Crouch Vale Brewery

Brewing brilliance

A move into new premises has allowed Crouch Vale Brewery to start producing bottles of its award-winning ales

As the oldest existing brewery in Essex, Crouch Vale Brewery produces the finest quality ales for pubs in Essex, South Suffolk, East Hertfordshire and North-East London. Now in its 26th year of business, the company has relocated to a purpose built brewing plant that has allowed an increase in capacity and the addition of bottled beverages.

The company’s main business comes from its range of five ales. Amarillo is the strongest offering at five per cent volume, followed by Crouch Best and Brewers Gold at four per cent, Blackwater Mild at 3.7 per cent and Essex Boys Bitter that comes in at 3.5 per cent. Further trade comes from wholesaling other brewers’ beers, which is done on a reciprocal basis allowing Crouch Vale’s ales to be enjoyed in further-flung pubs across the country. The jewel in the Crouch Vale crown is perhaps the two-time Champion Beer of Britain, Brewers Gold. The pale, aromatic beer has won the coveted award, given by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), in both 2005 and 2006. Such was the volume of orders for the beer after the awards that many had to be turned down, as the previous site was not equipped to deal with the demand.

A new site, incorporating a shop selling beers and Crouch Vale merchandise, is now operational, meaning such a problem is unlikely to arise again. The move took place in February this year and operations director, James Partridge, believes it was a necessity: “We had to do it because it had already become impossible to operate at the old premises, then we won the first award in 2005 and trade increased so much that it just wasn’t big enough. We brewed at both sites for a while just to make sure we were getting the beer right – we’ve invested a massive amount of time and money in it. It has meant a significant improvement in terms of efficiency and health and safety; we’ve been able to design the brewery around the workers to a large extent. Bottled beer is also in production, something that just wouldn’t have been possible before.”

Its location may have changed but the company’s principles of two-way trading through an informal, friendly network remain as rigid as ever. “We’ll stick to our guns on the local market,” James says. “There tend to be higher margins on local trade than with the supermarkets. We prefer to deal with pubs, as it’s very much about the relationships you have with them. We’ve been dealing with some of our customers on a weekly basis for over 25 years. It’s impossible to have the same kind of co-operation with the bigger companies; we’d be continually up against it just to meet their many and various demands. At this moment in time we’ve developed to a size that we are happy with,” he insists.

While Crouch Vale has carved itself a niche in the highly competitive alcohol sector, there are still many challenges. Analysing the current state of the market, James says: “It wasn’t long ago that the customer base in pubs for cask ale was at its lowest but the quality of products from the small brewers has changed that, and the awareness of well-made cask ale has been improving steadily. One of the big objectives has been to get younger drinkers interested because they are then likely to drink the beers for the rest of their lives. Regarding the smoking ban, some of the rural pubs have seen slight dips in trade as the weather has deteriorated. People put two and two together and say it’s a direct effect of the ban but I’m not so sure. If it is the case that people are staying at home and drinking then our new bottled range will be an advantage.”

There is also the issue of rising prices for raw materials with the price of malt increasing by 40-70 per cent in recent times while the cost of hops has jumped by an incredible 300 per cent in some areas. “The challenge is how to pass that on,” says James. “It’s a price sensitive market but you have to make that up somehow, it does worry us that the average cost of a pint could well be over £3 soon and people will resist that. One of the reasons we’re still here is that we don’t give beer away at ridiculously cheap prices, and our margins have to be maintained. It is something that the whole industry faces,” he emphasises.

“Our policy tends to be that whatever the market does we charge a sensible price for the best possible product. Doing this allows us to survive whether the market is buoyant or whether it is flat,” says James. It seems a sensible approach; the company knows its capabilities and is committed to providing the best quality cask ales to the people of Eastern England and beyond. Having built a new brewing plant and by branching out into bottled beers, Crouch Valley goes into 2008 with great prospects, not to mention the country’s finest pint.