David Bruce and the next-generation brewpubs

David Bruce, chairman of West Berkshire Brewery and Cobbs Farm Shops

Brewpubs are widely seen as a US invention because they are very much a feature of the beer landscape on that side of the Atlantic. But this is not strictly true because the brewpub phenomenon was ignited by activities in the UK by British entrepreneur David Bruce who founded the Firkin chain of brewpubs.

In 1979 he opened the doors to the Goose & Firkin brewpub in Southwark, South London, and three years later he was a guest speaker at the American Homebrewers Association’s Conference in Boulder, Colorado where he wowed the audience with his tales of running pubs with breweries attached. This was revolutionary stuff for those attending who had not considered such a vertically integrated approach.

This sparked lots of thinking across the pond but not a lot of action (legislation had not exactly helped anybody with such dreams) until Bruce made a return to the US in 1988 after he had built up the Firkin business into a modest sized chain and sold it on. He had a few million pounds in his pocket and he used some of this as seed investment in the US’ brewpub pioneers – some of who had no doubt been inspired by his presentation some years before.

He put money into the very first US brewpub chain – run by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver – in its very early stages and helped it grow to seven units before the business was sold to its employees. Bruce was also a founding investor in the Brooklyn Brewery and Elysian Brewing Company in Seattle, which were also taking a brewpub/tap-room approach in their early periods as they got themselves off the ground.

Many brewpubs in the US involve the vast majority of the brewery’s production being sold on the premises and little sold through other channels. This exclusive aspect to the beer partly contributes to why these brewpubs are serious destinations in their own right. The typically great food also adds to the appeal. This is just as well because they are often located in the middle of nowhere.

The experience Bruce gained from his past forays in the US is feeding into his latest project in Berkshire. He is chairman of West Berkshire Brewery and is the driving force behind what he describes as a cathedral of brewing, which he hopes – like the US brewpubs – will draw in people from surrounding areas. It’s not quite in the middle of nowhere in the same sense as in the US but for the UK it is definitely out in the green fields.

It’s nestled in Berkshire countryside with views of cows grazing but the entrepreneurial Bruce knows there are 20 million people within 1.5 hours drive away. These are big numbers but then the whole project is about thinking big as he is building a brewpub/tap-room on a scale not seen before in the UK.

So far £5.5 million has been spent on the 38,000 sq ft building that houses a smart bar/restaurant area that caters for 200 people and has direct views into the brew-house as well as the green fields through enormous glass plates. This brewing kit itself has a theoretical maximum output of 187,000 hectolitres per annum (which is roughly 10-times the output of the previous equipment). The facility also has a unique dual canning and bottling line, which can handle all packaging types – which will help with the company’s plan to bottle and can for other breweries.

Brewery tours are very much part of the experience and Thursday through to Saturday of a recent week Bruce tells me they had 500 people booked in despite the fact that no marketing had yet been undertaken. Once the brewing facility is fully functioning the plan is to have West Berkshire Brewery very much on the tourist trail and for coach parties to make up a major part of its business.

This might well be a world away from the original Goose & Firkin in gritty south London but just as Bruce recognised the potential for a return to beer being brewed on the premises of pubs in the 1980s he is now calling the start of a trend for breweries to be real tourist attractions where a full immersive experience is provided.

This is a world away from merely pandering to the tastes of the beer geeks as Bruce knows all too well that we all like beer really – it just has to be presented in the right way in order to appeal to the mainstream market.

The first Firkin had cobbled together brewing kit, sawdust on the floor and crisps as the only foodstuff for its authenticity whereas his new place requires state of the art brewing kit, expensive floor tiles, and Josper-grilled steak. Progress indeed for Bruce – and the rest of us too.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece on the leisure & hospitality industry. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this article.