With dozens of micro-breweries and the Carlsberg mega-brewery, Northamptonshire is quietly becoming the unofficial capital of beer in the UK.
Alaric Neville, famously once a sound engineer come producer for the band Chumbawumba, is known in Northampton as part of the group that revived the Phipps Brewery.
He is passionate about the craft beer revolution in the county and thinks the Northampton County Beer Festival, at Becket’s Park in June, is a perfect opportunity for people to discover the delicious brews on their doorstep.
NQ: What we can look forward to at the County Beer Festival and what are your thoughts about it moving from Delapre to Becket’s Park?
Alaric: Well the Becket’s part. . . we’re interested because it’s a new venue, although the festival has had different homes. It started in 1974, I think in what was then the Old Derngate bus station. It’s been at Franklin’s Gardens, it’s been one or two other places, but it’s been at Delapre for a long time, and people do call it the Delapre Festival, even I do occasionally. There was a charm at Delapre, people had to want to go there, it felt like being in the countryside, and that’s what Delapre is for Northampton isn’t it? Once you’re down that avenue, you can’t actually see that there’s a large town all around you, but it did mean that people who wanted to go there went there. Becket’s Park will be different, because it’s in the town, people can come to have a look, people can come who aren’t necessarily going to stay all day, so it’ll be a slightly different audience, but it’s the same festival, the same format, but every year we’ve done it, and this is the third year now, we’ve tried to add something.
When we took it over from the council, at their request, we sat down and we did want to make it more of a food and drink festival. Certainly we wanted to make it a showcase for Northamptonshire drink production, so we brought the cider producers in, we have the gin producers in, and we now, this year, will be the first year we have a proper craft beer tent on its own. Last year, we had a World of Craft Beer person. So as well as Carlsberg, because they are a Northampton brewer, we’ve got now five craft brewers. It’s still a growing area, just as real ale, micro-brewing has grown, so it’s a showcase for what this county has to offer. This county is not only a big brewing county, and always was in the sense that Carlsberg certainly put millions of pints of beer into the world, but then there are 20 -25, depending on how you define it, independent brewers in this county, which is, I think, the highest density of micro-brewing anywhere. And that’s interesting because, as people might know, Northamptonshire is the birthplace of micro-brewing. The revolution started here, that ended up conquering the world and changing the way we drink. Bill Urquhart was the last Phipps brewer, and he was the first microbrewer. I was reading some notes recently where he called himself a “mini-brewer.” That didn’t take off, that phrase didn’t work, and then by the late 70s micro-brewing was how people described small one or two or three man band brewers doing a certain sort of craft, artisan beer.
NQ: What’s the difference between a craft brewer and a micro-brewer?
Alaric: That is in debate at the moment, the English language is still to be defined on that. ‘Real Ale’ meant cask ale, because keg ale, the Watneys Red Barrel, the Worthington’s E, the trophy bitters, that was what in the 50s and 60s looked to be the future.
The big breweries were pushing that sometimes against the will of the populations, and the landlords, and the drinkers. It was pushed because it’s more economical, it has a longer life, so it has a place. The Campaign for Real Ale started to try and hold back the tide of mass-produced keg bitter, which is sterile; pasteurized; dead in the cask, and produced with CO2. CamRA wanted to preserve something, but also to create something new. So that was the real ale revolution, if you can call it that, and then that developed into the artisan brewer using more interesting hops. In the 70s we were still using British hops predominately to produce British ale, but then the rise in air freight, and refrigeration, meant vacuum-packed hops could be brought from New Zealand or America, and add new flavours. And that sort of picked up in the 90s. People then forgot the battle, because people of a certain generation, a lot of members of CAMRA, have this ‘keg was the enemy’ attitude. What went into keg was fairly terrible stuff, so the system was tainted by the beer that was in it. There’s nothing inherently awful about keg beer, and now you’ve got people who have no fear of it going into it, and that is what’s been called craft beer.
And it’s a term that’s not really been defined in the Oxford English Dictionary yet. I understand craft beer to be keg beer, so it’s cold, it’s pasteurized, but there’s usually a lot of hop in it. You’ve got novice craft ale on here, we have more occasionally, and that’s interesting beer. It’s good beer; produce it with love and care, with expense and a lot of hops, and a lot of time into it. It’s not smooth-flow, cream-flow nonsense.
But some real ale brewers now want to cloak themselves, because that’s hip, and real ale has become old. It’s become beer-gutted, and woolly jumper, and triple X-sixed T-shirty, and it’s become what your dad is in to.
So, craft brewers have got beards, and wear brogues, and they’re hipsters or something like that. So now you have traditional cask micro-brewers saying we’re a craft brewer because the beer we brew is very hoppy. So they’re fighting to be included in the craft brewing, which is a little bit ‘me too’-ey, and I think ‘artisan,’ although that smacks a little bit like a French farmhouse. It’s brewing with love, it’s brewing with interest, not brewing to economy.
Because Phipps is a heritage brewer, the bulk of our recipes are traditional recipes, and there’s a number of us around the country, and our thing is traditional ales: Shipstones, Lacons, people like us, we love it.”
NQ: I worked at a pub when I was 18, The Bell in Odell, and the landlord at the time, he was very anti-keg beer, and I remember him telling me about how we wouldn’t be doing that at the Bell.
Alaric: The interesting thing, I think, cask ale, or fined bitter, or real ale, that thing that’s alive in a cask is complex. It takes skill to serve and keep, it changes day on day, it’s still yeast-producing, it will alter one day to the next, one week to the next, if it lasts that long.
Our brewer prides himself on getting the same flavour every time, it’s much more of a balancing thing. Real ale is like that, which is why you can have connoisseurship, which is why CamRA developed into a sort of debating society about the merits of this. The appeal of craft keg is that it’s the same every time, but you can add the interest by putting interesting stuff in it, but generally that’ll be that tomorrow, that’ll be that next week. The fun for some people, some serious beer aficionados, is to go into a pub, and have a beer they know and go it’s on form today. And they’ll go on a website, and go “Phipps Becket’s perfect today, it was put on yesterday, it’s a little green, it’ll be past its best tomorrow”, and it’ll a little bit like birdwatchers going twitching, and they’ll recommend this beer today at this place.
NQ: Is there a reason that Northamptonshire has produced so many micro-breweries? Is there anything particularly about the area?
Alaric: That I can’t answer, other than the tradition of micro-brewing being here, and perhaps people knew about Phipps. People knew that it had been one of the big British brewers, it was a big brewery to go. And Northampton I think, being a Northamptonshire lad, there’s a sort of curmudgeonly-ness: the same people that elected Charles Bradlaugh year after year, even though he couldn’t take his seat. It’s like: “right I’ll bloody show those buggers.” I think Carlsberg and Watney were definitely seen as like the enemy, whereas in other places like Bedfordshire and Leicestershire, they still had, for all their faults, Charles Wells and Everards, their local brewer, that would still produce their beer. Over here, if you wanted your local beer, you had to have a micro-brewer’s beer. So the fact that Phipps has disappeared, and that Bill Urquhart had started micro-brewing here early on, and then you got Potbelly, and then you got Frog Island, and Hoggleys, and the people who were adopting who came after Bill, that spawned something. Or possibly the clichéd ways: we’re in the middle of the country, so transport links are good.
Even though micro-brewing has produced a much greener product that’s consumed closer to where it’s produced, people are buying Scottish beer, or beer brewed in Cornwall that’s come up the motorways. That’s actually not a good thing. Buying New Zealand beer, and American beer, it’s bloody daft. It’s like Evian water, why do we buy water from the south of France? So, I think it’s that curmudgeonly Northamptonshire thing – the vacuum that was left by Phipps has filled by people giving it a go. Leicestershire has pitifully few micro-breweries compared to Northamptonshire.
It’s a food and drink county. The county council recognizes high-tech, motor sport, shoe industry, and food and drink. And that is partly because Carlsberg, Weetabix, Whitworth, British Pepper and Spice are here, so if you just do the figures on food production.
I’m sure Anna Murby from Made in Northampton will tell you the independent sector is large here,we;’ve got Warner Edwards Gin, and the cheese production, and we’ve got vineyards here; we’ve got a lot of artisan producers of food.
And if you’re exporting out of the county into other bits of Britain, we’re in the middle of the country.
NQ: What does Northampton mean to you?
Alaric: The way that Northampton is a town, and every now again some aspirant politician thinks we should go for becoming a city. I love the howls of ‘no!’ The song they sing is “Northampton Town, Northampton Town, I’m proud to be.”
We were sort of slighted by backing the wrong side in the War of Roses or whatever, and we’re a town. We should have been a city, we could have been a city, but we’re not, and we’ll stay a town. Big city lights don’t bother me, and that’s also possibly in our millennial, and my generation. I think most of the people I knew as a student, a good chunk of them went to London, a good chunk of them went away like I did for a while. It was the sort of town you left in the 80s and 90s if you wanted to go somewhere.
My family have always stayed around here, so I’ve always kept my links with Northampton, but my business was travelling the world when I was in the music industry, and I had a recording studio in Leeds, which was where I’d spend chunks of my time. And I would talk to my wife who was from North Wales and say “Northampton’s great,” because I remember the 1980s, with Bauhaus happening, and I was student here, and my dad was the college, and it felt prosperous and my generation’s about the shoe industry. And I would talk about it like this, and my wife would come back to me and say “I don’t recognise the town you’re talking about.”
I remember driving back once, and she was talking in about 95, 97, and everything was shutting, and everything was being knocked down. The human capital of Northampton used to be lost every generation, as most small towns lose things to the world now. I wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem. So I more or less had an active choice, I thought I’m going to do something back in Northampton, take the money I’ve earned, the life experiences I’ve called, I’ll put them back here for a bit, or forever.
NQ: That raises the interesting question of the future. Talking to you, this sounds like something that will grow, and something you want to grow in an organic way.
Alaric: I think so. When we started, and had to raise the money, we had to do business plans for this. When we started Phipps, the business plan was “I think people will want to drink Phipps again, don’t you?” Literally, that’s what started it off. Obviously this took hard cash, and we had other people putting their money in, so we had to draw up a business plan. But some things grow the way you think, some things grow bigger, some things never grow, some costs rise. So you constantly have to reinvent where you think your future will be. About a year ago we took the decision that the local market is relatively saturated here. In the old days, you could still go to a pub and talk to them about “why don’t you have real ale?” and you could get them to go “all right, we’ll give it a go.” Now places that are going to serve independent traditional real ale are doing it already, so you’re actually fighting against your competitors, which we have said there are many. You’re also fighting against distribution companies bringing in real ale, and Carlsberg having a catalogue on real ale. So there’s no way to grow in the East Midlands to some extent. What’s unique about Phipps is developing the building, and the brewery tours, and the bar, as that’s something other people don’t have. We’re quite a large brewery, we’re modern, and freshly built, even though the building is old. So we’re trying to grow outside, I guess on a national level, and become one of the main well-known brewers that you now can buy through wholesalers.
NQ: So would that translate into seeing Phipps bottles on supermarket shelves?
Alaric: I knew the music industry, I had no idea how the food production industry worked, so I made mistakes and learnt on the job. So we started with our bottles in late 2008, and it was going nicely with the farm shops, and then we got a contract to supply the Co-op, and then the farm shops would stop buying our beer, because the Co-op would put it on their shelf a pound less than they were selling it, and why would you have something in your deli or farm shop that you can buy in the Co-op? We now have a really nice set-up with all the farm shops in Northamptonshire, some off-licences, some delis, and I’m going to nurture that, I’m not going to stomp around and bugger that up. Having said that, IPA is 65% of our production, Phipps is the beer we’re known for, that’s the beer I think we can grow, but we’ll always have the other in-house small produced stuff, and we’ll always do specials and one offs. But I guess I want to have my cake and eat it. I would like Phipps to sell everywhere, but I want to be the Northamptonshire brewer. I’m not aiming to sell out, and be produced in Holland and Germany like some of our competitors are. I want to create jobs, I want to create a sustainable industry, and I want Phipps to grow beyond the point at which, well, there is never a point you don’t worry. The point of doing it is not to make me, and the Phipps family, and my brother, and all the other investors rich, but for a cultural intervention, and to do something that gives Northamptonshire back a little bit of its character. Some people start these things wanting to own a Ferrari, and to sell out. I don’t have an exit strategy, we also have a golden share with the Phipps family who lost control of this company in 1960. And there are five of them who have come back, and our chairman is Jeremy Phipps, and they’re in it so that their family name and heritage is back.
I don’t want Phipps to ever leave this building. Yes, there will be a point the production level will need a new building, but we wouldn’t do that, unless my son has a different view to me in 20 years time. The project was to save the building, bring Phipps back, grow it in Northampton, be sustainable, create jobs, create great beer, and that’s it. And if that’s a limited ambition, so be it.”