August 18, 2008

Cheery Smile Tops Good Head of Beer


C heers to a singular phenomenon: the happy businessman. The economy is ailing and Carl Beeson's trade is hit by soaring costs, rising tax and customers' reduced spending power - but the only thing bitter about this boss is the hops in his "best".

"You'll never become a millionaire brewing beer," says Carl, beaming, "but by God it's fun doing it."

The fun has been going on for Summerskills for a quarter of a century now as Plymouth's only brewery celebrates the landmark in appropriate style, by making a special beer.

The brewery owner echoed his senior service background by naming the beer Bravo Zulu, a Royal Navy signal meaning "congratulations".

Carl has been at the helm for 18 of Summerskills' 25 years, since he stepped from the food industry and into the craft of brewing, pooling his redundancy cash with the money his friend Rick Wilson had got from the sale of a hotel.

"I'd never brewed a beer in my life," Carl says, "and Rick had only ever made a couple of kits - and we bought a brewery!"

He later bought out Rick and the firm remains a two-man operation with Norman Lewis as the brewer at their base, an ordinary unit on an industrial estate at Billacombe on the eastern edge of Plymouth.

Business has not always been easy for Summerskills and others like it, yet the number of small independent breweries continues to grow, now standing at about 600 nationwide.

There is the continuing problem of trying to get its beer into pubs. The Supply of Beer Order 1989 was supposed to end the stranglehold that large breweries had on Britain's pubs through the "tied estate" system, opening up outlets for smaller beer makers.

Instead, breweries got round the law by creating separate property companies, which have today evolved into pub ownership giants such as Enterprise Inns or Pubmaster.

Punch Taverns, the UK's biggest pub company, has 8,400 outlets, 1,100 in the South West and Wales alone, and won't take Summerskills' beers.

The cost of the two main ingredients of beer, barley and hops, has soared in line with other agricultural products. The four pence hike in the tax on beer in the last Budget, and Chancellor Alistair Darling's declared intention to increase duty by 2 per cent above inflation for the next four years, add to brewers' woes.

Supermarkets tempting customers by selling beer cheaper than bottled water complete the bleak picture as pub beer sales fall, down 10 per cent since last year, according to the most recent report by the British Beer and Pub Association.

Carl, a leading member of the Society of Independent Brewers, believes the answer to unfair competition - and the curse of binge drinking - would be minimum price legislation.

But still he remains upbeat. Cheeriness seems part of the fabric at Summerskills. Perhaps it's the brewing equipment - it used to belong to a brewery briefly owned by former Monty Python Terry Jones, in Herefordshire.

"There will always be a market for quality, craft- produced local beers," says Carl.

"I could make a cheaper beer by buying rubbish hops and malt, but I won't. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

"People talk about food miles and traceability - well, how local can you get? I can tell which farms our barley and hops come from. As far as I know we are the only brewery that names the hop and the barley growers on the bottle labels.

"And there's only the two of us. Norman makes the beer and I deliver it."

Expansion is a possibility from Summerskills' 10-barrel (360- gallon) output per brew and the cider trade could be grown further (they are distribution agents for Somerset cider makers Thatchers). But for Carl and Norman making beer is more about pleasure than business.

Carl says: "You'll be in some pub where people don't know you and the bloke in front will take a sip and say, 'by God that's a good pint' and you feel 10 feet tall.

"Anybody making a cheese or rearing a nice lamb or making some wine will know that feeling. It's one of those kicks you get out of working with food and drink."

To find out more about the brewery and who it supplies visit

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