Would you drink cloudy cider? Cloudy ciders are now recognised and popular. No problem.
But would you drink cloudy beer?
And, would you be even more enthusiastic if your beer had been brewed without the inclusion of any chemicals which make the liquid clear, but which are heavily implicated in serious health issues? And, what if it was made in a very sustainable way too?
The story behind Chester Beer
Well, Chester-based former investment banker and economist Neil Chesters – yes, that’s his real name – has taken a risky punt on this business model. He started brewing because when covid hit he decided to quit his high-end career in finance, leave New Zealand where he’d been working, and come back to his family in his birthplace and start living his dream. Neil’s clan, although not aristocrats, have been Freemen of the City since 1509. For him, the pull of home was irresistible.
Two years or more on, he’s selling several different beers, either cask or bottled, in 400 local pubs and bars and three retail outlets, and has just opened a café bar in what had been a completely derelict property by the Eastgate Clock, atop Chester’s ancient Roman city walls. I stumbled across the café while visiting a friend in the city last weekend, it has buckets of charm and it’s hard to believe it’s in a space which was empty for ten years! Neil did all the refurbishment himself.
The 51-year old-father of four may have been an investment banker, but when he decided to become a brewer he opted for finance by ‘bootstrapping’. This is a method where you invest what you already have and use ongoing profits to build the business. He hasn’t borrowed a penny, but his idea is apparently so well received that he’s been able to build his brand on a shoestring.
The first question I asked him was, ‘are you sure you’re the only chemical free brewer in the UK?’
Yes, Neil has checked, he really is. People have not been used to cloudy beer since the mid-19th century when Guinness first used isinglass in its Dublin brewery. It seems that someone, for no apparent reason decided beer should be ‘clear’, and started adding isinglass ‘finings’. Neil has discovered that most big and small ‘real’ beer brewers in the UK just don’t want to do it any differently. But he does.
Chemicals added to beer
All the small brewers make their beer using a chemical ‘adjustment’ of the water at first, then they add Protafloc, derived from Carrageenan Irish moss, a kind of seaweed, but it is implicated in stomach cancer. Research in animals indicates that it causes gut tumors and ulcers, and may even trigger colon cancer. Because of the possible danger, fewer studies have investigated the potential effects in humans.
Carrageenan strips out protein and changes the consistency of the beer. But all the big real beer breweries do it. There’s an EU lobby that ensures some ingredients don’t count as ingredients. They classify them as ‘process aids,’ their E 407 product (Carrageenan) is widely used. And there’s no evidence that post Brexit, the UK brewing industry is going to do anything different.
Chemical free beer
Neil said that many of the brewers he approached to rent brewing capacity for his product refused him because they believed that his non-chemical beer would require more cleaning of equipment, but he doesn’t think this is true.
“It is very difficult to find somewhere to brew. I’m a cuckoo brewer, that means I make my product in someone else’s brewery.”
Didn’t this mean he’d given away a pretty smart USP though?
“Other brewers don’t want to do what I’m doing and most wouldn’t be able to as it would require a complete change of their manufacturing process.”
But his idea didn’t arise out of a mere fantasy, as there is already a move towards ‘healthier’ beers. For example, Stella has introduced unfiltered lager, but it’s still not chemical free.
Chester Beer source all their ingredients from suppliers that do things the way they do, ‘the right way’. They choose suppliers who work fairly and equitably with all their stakeholders, customers and employees. For example, all their malt comes from Warminster Maltings, which makes traditional floor malts and employs dozens of skilled people to hand-turn the very highest quality, local barley into the best brewing barley.
Do brewers in other countries make completely chemical free beers? Yes, for example, lots of breweries in Germany only ever use grain, water and hops in their beers. There is a rule called the Reinheitsgebot Purity Order, which limits the ingredients in beer, but this was introduced in 1560!
But in the UK and elsewhere large breweries use ‘process aids’ because they don’t count as ingredients. They bought into the idea that people only want ‘clear’ beer.
Brewing beer as a small business owner
Neil didn’t just financially boostrap, he had no marketing or legal assistance. He really is a shining example of business DIY. He would consider professional marketing if he decided to expand his sales area, but hasn’t so far.
And in terms of regulatory compliance, he said: “That is difficult especially for a small business but my background helped. I’d probably have given up if I had started to do it at 20. I did it all myself. Making beer is relatively easy, but trading in alcohol is very hard. Most people would have paid a lawyer to navigate it at the cost of thousands. Because of my background, I was able to do it myself but I had to answer 190 questions across several interviews before I was allowed to retail alcohol!”
To put this all into context, there are around 3,000 small breweries in the UK.
“There’s been a huge change in craft beer. For example, in the US half all the drink consumed now is craft, and much of it is cloudy.
“In 1992 brewers had to sell down pub estates owned by large companies, so there’s more choice now, but although there are lots of small brewers in the UK, the market is still dominated by big suppliers. Some of it is because of takeovers, or where big companies have bought into them.
“For example, Carlsberg invested £40million into Beavertown Brewery in London and distributed it through their network. ‘Free Pumps’ have declined drastically through covid because the pub owners have reduced the number of pumps from which landlords can buy independent beers.”
Needless to say, Chester’s brews are CAMRA friendly – none of Neil’s beers are served via top pressure.
Regarding marketing more widely, Neil says: We’ll keep it where it is for now, we opened the café bar only five weeks ago, my idea is that there would be several more of those, so I’m testing. I have a concept beer brand and a concept café bar brand but I’m only going to do that in a sustainable way.”
It is a tough market all round, Neil says most small brewers are doing very badly. “Loads are teetering because of market saturation.”
Well, some people certainly like a challenge! So, let’s raise a – cloudy – glass to Neil; I have a feeling he might be about to radically change beer for many more consumers in this country.
More information about Neil’s business, Chester Beer, can be found HERE.