from a big modern factory maltster.
Catherine: Superior in terms of flavour?
John: Superior in terms of flavour. It’s superior in terms of extract and it’s a very comfortable good product to be working with.
Catherine: Yes. And it can give you repeatable results?
Catherine: Which is important.
John: I think anybody who’s naive to the food and drink industry would assume that producing the highest quality product is very important and the only important thing. And of course it is important but most food and drink producers will tell you that the critical criteria is reproducibility. Consistency of product. That what you make today is the same as you made last week and it will be the same next week. And when you get beer and it’s in a pub bar and there’s ten people stood there drinking it, they are all experts. They all know more about your beer than you do.
Catherine: Of course, yes. And they will very quickly tell you if there is a problem with it.
John: Oh Yes!
Catherine: Your barley comes from North Shropshire, this very county we’re in at the moment?
John: Indeed it does. We cannot honestly say it’s short food miles because Warminster down in Wiltshire is really the only place that can honestly process it. It goes and it comes back.
Catherine: I notice, as well, the hops you use are from Great Malvern.
John: Yes. Everybody’s heard of Kentish hops. I think certainly most people in the West Midlands will know that Hereford and Worcestershire are two great hop growing counties. The premier wholesaler and hop factor to the microbrewing industry is in Great Malvern.
Catherine: It’s handy, therefore, that I guess something like provenance is really important to you, that it is just down the road. Great Malvern — your source of hops?
John: Yes it is. Of course they do take a lot from the local hop farms. In fact, they organise seminars and hop walks every year at hop harvest time in September or just prior to hop harvest in September. They also are hop factors worldwide. They distribute hops to foreign countries and they do bring them in from places such as Slovenia, the north west coast of America and New Zealand and Germany, of course.
Catherine: Let’s talk now about the formats in which you supply your beers. I understand that your formats are the casks and iterations of the cask and polypins. You don’t supply bottles. Do you have any plan to start bottling?
John: Right. Well, partly because we are a new brewery, no we don’t do bottling. We stick — so far — very rigidly to traditional stainless steel casks. Four and a half gallons is a pin. Nine gallons is a firkin and eighteen is a kilderkin.
We also can rack beer off, ‘rack it off bright’ as they say, into polypins and that’s something that somebody can go and buy, take it home and serve it for a family event or for a party.
One of the reasons for not bottling is that first of all, a bottling plant is incredibly expensive — a good bottling plant. You could do a kitchen table type bottling enterprise but that isn’t a way to produce and serve a quality product.
The final route that most small breweries take is that they will rack beer off into a one tonne plastic container. Those big square things that you see in metal cages and they will send it off to a brewer with a bottling plant. That’s a very common format.
We don’t want our beer going through that sort of process. Bottled beer is a completely different product to cask ale. The beer that goes into bottles doesn’t have finings in it. Instead, it’s filtered, goes in bottles, could sit in a bottle for many months. Our product that goes into cask is live beer. The yeast is going in the cask with the beer, the finings drag the yeast to the bottom and it will sit there in the cellar of the pub or in our cold store before we deliver it, for up to six or eight weeks. And that yeast is continuing to work at a low level and maintain the quality of the product.
Catherine: Right. So bottling, it’s not out of the question but it’s something to consider in the future for you?
John: Certainly it’s something to consider in the future but the other aspect is that the physical side of the manufacturing business is only half the story. The sales and the marketing is almost as expensive. It’s certainly very much more of a long term issue. And it is certainly very much more labour intensive than any other aspect of the business. And just six months in as a microbrewery we are fully employed doing what we’re doing. And so, marketing that bottled beer is something we can look out for the future.
Catherine: Yes. Talking about marketing, what’s your current approach to marketing your products?
John: Shoe leather and sore knuckles and a large telephone bill. The marketing of beer. One could write an encyclopedia on it.
Catherine: Is this a can of worms I hear?
John: No, not really but beer has been manufactured and distributed to the public at large through public houses since time immemorial. And it’s a funny old business. Selling beer to pubs and all the other distribution routes for beer is not a job for the faint-hearted. There’s all sorts of strange old practices. There are tied houses and we are only scratching the surface at that.
Catherine: Of course you can’t approach tied houses. Is that correct?
John: Pretty much.
Catherine: Yeah. Your target would be free houses, in the pub trade?
John: Exactly. Free houses or small pub groups, of which there are a surprising number about, are our primary market. Fortunately, Shropshire is the first or the second county in the country with the most free houses.
Catherine: Right. I didn’t know that.
John: A very sparsely populated county and those free houses must be sometimes a bit few and far between but there are more here in Shropshire than just about anywhere else. There is also, particularly these days, a lot of small pub groups and pub companies that have anywhere between, let us say four pubs in the group, up to maybe ten, fifteen or twenty pubs in the group.
Above and beyond that you then find that it’s breweries, big breweries such as Marston’s who own probably quite a lot more than a thousand houses, and pubs that are tied to the very large pubcos that came about in the eighties when all the big national brewers were forced to sell off their pubs. And that’s the market that really in essence is closed to a small brewer, with one or two small exceptions.
Catherine: They just wouldn’t entertain you at all as a supplier?
John: Well, the big pubcos will and there is a scheme or schemes that we can involve ourselves with but they are very high cost, they are very low profitability and I think the demise of many, many pubs in this country is down to really the practices and approach of the pub companies that really have milked their cows dry. And if a small brewer wants to supply to them and their pubs, they try the same approach again.
Catherine: Right so you get into the realm of shenanigans and dark practices and it might be just best to steer clear of that whole thing?
Catherine: In a word.
John: In a nutshell. I think you’ve picked up and unpackaged the issue quite well there.
Catherine: Yes. Finishing off our quick discussion here on marketing, you mentioned that you used up a lot of shoe leather and you have bruised knuckles because of-
John: From knocking on doors… Not hitting anybody!
John: Not hitting anybody.
Catherine: No, from knocking on doors. But in a way I’m surprised to hear that because I was reading one of the broadsheets. They had an article on real ale and they described it as being ‘a revolution’. This is actually the beginning of this year this article and I thought, ‘You know what, that’s a strong word to use: ‘The real ale/craft ale revolution in the UK’, but they can back it up with figures then it’s undoubtedly true. So why is it so difficult?
John: Well, first of all it’s a product I love selling. I really enjoy going to pubs. Now that is only half of the thing. As I said, we do a lot of the actual selling from here; it’s done by phone. The bruised knuckles from knocking on doors are metaphorical.
John: The answer is that while there is an enormous upsurge in the consumption of real ale… that it’s accepted. In fact it’s almost required. If you go into a very formal hotel and find they’ve only got keg beer and they don’t have a hand pull with real ale, you would be shocked and surprised. Certainly, if you went into any pub these days you expect to see that the dark days of the seventies and eighties are well behind us and that there should be at the very least two or three hand pulls on the bar serving real ale. Sometimes you find in there up to eight or twelve.
However, within that background, there are now something of the order of 1500 microbreweries in this country who are all producing real ale.
At the same time, a lot of the well established ones have been increasing their capacity and are almost regional brewers, some of them.
And then we find that the international corporations — people like Molson Coors, Heineken et cetera — they have their own small craft breweries. They invented the term craft beer’, because they couldn’t call their product real ale so they call it ‘craft ale’ and they can see their traditional keg beer business threatened by microbreweries so of course they — being commercial companies — they are fighting back and they are doing their own bit. A very, very crowded and competitive market.
Catherine: They are muscling in.
John: They are fighting back.
Catherine: It’s a good distinction between real ale and craft ale.
John: Indeed it is…
Catherine: They are two different things.
John: Oh, yes!
Catherine: I shouldn’t be calling you a craft ale maker. I should be calling you a real ale maker.
John: Yes. I think I prefer that. Real ale being a subdivision of craft beer.
Catherine: Right. Okay. It’s potentially quite complicated.
John: It is.
Catherine: Yeah. I noticed, going back to your website, there is a lovely quote on there and I presume this came from you John, and it is-
John: You will have to tell me.
Catherine: ‘Some of us can remember the dark days of the 1970s when small breweries had all but disappeared and most beer was very dubious nationally marketed brown liquid.’ And that’s a very heartfelt comment…
John: The youth of today, even those that are taking up real ale, just won’t know how bad it was. You have to be as old as me. You have to be of pensionable age before you can really remember drinking much of that terrible stuff in the seventies.
Catherine: Yeah. It reminds of that Monty Python sketch on Watney’s Red Barrel. Do you remember that at all?
John: Blimey! I don’t remember the sketch. You can remind me now or afterwards.
Catherine: I’ll remind you afterwards but it immediately came to mind when I read that quote.
So that was the first part of my conversation with John Paulson from Big Shed Brewery. You’ll be able to hear part two in the next episode of the show.
Thank you John for your hospitality, for the wonderful tour of your brew house and for taking the time to talk to me about your real ale business.
If you would like to connect with Big Shed Brewery on line, check out @BigShedBrewery on Twitter. And to find out where you can savour some Big Shed Brewery real ales just go to www.bigshedbrewery.co.uk.
To download a free transcript of the show with John just go to myartisanbusiness.com.
You can find me on Twitter as @FoodDrinkShow. You’ve been listening to The Artisan Food & Drink Business show with me, Catherine Moran.
Until next week, happy cooking, happy brewing, happy fermenting and thank you for listening.
You can listen to the podcast episode with John at myartisanbusiness.com/podcast.