Better Busiiness – The Grain microbrewery and the Plough pub

28 December 2012
Better Busiiness – The Grain microbrewery and the Plough pub

Set up six years ago to professionally pursue a passion for beer, the Grain microbrewery has since expanded to include Norwich pub the Plough. Aaron Morby asks Geoff Wright and Phil Hall how the pub benefits from an eclectic customer mix

This week The Grain microbrewery and the Plough pub
Why? Best drink producer, Norfolk Food & Drink Awards 2012

Need to know
Ex-Adnams man Geoff Wright and Phil Hall, a former publishing executive, gave up their day jobs over six years ago to set up the Grain microbrewery in Norfolk.

Both share a passion for great beer and a distaste for big business, a philosophy the pair built into their venture. Two years ago they slotted in the final piece of their original plan by taking a 25-year lease on the Plough, a small Norwich pub famed locally for its large hidden pub garden in the old Bohemian quarter.

From an original up-front investment of £50,000, Hall and Wright have created a brand with a reputation for quality and originality in the fiercely competitive drinks trade and collected a cabinet of awards.

Target audience "Brewing beer at cost and selling at full retail price is a tried and tested formula, which 
we would have been foolish to ignore," explains Hall.

So the pair snapped up the modest pub on a full repairing lease that saw them invest £40,000 on interiors, roof and structural repairs over two years.

"The Plough is a flagship for our beer and stands alone on the quality of what we brew," says Hall.

The pub shuns big brands, which keeps the Friday night volume lager drinkers away. Its beers are enjoyed by a younger market of both sexes, as well as appealing to all who love great beer, creating an eclectic mix of customers, aged from their twenties to fifties and even a regular in his nineties.

Hall says: "We are very clear about branding and have left the world of silly beer names and woolly jumpers and beards behind us.

"We are creating a simple, uncluttered stylish brand, which concentrates on flavours and clean beers with nice hop and malt characters.

"Some people expect our beer to be cheap because we brew it. But our target is customers who want better quality and something 
different to drink in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere."

Drinks trade The Plough is a straightforward two-room pub that concentrates firmly on booze trade but offers speciality slices of sausage pie for the peckish.

It stocks a good selection of its own cask beer, run from eight pumps and supplemented with Bitburger, Amstel and Aspall cider.

Blond Ash, based on a Belgian-style Witbier, has flavours of bubblegum, orange and coriander and is one of the pub's best sellers. An old-style porter offers a smooth and creamy contrast, with the flavour of dark berries.

Several bitters, winter and summer ales and a traditional stout make up the complement of beers at the Plough, which pulls around 1,000 pints a week.

Favourite supplier Family-owned wine and spirit merchant 
Coe Vintners has helped to build a selection 
of quality spirits for a small but popular 
cocktail and fresh juice mixers menu.

"Our stocking policy is simply about choosing drinks that are made by passionate people to the best of their ability," explains Wright.

Wright has built up a formidable selection of spirits and a collection of tequilas, which are renowned in Norwich, the best commanding £40 a shot.

The cocktails and spirits business accounts for just under a quarter of takings with bitter and lager making up 55% of weekly sales.

Future plans "The brewery has plenty of capacity so it makes sense to get a few more pubs under our belt," says Hall.

"Ideally we are looking to acquire around five pubs in the next five years, which should lift turnover to around £5m."

For the customer base the plan is to look for opportunities in urban areas. The partners are on the lookout for an opportunity in London. "After that Cambridge could be a good location," says Hall.

Phil Hall's revelations

Favourite pub The Crown, Smallborough
Favourite beer Dark Star, Hophead
Favourite hotel Crescent Town House, Belfast
Favourite restaurant The Vine, Norwich
What book has inspired you?Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
Motto Slow and steady wins the race
If you weren't involved in the pub trade, what would you have done? Something in publishing
Which person do you most admire? Richard Branson
Describe your business in five words Dare to do things differently

Facts and stats

Owners: Phil Hall, Geoff Wright

Average weekly beer consumption (pints): 1,000

General manager: The Plough, Geoff; Grain Brewery, Phil

Grain brewing output: 8,500 (pints per week)

Staff at the Plough: 7

Spotlight on 
the Grain brewery
Geoff Wright and Phil Hall started out wanting to do some good, while still being able to pay the mortgage.

"Brewing appealed as a low-cost way of starting a business that makes something that makes you feel better about yourself," explains Wright.

With just £50,000 to spend, the partners cobbled together some second-hand brewing kit, sourced from the Castle Rock Brewery in Nottingham, pipes from an old winery and some old vats.

"We knew with the kit we had, we could make good quality beer at some point, but it proved to be a very steep learning curve," admits Wright.

In year one, the brewery was up and running producing around 1,000 pints. From humble beginnings in a converted dairy barn it now produces around half a million pints a year from its repertoire of 10 beers.

Hall admits this is probably a few too many from a stocking point of view.

"The problem is, you do a special beer and then customers ask you to do more," he explains.

Their Norwich pub, the Plough takes 15% of production, around 10 regular stockist pubs across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge take 60%, with distributors ordering the balance in the main for the Antic pub chain in south London. Bottled beer orders are gathered from farm shops, delis, hotels and restaurants in the region.

The Grain is actively involved in Norwich's City of Ale festival as well as holding its own annual Summer Festival at the brewery. Group tours are also available at the brewery, which include learning about brewing, while tasting a range of beer types.

"We set up the business because we could determine the sort of lifestyle we wanted," explains Hall. "Now it's going from strength to strength and helping us spread the word about new British brewing."

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