Three stars in Surrey: An interview with Adrian Rothera
This week we took Tour de Hops out to the Surrey Hills for the first time. After a humpy ride out, a busy climb up Box Hill and a speedy descent of Pebble Hill we rolled into Reigate to the welcoming arms of Surrey’s oldest craft brewery – Pilgrim Brewery.
To get under the skin of Pilgrim and to understand the heritage of Reigate and the brewery, we spoke with Pilgrim co-owner Adrian Rothera.
Adrian talks us through how he came to own the brewery in 2017, how the future of small breweries is away from chain pubs and, of course, which Pilgrim beer you should be drinking after your ride through the hills.
Q: Pilgrim has been around since 1982 and is one of the oldest craft breweries in the UK, can you tell us about the journey that led to you taking over as owner in 2017.
A: In 2016 my business partner, Rory, and I started looking at the potential of starting our own brewery. My other business had gone quiet and Rory was looking for a change of direction so it seemed like a great time to do something we were both keen on. I had been home brewing for a while and we booked ourselves on various brewing courses to get used to larger production.
In the meantime, we had found premises and had started the process of company creation when we heard that the owner of Pilgrim Brewery was looking to retire.
I was on holiday when I heard so I immediately contacted Rory who drove round to Pilgrim, spoke to the owner and we in effect bought the company there and then.
"We heard that the owner of Pilgrim Brewery was looking to retire. I was on holiday when I heard so I immediately contacted Rory who drove round to Pilgrim, spoke to the owner and we in effect bought the company there and then."
Q: What were the big changes that you made to ensure that you stayed relevant but were still attached to the longstanding history of Pilgrim Brewery?
A: That was one of our main concerns taking over a long established company. Pilgrim Brewery had always been known for its cask ales but it hadn’t moved with the times and we knew we needed to re-focus the company.
The first thing we did was rebrand, modernising the look but also identifying our 3 separate ranges of beer, the Heritage range (red star), Seasonal range (green star) and Progressive range (blue star).
The Heritage and Seasonal range mainly consist of the original beers produced by the previous owner, though we have introduced a few new beers where we felt there was a gap.
The Progressive range has allowed us to experiment with new ideas. The next thing we did was invest heavily in the brewhouse.
When we took over, the brew day was 12 hours long as the equipment was under spec’d and old. By updating the copper and the heat exchanger, increasing the power, introducing new controllers at every stage we have managed to increase our efficiency, reduce our brew day to 7 hours and maintaining the quality.
Q: 2020 has been a tough year for everyone in the UK including craft brewers, how have you navigated this? How did you see your business change with the closing of many on-trade businesses?
A: Like most breweries, in the middle of March we faced losing 95% of our business with the closure of the pubs and our taproom.
We were fortunate that we had an ecommerce website which, with a little updating meant we could take orders and start home deliveries. We are also fortunate to be very close to the town centre so started pushing our takeout service and encouraged our customers to bring their own containers.
This year has actually helped us cement our ideas going forward, we have to deal directly with the consumer if we can. As a small brewery we don’t have the volume, efficiency or cost savings to be able to supply the pub chains, as they set the price and it is too low.
Q: Cask beer is clearly a big part of Pilgrim and has a huge heritage in the UK. Despite there being a decline in sales over the last few years it still remains pivotal to the UK brewing industry. How do you see it changing and evolving over the next few years? What are Pilgrim doing to help ensure the future of Britain's cask beers?
A: For the general consuming public there really seems to be a blurring of the cask and keg offers and many real ale drinkers that come in to our taproom are happy to try our keg beers.
CAMRA has now accepted Key Keg as real ale. We believe that market forces may well dictate what happens with cask. Pubs have been under pressure for many years and if they are able to reduce wastage and increase margins they will. Pubs might well decide the fate of cask beer.
A: We introduced a new Kolsch style, session lager this year called “Somers” which at 3.9% and with citrus notes is perfect for a summers day or after a ride.
Somers has been so popular that we are struggling to keep up with demand. Lord and Lady Somers used to live in Reigate Priory which is now the park in the centre of town so the name is local as well as describing the beer well.
Q: Tough one at the minute with all the uncertainty, but what does the future hold for Pilgrim Brewery?
A: As mentioned previously we need to deal far more directly with the general public.
We need to enhance our online presence and improve our website and find other avenues to get our beer straight to the consumer.
"Our future and the future of many small breweries is not dealing with pub chains unless something dramatic changes in the market."
We are also looking at opportunities to open/run local pubs/bars. Our future and the future of many small breweries is not dealing with pub chains unless something dramatic changes in the market.
Q: And finally, if you've got to go on a long cycle, what bike are you riding and what beer do you celebrate with when you finish?
A: I am a cyclist and usually go out a couple of times a week either on or off road (both are great around here). If finishing a long ride I would want a pint of Pioneer, our 4.5% American Pale, bitter, fruity and refreshing.
Thanks for the chat Adrian. Our Pilgrim ride took place on Sunday 23rd August 2020. We were so impressed and we love the Surrey Hills so much that we may just look to ride out here more regularly.
Watch this space.
If you’re interested in joining one of our next rides, head over to our upcoming ride page to see what is coming up.