Staff at a Worksop brewery are toasting their own success this week after picking up a string of industry awards.
The Welbeck Abbey Brewery entered the national Great Taste scheme for the first time this year, and were thrilled to hear six of their products met the judges’ approval.
It was particularly good news for general manager Claire Monk, who found a perfect home at the abbey when she launched the business there in 2011.
She said: “We were gobsmacked when we heard. We entered 11 of our products thinking that even if one won an award we’d be doing well.
“We’re especially pleased because the awards are based solely on taste, so it’s a true acknowledgement of our beer’s quality, and that the judges noted our vegan-friendly beers could hold their own against any other beer despite their initial scepticism.”
“I’m chuffed to bits, and our brewers are over the moon. I’m very proud of them, and pleased that all their effort, care and attention has been recognised.”
Great Taste, organised by the Guild of Fine Food, is often seen as a benchmark for fine food and drink, and has been described as the Oscars of the food world or the epicurean equivalent of the Booker prize. This year, producers all over the country entered 12,634 products, of which 37 per cent were awarded ratings of one-to-three-stars.
The brewery received one star awards for its bottled Portland Black and Henrietta brews, plus its vegan-friendly minikegs of Harley, Red Feather and Cavendish.
The cream of the crop was its bottled Red Feather, which was awarded two stars for “a taste that goes above and beyond delicious”.
Claire was speaking just after stepping off a train from the Great British Beer Festival, and hopes the award wins will help the brewery gain nationwide exposure.
She said: “One of our key strategies at the moment involves getting our bottled beers to the right customers.
“We’ll never be in supermarkets, because we don’t think that’s right for what we want to do, but we have a deal with Wyvale Garden Centres and we’d like to get into high end department stores such as Fortnum & Mason and Harrods.”
For now, the biggest retailer of the brewery’s beers is the Welbeck Farm Shop, which reflects a determination to keep the focus local.
Claire said: “We do a lot of collaboration at Welbeck, and like to shout about each others products.
“We produce 15,000 to 18,000 pints a week depending on the season, and do a tiny amount of wholesale to specialist sellers, but about 90 per cent of our cask ale is sold within 35 miles.
“That’s the way we feel a microbrewery like ours should work. We try to use local materials and services as much as possible, and we want people to go into their pub and drink a beer from down the road made by someone they know.
“We could supply a lot more small shops, but beer should be a social thing, and we want to push people towards drinking it socially.”
The local character of the business also allows for much more direct relationships with stockists and consumers.
Claire said: “In recent years there has been an explosion in microbreweries, and many have had international success, but for us the quality of service is as important as the quality of our product.
“Real ale requires sensitive treatment and we like to know who is serving it and that we can trust a landlord or landlady to look after our beers.
“In return, we offer the kind of support you normally only get from bigger breweries, and that sets us apart.
“Every customer is treated equally, from the city centre pub to the cornershop ordering a couple of boxes a month.
“It’s actually now the most satisfying part of my job.
“I started as a brewer but now I probably spend at least 60 per cent of my time on sales and customer service. I get to know our customers, and I really like that.
“They give us a feedback, and that influences how we work. Everyone here is very passionate about beer, and we want to understand what works and what doesn’t. It means we get to change things and it keeps it exciting.”
If dealing with clients keeps things enjoyable for Claire, it also provides her biggest challenge.
“It’s very competitive now and there are an awful lot of breweries making fantastic beer and the number of pubs has stayed roughly the same, so you can’t just compete on that alone and hope to persuade someone to buy it.
“The landlord or landlady, whoever is buying, can choose from 160 microbreweries within 30 miles of us.”
It is a challenge which Claire and her team are unlikely to be daunted by, given how far she and they have come in a relatively short time.
Originally from Suffolk, Claire got into brewing straight after completing her degree in chemistry and microbiology in Sheffield, which is where she discovered real ales for the first time.
She said: “The family who own the Welbeck estate have spent a lot of time building a hub of food and drink businesses over the last 10 years. Many of them have been joint ventures with other people. They approached Dave Wickett who created Kelham Island Brewery at around the same I asked him for a job.
“This was the perfect opportunity and he taught me everything I needed to know. I think they were slightly mad to give me the job, but I’m eternally grateful.
“When we started, it was just me as the brewer and a part-time delivery driver.
“We had to start from scratch and build our customer base from nothing.
“We grew quickly over the first 18 months.
“We now have a team of eight people and our beers are in 400 pubs on a regular basis, and have about 750 business customers altogether.”
The brewery also offers regular tours to visiting parties, and in recent years Claire has become a tutor on the School of Artisan Food’s beer and cheese course and a speaker at food festivals.