A lot more than Just beer: An interview with Bethany Burrow
Despite a tumble and a broken derailleur forcing us to postpone last week’s Eko Brewery ride, we march on. For our next brewery ride, we head north of the River to Edmonton (no not that Edmonton) to visit Beerblefish Brewing co.
For Bethany Burrow, Co-Founder of Beerblefish Brewing, running a brewery is more than just making good beer and gin. It’s a chance to give back to the local community and provide opportunities to vulnerable people within society.
In part one of this two-part interview (part two is coming tomorrow), Bethany talks about all of the fantastic social enterprise aims that underpin what Beerblefish do, we discuss their inclusion in the Work In Progress group and chat about how for them, it’s much more than just beer (and gin).
Q: At Beerblefish you clearly go further than just brewing beer. Can you start by explaining a bit about your social outreach efforts?
A: Beerblefish is set up as a profit-making business with social enterprise aims. While we do need to eat (!) we also didn’t want the brewery to exist solely for the purpose of making money for ourselves.
We believe that businesses should be integral to the communities they serve and should have a broad range of stakeholders in mind when they make decisions about how to operate.
When deciding how to express this for our brewery, we’d been involved with Crisis, the homelessness charity and James’ cousin had just returned from his last Army tour and was looking for work in the civilian world.
"Beerblefish is set up as a profit-making business with social enterprise aims."
We learnt that one of the many significant causes of homelessness is the difficulty that some ex-military personnel find in transitioning back to civilian life, and so we decided to try to prevent that issue by aiming to employ veterans.
One of our first employees was a Royal Artillery veteran; he spent 18 months with us as an assistant brewer, learning the trade, and he went off to a fabulous new job earlier this year at a much larger brewery - although we were sad to lose him, we consider this to be a great success for our aims.
We’ve now shifted our focus a little - we need an experienced brewer right now, so we’ve just hired someone (who will be “unveiled” soon!) who fits the bill but isn’t a veteran.
The idea is that having someone experienced on board will allow us to set in some kind of internship or training scheme that will allow us to help many more ex-military personnel over time.
Q: Was this part of the plan when launching or is it something that has evolved as you've grown the business?
A: Yes, and no!
In the beginning, we wanted to set up the brewery because James loved brewing beer and wanted to take it to the next level. However, he wasn’t so motivated by the business side of things and there came a point where Beerblefish lost its mojo a bit because of the huge pressure to make ends meet.
We agreed that neither of us was that motivated by making a profit, and that risked making us uncompetitive in a crowded market - we needed a different reason to brew, or there would be no point carrying on.
We also wanted to do more in the community and make the business fit in with our own values. That was when the combination of preventing homelessness and difficulties faced by veterans entering civilian life came to our attention and it seemed like a perfect fit for us.
It was a pretty instantaneous, almost impulsive decision, but we knew it was the right thing to do, and that different focus has allowed us to grow in a way we wouldn’t have if we’d just kept on keeping on with what we were doing before.
Q: That’s fantastic. Can you tell us a bit more about how that love of brewing beer turned into Beerblefish?
A: James started homebrewing at university, mainly because he realised that it was significantly cheaper than going to the pub, and as a Biochemistry student he had the skills needed to make wines and beers in the cupboard under the stairs.
"I also have early memories of homebrewing - my Dad used it as an educational experience to teach me about how syphons work when I was about five or six."
I also have early memories of homebrewing - my Dad used it as an educational experience to teach me about how syphons work when I was about five or six.
James had to put the brewing to one side for a number of years due to space and time constraints, but when we moved into our house ten years ago, he bought an all-grain set-up and put it in the cellar.
We had some interesting brews, plus an abundance of yeast floating around the house (I made some mince pies that rose and some gingerbread men that looked pregnant!).
A bit later on, Ubrew started up in Bermondsey and James became a founder member. I started to help him brewing on Friday nights and we were eventually able to start brewing commercially there in 2015 - that’s where Beerblefish started, with a few keykegs brewed on a 50 litre kit.
We moved to our present location in Edmonton in 2016, having bought a second-hand brew kit from a defunct brewery in Suffolk.
Q: You’re one of many breweries that have signed up to Work in Progress, could you tell us more?
Work In Progress is an open, de-centralised group of breweries that aspires to a more inclusive and representative beer industry. We are committed to taking action in businesses and forging links with communities to increase opportunities and promote collaboration between brewers and under-represented groups in our society.
"Work In Progress is an open, de-centralised group of breweries that aspires to a more inclusive and representative beer industry."
This will involve us taking another look at our aims and adding to them, and then evaluating our progress against them at least annually.
Inclusion is a massive topic and the group has identified some main areas, including gender, BAME, disabled persons and LGBT+ representation to focus on, but I can think of at least half a dozen more that I’d like to explore.
Q: Tough one right now but we’ve heard all about Beerblefish up to now, what’s next?
A: Our focus is very much on serving our local community, and we’re keen to make sure that we continue to do that.
"The dream is to have a place big enough to include a distillery and a proper taproom in a place that’s a tiny bit easier to find."
We’re thinking about the next phase of our development, which might include a move - hopefully locally - in the next couple of years. The dream is to have a place big enough to include a distillery and a proper taproom in a place that’s a tiny bit easier to find. Suggestions welcome!
As I mentioned above, we’re looking at options for setting up some kind of scheme for people leaving the military, to further our social enterprise aims, and our new brewer is joining us, freeing up our brewery manager to work on everything else he’s supposed to be doing!
As it’s nearly hop season, we’re also looking forward to making our next batch of Hopped Gin, and we’re thinking about a number of new beers.
I’m currently designing some new labels for our small batch beers and the Hoppy Pale series and we’re hoping to get some kind of web shop up and running as soon as we can.
Thanks for your time Bethany, we’ll be back tomorrow for part two of this interview. In the meantime, if you’re interested in joining us on our next ride (8th August) head on over to our ride page and RSVP or pop us an email.