Interview: Stuart Howe
Molson Coors UK's new head of craft brewing
Stuart Howe came to the industry’s attention as head brewer at Sharp’s Brewery, where over the past decade he turned Doom Bar into today’s consistent favourite cask ale. In his spare time, well, Howe concocted beers decidedly weird and wonderful.
He recalls being unsure about joining the small Cornish brewery in 2002, but after a pint of Doom Bar with then owner Bill Sharp, the cliché fit: “I loved the beer so much that I took the job.”
Sharp’s was acquired by Molson Coors UK in 2011, with their distribution muscle making it possible for Doom Bar to become the best-selling cask ale in the British Isles.
And Molson Coors UK recognised Howe’s potential as well, last year promoting him to Head of Craft Brewing and Innovation. He was interviewed recently about his new role by award-winning beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones.
What does your new role involve?
I have moved from being Sharp’s head brewer to having control of the operational aspects of Sharp’s, Franciscan Well [in Cork] and Burton’s William Worthington [microbrewery]. I work with the head brewers to optimise quality, manage NPD for the craft brands and work with the brands team and head brewers for ideas. The job also involves buying the raw materials for the breweries, increasing the capacity and capability of the breweries and the people brewing there, scaling up brands which are growing rapidly and managing our relationships with our contract packaging partners.
What are the differences between working with a small brewer and a large one?
Life in a small brewery is simple but precarious. You don’t sleep because you don’t have the tools to control your quality but the trade-off is the high you get from knowing that a beer on a bar is yours. You’ve designed it, brewed it, packaged it and tasted it.
Life in a big brewery is more about teamwork and precision. You lose sleep because you don’t want to let the side down. I’m fortunate in that in Molson-Coors Craft we get the tools to make great beer and the autonomy to use them to make beer we love.
What capital investments are being made in the breweries?
We are building a €2 million 50,000hl brewery in Cork to brew the Franciscan Well beers and also investing over £3 million at Sharp’s to grow annual capacity from 350,000hl to 500,000hl.
What new products and technologies are currently attracting your attention?
Our new brewery in Cork uses thermal fluids instead of steam, which helps to save energy, as well as novel hop addition technologies in the brewhouse and cellar. Medium term plans are also on-going there to install a wooden cask handling facility for our cask aging process in association with Jameson. We have a 3,200m2 warehouse ready and waiting.
At Sharp’s we have a state of the art yeast handling system being commissioned to ensure fermentations are consistent as well as a new sensory suite. In terms of new products you’ll have to watch this space.
Your role is international in scope. How easy will it be to bring in beer styles from other countries and sell them here or vice versa?
The advent of craft has to a degree broken the geographical barriers of styles. Most craft breweries across the world do a lager, a wheat beer, a pale and an IPA. This means drinkers are exposed to different styles and are tending to embrace them. I wouldn’t be surprised if we will see big brand versions of classics like IPA and wheat beer emerging from the lager pond within in the next few years.
Following on from that, what’s the potential for cask beer beyond the UK in other Molson-Coors markets?
Cask beer is a wonderful product. We have just about got the quality right in the UK licensed trade after a few centuries of working with it. The challenge of trying to establish it on a widespread basis abroad is such that it’s difficult to predict success.
Doom Bar seems to have universal appeal as a beer so there are significant opportunities for export in other formats. As the man who has spent the last 11 years trying to work out how I am going to brew enough to keep demand satisfied I just hope we can make enough!
On the other hand the nature of craft at present is for pubs/bars to have large ranges of drinks. With that you get low turnover that will guarantee the cask ale offering is poor half the time. Across the world craft bars have a large number of taps. To put cask into this environment is a recipe for flabby cask beers and disenchanted drinkers.
What beer styles do you think have potential — any trends you can forecast?
Golden ales are growing rapidly as are craft lagers. I forecast that well balanced, clean, refreshing and — most importantly — consistent beers will be successful in the marketplace. Promiscuous drinkers will settle down once they become tired of paying £6 for a disappointing drink. When they do settle down their go-to beers will have a greater magnitude of flavour than current big brand beers as long as negative experiences of craft beer quality do not send them to the wine or cider aisle in search of satisfaction beforehand.
In your new role what have you discovered so far in the craft beer market?
It depends on what you class as craft. At the smaller end we are seeing a proliferation of breweries and the fragmentation of the market. At the medium-sized end some of the key players are losing out to this fragmentation. Craft beer drinkers also tend to fall into two camps: the promiscuous who look to try different beers all the time and those who stick to a set of staple beers. The promiscuous drinkers account for only a small percentage of volume sales.
Finally, given the current muddle over definitions, what do you think is craft beer?
It’s beer from the heart, where the beer is made by people who brew because they love beer and want the world to love it too. If craft brewing means making small batches of inconsistent, oxidised, unbalanced, hazy or over hopped beer for a small enclave of fashionable drinkers then I’m not a craft brewer.
Adrian Tierney-Jones is secretary of the British Guild of Beer Writers.