Something good brewing
One brother grows the
barley, another brews the
beer and a third runs the pub
that sells it. David Cousins
visits a farming family
with a difference
NEXT time you sip your pint, ponder this: was it brewed in some vast industrial complex, with hops and barley from lord knows where and profits flowing smoothly to a grateful multinationals shareholders? Chances are it was.
But if all that sounds a bit worrying, there is an alternative. Welcome to 260ha (650-acre) Highwood Farm, Melton Ross, where the Lincolnshire wolds run down to the Humber. Its chalky, free-draining soil grows excellent malting barley and its home to the Wood family, who have been farming here since 1917. Current cropping centres on barley, wheat, sugar beet and vining peas.
Current incumbents are the four Wood brothers. John, David, Tom and Paul, but their jobs revolve around rather more than the usual farming tasks. John runs the farm, Tom runs a brewery on the farm that employs nine people, David runs the pub that the four brothers bought three years ago as an outlet for the beer. And Paul flies twin-engined turboprops out of nearby Humberside Airport for a living.
But when the farm (or the brewery, or the pub) needs extra manpower, the others will help out. It could be because of a protracted harvest or an urgent beer order, but one way or another its a harmonious, flexible, practical set-up that works to everyones advantage.
This curious diversification didnt happen suddenly or by accident. Wind back the calendar five years and you find David and John running the farm and Tom keen to return after a 10-year stint working in the grain trade.
It was the usual problem, though – the existing business was too small to support a third income. Various possible diversifications were studied and then discounted, but Tom (a real ale fan) reckoned that the small Victorian barn that used to be a store for malting barley could be turned into a brewery.
He spent eight months talking to existing small breweries and in Autumn 1994 work began on re-roofing, re-flooring and strengthening the walls of the building. Much of the work was done by the brothers or farm staff and they learnt to thread their way through a jungle of planning permissions and environmental health regulations.
"We did use a brewing consultant to teach us how to brew and advise us on the equipment wed need," says Tom Wood. "Everything was bought new and total start-up costs came to about £80,000. We started in 1995 with just two brews for the cask trade (ie pubs) – Best Bitter and Old Timber, then added a Harvest Special."
There are now eight different cask beers, all of them steady sellers, and many of the seasonal beers proved so popular that the Woods didnt dare drop them. Inevitably, there were mistakes too. An early batch of Summer Special had a disappointing taste, but the Woods decided to market it nonetheless. By the time it reached the pub customers, it tasted decidedly strange and had to be recalled.
"It was a decision that no doubt cost us valuable customers," says David Wood. "With hindsight, we should have opened the valve and poured the 6000 pints down the drain."
First sales were to local pubs but as time went on they found themselves as the guest beer in pubs as far afield as Newcastle and Birmingham. However with all deliveries being done by the brothers in their own van, they realised that the distribution chain was being stretched far too thin. Drastic action had to be taken.
"Two years ago we brought the business back on a local basis, with a permanent Tom Wood Brewery pump in 40 pubs in Lincolnshire and South Yorks." Weekly sales are fairly steady now, at about 45 barrels (13,000 pints) a week and they also sell through the JD Wetherspoons pub chain. Turnover is currently £500,000/yr and the nine full-time staff at Highwood make the business a substantial employer in local terms.
And the marvellously circular thing about it all is that Halcyon malting barley grown on the farm goes to local maltsters Fawcetts (currently run by the seventh generation of the Fawcett family) and comes back as malt to use in the beer.
But the Woods arent ones to rest on their laurels, and when a pub in the nearby village of North Kelsey that had been closed for eight years came on the market, they jumped. The Butchers Arms was refurbished – mainly, again, using farm labour – and for the last three years has provided a useful extra outlet for the Highwood Brewery beers.
"As far as we know," says Tom Wood cautiously "were the only family growing the malting barley, brewing the beer and running the pub through which its sold."
The acquisition of the pub led to another bolt-on diversification too. As well as running the pub, David Wood now also operates a marquee hire business, using space at the farm to store them during the winter and hiring out about 30 marquees in the summer.
And then theres the bottles. The Woods had established a modest trade selling bottled beer to local off-licences. But they werent convinced that the sluggish sales warranted the extra time and effort involved and were looking around for a better way to do it.
An answer arrived in June 1999 in the form of another local farmer, Alex Albone, who runs the family arable unit at Scawby near Brigg with his brother Dan. Alex agreed to buy the beer from the Tom Wood brewery and organise the bottling and marketing of it himself.
Finding a company who will bottle relatively small quantities of beer isnt easy these days, but Brakspears Brewery in Henley on Thames said they would take on the job. Meanwhile Alex put the beer in a clear bottle (women are apparently more likely to buy beer for their husbands if they can see whats in the bottle), called it Jolly Ploughman and put on a nice label that explains the farm connection.
But where to sell it? It was while pondering that dilemma that Alex – almost by chance – heard about the Tesco Beer Challenge and decided to enter a bottle of Tom Woods bitter in it. It came in the top 10 out of 110 beers and it confirmed to Alex that he had a pretty special brew on his hands.
A phone call to Tescos buyer resulted in the company agreeing to stock 12 cases (each of 12 bottles) of the beer in its Brigg store starting on Aug 28 1999. They expected, with a bit of luck, to sell two cases a week.
But they hadnt reckoned on Alex Albones marketing acumen. He had the beer delivered by horse and dray, got acres of local press coverage and spent the weekends standing in the aisles giving out samples to shoppers. Either he was a particularly persuasive salesman (or else friends and relatives of the Albone and Wood families bought an awful lot of beer) because by the end of September Tescos had sold 138 cases of the beer.
Things have calmed down a little since then, but sales are steady at 15 cases a week at Brigg. Moreover Tesco has started stocking the beer in 9 of its N Lincs stores. And negotiations with a US importer could see Jolly Ploughman being stocked in Californian brew-pubs.
Can on-farm brewing make you money, though? Well maybe, say the Woods. "We lost money in two years, broke even in two years and made money in one year," says Tom Wood. "The brewing industry is in turmoil at the moment, margins are being squeezed but we think there is a definite future for small breweries."
Bad debts and slow payers were problems they hadnt encountered much in farming. With monthly sales of £45,000 and average payment time of 47 days, it meant an additional £70,000 of working capital had to be found. But there are advantages too. The bigger overall business created made it easier to justify things like a forklift truck for a start.
But of course theres more to all this than just figures on a profit and loss account. At a time when family farms ability to provide employment for sons and daughters keen to farm is shrinking by the month, its heartening to see how a family farm can diversify and provide local employment, with everyone helping each other through the inevitable work peaks.
Perhaps the (nearly) last word should go to David Wood. "Like most farms, we dont have the employed staff we used to and five years ago it felt like a ghost town here. Now its a hive of activity like it was 20 years ago and thats the single biggest reward of all this."
(…oh and the beer is excellent. So go into your local Tescos or pub and ask for it. If enough of you do that, theyll have to stock it – Ed).