When Len Davies bought a livestock farm in a region of Wales celebrated for its home brewing he embraced the local tradition by making beer in his farmhouse kitchen.
That was 11 years ago and now two large stainless steel fermenters stand in an outbuilding once used for storing corn and machinery on the Gwaun Valley farm.
What started as a hobby for Len has turned into a commercial enterprise for the whole family after they gave up what had become an unprofitable beef and sheep production business to focus on opening a microbrewery.
The Gwaun Valley is synonymous with brewing, largely because of its tradition of celebrating New Year on 13 January – a custom known as Hen Galan.
“Many of the farmhouses in the area used to host a party at Hen Galan and the guests enjoyed glasses of home-brewed beer,” Len explains.
Over the years he experimented with his own recipes while running the farm until last year when he and his wife, Sarah, took the decision to open a commercial microbrewery.
They are now producing 1150 pints a week with plans already in place to increase output to sustain demand from local pubs and visitors. The business has not only created jobs for Len and Sarah but also for their daughter, Rhian, and her friend, Samantha Thomson, both qualified chemists.
The beer is brewed once or twice a week, using the spring water that supplies the farm in the production of three different real ales. “Our limiting factor is the fermentation process because the beer has to stay in the fermenter for a week,” says Len.
“We have two fermenters but once we have established our markets we will get a third and will be able to increase production.”
The brewery currently buys barley and hops from other farmers although determined attempts are being made to establish home-grown crops.
The weather has been the greatest enemy. “We have tried growing barley two years in succession but the weather was so awful it got flattened and we ended up feeding it to the pigs,” says Len.
More successful, he hopes, will be his attempt to grow hops using hedges as windbreaks. Hops can grow up to 16ft so they have been planted in the hedges for now where they are sheltered from the wind. “We will never be able to grow all that we need but we hope to have enough one day to incorporate them in the beer,” says Rhian.
The pigs that enjoyed the flattened crops of barley had been bought to consume the brewer’s grain, a by-product of the brewing process. They are fattening well on this diet and their meat may be sold under the Gwaun Valley Brewery name.
The Davies family admit they were nervous about taking the initial plunge into commercial brewing and say they may not have had the confidence to put their plan into action if they hadn’t joined an Agrisgôp group, a Farming Connect programme delivered by Menter a Busnes.
“Our local Agrisgôp leader, Olwen Thomas, gave us an opportunity to listen to other people’s opinions which made us very focused,” says Sarah, who used her talents as a watercolour artist to produce the branding for the new brewery.
It was through Cywain, a project set up by Menter a Busnes to help primary producers in Wales add value to primary produce, that the Davies family received a business plan and support to get the operation up and running.
The icing on the cake was the official opening by Wales’ rural affairs minister, Elin Jones.
It was not only her talents as a watercolour artist that impressed the rural affairs minister when she unveiled a painting produced by Sarah at the opening, but her vocal abilities too. Sarah, an accomplished folk singer, had written a song based on her anxieties when the brewery was in its early stages. “I was having a moan to the Agrisgop leader about all of the work we had left to do and how we would ever get round to it all. Olwen asked me how would I eat an elephant.”
A song incorporating her response – “one mouthful at a time” – seemed an appropriate finale.
Gwaun Valley Brewery
The Gwaun Valley Brewery produces a fresh, tasty and smooth light ale which has an amber hue and is a refreshing, easy-drinking beer that is 4% alcohol and has mainstream appeal.
The bitter, which is the same strength, is produced using a higher proportion of hops that are left to steep during the brewing process to give the beer a pleasant, bitter taste. The full-bodied dark ale, with an alcohol strength of 4.2%, gets its special velvety taste from the addition of greater volumes of roasted, malted barley.
Len and Sarah’s do’s and don’ts:
- Always get a professional business plan, as it’s the cornerstone of any new enterprise
- Don’t always take no for an answer when applying for grants. Len and Sarah had been advised they would not be eligible for grant funding because they owned their farm – but this was not the case and they received a Single Investment Fund grant and an interest-free loan from the Pembrokeshire Lottery
- Don’t under-estimate demand for your product and be prepared for expansion