I’m wondering if the craft beer market is on the verge of saturation – but I think there’s still opportunity. So I took a step back and thought, how can I find a gap in that market, is there something I can do to stand out more than the rest of them?
The road followed by Paul Gibson in establishing his brewery is one that many others have gone down – right up until the end, of course – that point of differentiation he talks about. The familiar part of the story is one of being in the wrong job at the wrong time, growing frustration, and then a expeditiously-timed redundancy cheque appearing, giving the fledgling brewer that final push over the line. It was then off to BrewLab in Sunderland, some hands-on experience in other breweries, and a kit-based acquisition spree to set up in his chosen space. Only, it was that final component in which Paul stands out – as his chosen space can be pretty much anywhere he wants (if reachable by road).
The main point of difference behind the Campervan Brewery – is a rather wonderful 1973 Type 2 Volkswagen. Paul’s brewkit is a Brewmeister 50l, chosen specifically for its portability; the plan is to take the kit on the road, brewing wherever he goes. Connected to a mains unit if available – brewing on battery power if not – it’s beermaking on the move. But why? According to Paul, there are two main reasons for this unusual approach. “What I really want is to get the customers to feel involved in part of the journey,” he says. “It’s about being able to go to the sources; in the summer it’s about going to someone who has a beehive to collect honey, or going up to a fruit farm – even further afield, it’s just about getting to the source of the ingredients.”
This is an interesting reflection on where beer is at the moment – highlighting the producers who cultivate or collect the raw ingredients our brewers reply on. It’s all about provenance; something many other producers are also keen to recognise. Paul intends to have blog, with live updates as to where he is, so (in his words) “People can get to know what’s so special about Farmer Smith”. The second reason for the Campervan Brewery being portable is more personal. “It’s about doing something I really want to do, being able to incorporate the kids – we can go away and I can do a brew whilst they’re on the beach or something like that – it’s about trying to find a better balance really. I’m also quite into the beach and surfing, and so on, and the campervan fits into that as well, with the whole summer vibe.”
There is a central base, however – as Paul has set up in the garage with all the standards and mandatory features required by the Council and HMRC. The set-up process has been good so far, he tells me, with people from the regulatory bodies being easy to work with and hugely accommodating (this is something I hear quite a bit from new brewers; the cheerfulness of the agencies expected to be parsimonious. I wonder if these bodies are aware of their own reputations?). The garage has always been the place where the recipes were honed, so when not on the road it’s where the majority of the beermaking will occur; brewing 100 litre double-batches twice per week and then hand-bottling the results.
Paul will be starting with three core Campervan Brewery beers – a 4% Blonde Ale (one of the summer-vibe beers he is keen to introduce), a milk stout infused with coconut, which trialled at 4.5% but which he intends to bump up to the region of 5.5%, and a third beer that he’s extremely keen on. “I also have a champagne-style beer hopped with Nelson Sauvin – this has been my labour of love for about two years,” he says. “I’ve got this great recipe, but trying to find a balance of the champagne yeast and the dryness has been a long process.” Certainly, when you speak to Paul, you realise that nothing will be signed off unless he is totally happy with it. “The idea is three core beers,” he continues “But then I want to have another three by about next year, and also work in one-offs and seasonal things if I get time to do it as well.”
The one-offs he talks about will involve other breweries. From the start, Paul’s openly stating he’ll be looking to contract brew for larger batches of his core beers, or work in conjunction with other producers on projects where necessary. “Being able to go to other breweries and have them do some contract brewing is something I’ll be doing – if there’s something I really like I can go to them and they can scale it up. I don’t want to hide the fact that I’m going to contract, I want people to know that. Collaborations will hopefully form a big part of it, as well, it certainly seems to be a big thing at the moment.” It’s all to do with working with as many innovative partners as possible, and about getting important early feedback due to the volume of beer these contracts can create.
As we chat, Paul reveals how the idea for his Campervan Brewery came about – and interestingly, it wasn’t the initial focus of his plans. “I’ve been to so many beer festivals and foodie festivals; my whole concept started around a street food sort-of-theme from the van – but because I got so involved with beer, I thought, ‘no – it’s beer’. But I definitely want food pairing to be a part of it. The idea is to launch the brewery but use the van and when I’m at festivals I’ll be producing food that will pair up with the beer. It’s about connecting with customers.” To facilitate this connection, Paul is currently having a bespoke surfboard built – which fits on the roof when driving, and is detached and flipped to form a bar when at festivals.
This is a great idea – the brewery that comes to you – and I can imagine long lines around the Campervan at sunny festivals, the 50l kit bubbling away inside with people having a look and stopping to ask what’s going on. As he says – “I’ve been to so many festivals and the breweries are there with their white tents, you know, they all look the same…I can bring the brewkit along and actually do a live brew; and the people there can get a true feel for how natural a product it is. I can actually get some crowd participation involved.” Paul is certainly amenable and enthusiastic enough to draw a small crowd – that much is clear just from speaking to him on a soaking wet afternoon in early March. Once the festival season (beer and music) kicks off, he should truly be in his element.
But the beer should be out well before that. In fact, there’s a window about to come up for a batch of bottles; Paul has a contract with the same people who produce them for Wild Beer Co. He’s just about finalised the label designs for the three core beers, and the idea is to hopefully have everything ready within a couple of weeks – pending a family holiday to the Far East – for a soft launch, somewhere in Edinburgh, of ‘a couple of casks’. As we go for a spin in the van, which originally hails from somewhere in Yorkshire, Paul tells me driving the thing is tricky but enjoyable – a fairly solid metaphor for brewing. As for the Campervan Brewery itself, Paul sums it up as he drops me off. “It’s about doing something a wee bit different.”