Pumping up sales

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Beer, Brewing

Robinsons brews 14M pints of cask ales each year at its Stockport site
Robinsons brews 14M pints of cask ales each year at its Stockport site
Modern kit will brew more success, Oliver Robinson tells Gary Scattergood

I used to have a weekly meeting with our previous brewer who retired last July to catch up on what was happening. One day he said to me 'we're going to have to make some investments to the brewhouse'.

He said that it was inefficient, leaking like a sieve and he thought something was going to go wrong. So we had a walk around and I asked him how much all of this was going to cost.

He said 'about £1.5M' and then a bit more further down the line. I told him we could build a new brewery for that one that was energy efficient, that wasn't going to leak and, dare I say it, perhaps one that was a little less labour intensive.

We started to look at this with my father, who was the production director but had recently retired from the operational side of the business to do special projects. I don't think he envisaged the size of this project, though!

For the last two years he's been working more than full time on this alone because it has been such a huge operation.

We decided in the end to go with Steinecker Brewhouse which is owned by Krones in Germany. It really is the Rolls Royce of brewhouses. Traditionally, when we've done something, we've done it well and made sure it would last.

Nevertheless, I don't think any of us really appreciated the complexities of putting in a brand new, state-of-the-art, fully automated brewhouse alongside our existing 1920s set-up. We had to continue to brew too, so the logistics were far greater than any of us ever imagined.

Once we realised how long it was going to take, we had to review the budget. We didn't quite double the cost of the project but the financial director did have a bit of a fit!

Thankfully he understood the idiosyncrasies of a family brewer and the strange habits and things we do sometimes. We tend to look at long-term investments instead of looking at short-term returns.

We've now got an automated brewhouse that is the largest and newest brewery amongst all of the independent family brewers and a lot more efficient and newer that those used by a lot of the major brewers in the UK.

Cereal cooker

We have improved energy efficiencies by up to 60% if we're brewing back-to-back brews. We've put in energy saving equipment to make sure we can re-use hot water and we've reduced evaporation rates from 14 to 16% to 4 to 6%, which is a huge difference.

We also kept adding to the project as we went along. We didn't want a new brewhouse that just worked liked the old one, so we decided to put in a cereal cooker, so if we, or someone else, wanted us to brew with rice or any other cereal, we had the facility to do that.

Moving forward, we also have the facilities to brew lager, something we've never done before, so that's a new addition to our contract services.

We also put in a hopnik which, in the most simplistic terms, is like a giant tea strainer. It gets filled with hops and then we put the wort on top, enabling it to take all flavour out of the hops, with none of it going into the air.

We have traditionally used whole hops in our brewhouse and I was quite keen we retained the ability to use them because it is a good selling point and some contract brewers will insist on using them. More and more people are now using hop pellets, so we're now using them for our beers too, because it gives us greater consistency. I can pick up differences in the beer when fresh hops are used. Now we are using pellets, it is consistently good.

We also kept adding more and more vessels, which meant more and more pipework. Then we had a nightmare with asbestos which was found on three occasions. This cost us a lot of money as everything came to a grinding halt while we cleared it out. Alongside the brewhouse, we have also built a new visitor centre, a training centre and conference facilities.

We have a core range of beers which we are constantly producing. The largest selling is Unicorn which is 4.2% abv. We've got Double Hop which is 4.8% abv, there's 1892 which was traditionally our mild and then there's our two Cumbrian products, Hartleys XB and Cumbria Way. Then we get to Old Tom at 8.5% abv which has won over 25 awards and was voted the World's Best Ale a couple of years ago. Sales of Old Tom are absolutely flying, especially in exports. In Scandinavia, Russia and America, they can't get enough of it. We've extended the Old Tom range so we've now got a Chocolate Tom and a Ginger Tom too. We also did a Tom and Berry for Christmas which was really popular. We're also in the process of trying to produce a Coffee Tom which we're just refining. Then we also have all the seasonal ranges.

One of the benefits of the new brewhouse is that is giving us much more chance to experiment. This means that you're no longer getting what I call a traditional Robinsons beer. We are moving out of our core range and producing some quite different tastes and profiles. This is creating a lot of interest and in total increasing our beer sales in a declining market.

Dizzy Blonde

If you look at our national accounts our sales to pub groups and wholesalers up and down the country we're showing some very strong growth. Free trade delivery, for example, is now in its ninth year of growth. For supermarkets and the off-trade we are in double digit growth. We've had a great success in the past year with a beer we produced with the band Elbow called Build a Rocket Boys. We had supermarkets ringing us asking if they could stock it. On the back of that we got a listing with Dizzy Blonde and we're about to get one for Old Tom.

We're very confident about the future, both in terms of cask ales, bottled beers and our pub estate which is made up of 360 premises in Cheshire, Staffordshire, north Wales, Cumbria and Derbyshire. On Anglesey alone we've got 14 pubs. I'm not sure how many Prince William and Kate have been in, but I'm led to believe that they've been in a few of them.

We've been brewing here since 1838 and I'm sixth generation of the family to work here. I've got four boys and I hope at least one of them will follow in my footsteps.

My cousins have also got children so we very much expect to be around as a family firm for many years to come.

Factory facts

LOCATION: Unicorn Brewery, Harvey Street, Stockport, SK1 1JJ.

STAFF: 250 at the brewery in Stockport, packing centre at Bredbury, Cheshire and distribution depot at Ulverston, Cumbria.

OPERATING HOURS: Brewery 6am to 10pm, packaging 6.30am to 11.30pm.

PRODUCTS: Permanent and seasonal cask ales, and bottled products available in all major UK supermarkets. Contract brewing and packaging is also undertaken.

OUTPUT: 14M pints of cask ale and 21M bottles per year.

TURNOVER: £55M

Personal

NAME: Oliver Robinson AGE: 42

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: I can't pick one, every year brings something new.

DOMESTICS: Married with four boys.

OUTSIDE WORK: Gym, tennis, skiing and visiting pubs and restaurants.

Related topics: People & Skills, Drinks, Services

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