These rather handsome-looking bombers might not, at first glance, tell a story – but they very much do. Madcap Brewery in Dumfries have come full-circle, and the re-branded cork and cage releases that have just hit the shelves are a testament to that. Founded back in 2009, John Maddison and his son initially fitted a small 1bbl brewkit into their garage, and brewed for the sheer enjoyment of it. Spending some quality time making beer with unusual ingredients led to a few tentative releases – Madcap beers appearing sporadically, in small, vibrant, cartoon-toting bottles (such as the 10% Liquorice Madness).
There are dozens of similar tales across the UK, of course – home/weekend brewers stepping up, wanting the chance to experiment with flavours on a larger and more regular basis. Buoyed by the sales of his bottled beer, John moved into cask ales, and the Madcap name became known more widely around south-east Scotland – and then further afield. To keep up with demand, the Maddisons purchased a 5bbl kit in Eccelfechan, and production ramped up. However, as can so often happen, the amount of beer required soon became difficult to produce – not surprising when both father and son were still only brewing part-time, and had full-time jobs (and their families) to attend to. I caught up with John recently, and he takes up the story:-
It soon became too much for us to manage on the part time basis we had been running it, and it was proving difficult with the cask ale sales due to the high number of pub closures and increasing competition – we effectively also had very little in the way of a local market so most of our beers went out via wholesalers and that started to give us problems with cask returns. We were buying more and more casks in an effort to keep a regular brewing schedule, eventually we had enough, this is not why we started brewing, we had let the cask business take control and had taken our eye off our real passion and the very reason we started in the first place, the speciality bottled beers.
So, the logical decision was taken. In May last year, John sold the 5bbl kit to a new start-up in Manchester, and moved back into the garage brewery where Madcap had started out. Following a period of development, the first trial batches appeared in December, with that distinctive new look. Gone are the animal-based, eye-catching labels; instead a classy black frontage on 750ml cork and cage bottles – Madcap becoming the first Scottish brewery to concentrate exclusively on this large-volume format, as John describes:-
Our decision to downsize has also changed our operating philosophy; we have decided that we will only produce our beers as limited editions, which will mean a maximum batch run of 200 bottles (75cl). We are continuing to run the brewery on a part time basis – with no real commercial pressure forcing us to churn out volumes of beer to pay the rent, we are able take our time and concentrate fully on the quality of our products and it allows us to indulge our interest in experimenting with new ingredients to develop more interesting beers.
This must be great for John and his son – they admit they aren’t going to make any kind of fortune in the brewing industry as a result of switching back to the 1bbl kit (to be honest, they would have had a hard-enough time on the 5bbl). Trading back to the original Madcap kit has also released the original Madcap philosophy – and given the Maddisons a chance to relax, and invest time in thinking of the beer, rather than chasing empty casks and order sheets around the country. You can only wish them well – after all, they began producing beer for the love of it, so making the call to scale back and concentrate on what they really wanted should hopefully pay off in more important ways than the financial. As John concludes:-
Only time will tell if our strategy will work, the beers are the most important part of all this anyway, we acknowledge that we will never be able to sustain any kind of volume, but that’s less of an issue than being able to produce a unique selection of speciality beers…