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Setting up a Microbrewery
12 min read

How to start a microbrewery UK | Setting up a microbrewery guide

Over the last decade, the UK has seen a huge increase in the number of small and independent breweries popping up around the country. If you’re attracted to the idea of making and selling your own beer, this article will look at everything you need to know about starting a microbrewery business. 

What is a microbrewery?

A microbrewery is usually defined as a brewery that produces small quantities of beer. Often independently owned, they are primarily known for their ‘speciality beers’, which have a strong focus on flavour, quality, and technique.

Microbrewers are known for their enthusiasm and passion, as they experiment with different styles of beer, ingredient proportions, or fermentation processes.

What’s the opportunity?

The growing number of small and microbreweries producing craft beer has led to a turnover of close to £9bn for the UK beer industry. While the popularity of craft and local beers amongst consumers is undisputed, the beer industry in the UK is at a saturation point when it comes to new breweries. In 2012, there were 1,218 breweries in the UK. In 2020, there were 3,018.

Everyone seems to want to be a brewer! But before this guide commences, it’s important to acknowledge early on that you wouldn’t start a microbrewery to make money quickly. It’s not an industry you would get into for purely financial reasons. Starting your own microbrewery primarily comes from a love of beer and the lifestyle that comes with it – as it’s a very time-consuming vocation. It involves passion and persistence, and requires a lot of heavy lifting and cleaning. But it’s also a very enjoyable and rewarding career with a strong sense of community. Approaching your new business with a smart business plan gives it the best chance of success.

There are a lot of expectations from today’s drinkers when it comes to craft beers. They demand quality, choice, innovation, and provenance amongst other attributes. Combine this environment with the favourable tax relief from the Small Breweries’ Relief introduced in 2002, and you’ve got a tidal wave of small independent brewing businesses.

“But unbridled optimism should be dampened with a dose of reality,” comments Tim Hampson, contributing editor of The Microbrewers’ Handbook. “The overall UK beer market is in long-term decline. The larger brewers are squeezing prices and routes to market to maintain market share. Currently, the smaller brewers have around 10% of the beer market. A consequence of this is that some, often long open breweries are closing, citing the boom in the number of microbreweries as the reason. In such circumstances, the best brewers have to get better and new entrants into the market will have to have a clear business plan, be flexible, and set the highest standards if they are to prosper.”

setting up a microbrewery

What skills and experience do I need to run a microbrewery?

Two crucial skills to running a successful microbrewery are the ability to brew fantastic beer and then selling it profitably. Do you have these skills? Or one of them? Be honest with yourself. If you don’t have both, it’s important to consider going into business with someone who has complementary skill sets.

Setting up a new microbrewery is a big undertaking, particularly if you haven’t brewed commercially before. If you have never worked in a brewery or had direct experience, then it’s important to get this under your belt by working alongside a brewer. Despite the highly competitive market, there is also a strong sense of community amongst brewers, who are ready to share and support each other, as well as offer advice and guidance. A training course from experts will also take you through all the things you need to consider before taking the plunge. Brewing is a great industry to be part of, but make sure you go into it with your eyes wide open.

You could take a chance and decide to learn the complex skill of brewing beer on your own, but it is strongly recommended you take a short brewing course at least, alongside some hands-on experience, to avoid making some costly mistakes early on. Knowledge is power after all! The below qualifications will get you off to the best start (we’ve included additional training and education options should you wish to take your brewing career to the next level).

The Institute of Brewing & Distilling (IBD) website is the best place to start, as it outlines brewing and distilling courses, ranging from beginners’ courses such as the Foundations of Brewing and the Foundations of Distilling to the General Certificate, Diploma, and Master Brewer qualifications:

  • Foundations of Brewing

    Brewing and packaging for non-technical professionals. This is a great starting place to kick-start your brewing career with confidence and know-how. This qualification will provide you with the foundational knowledge to understand how a few simple ingredients are transformed during the brewing process into a vast range of styles and flavours. Once you have achieved this qualification, you will be ready to move to the next level of professional development…

  • The General Certificate in Brewing

    The starting point for your professional brewing career. If you are a brewer that has never studied brewing science before then this is the right course for you. This covers the basic knowledge required for a senior operator or team leader in a larger brewery or for general brewers from the growing independent sector. The General Certificate in Brewing is an online course covering the entire brewing process. Learners will progress through the online learning resources from raw materials to beer that is ready to be packaged, as well as quality and engineering.

  • Diploma in Brewing

    Progress your career. Attaining the IBD Diploma gives you an internationally recognised and comprehensive understanding of brewing science and its application.

    This qualification is suited for a brewery manager in a larger brewery or head brewer of a smaller, independent brewery. You will be taught in-depth brewing science, covering all aspects of the production process.

    This qualification is split into three modules, each building on the knowledge gained through the Certificate level programme. Candidates should have first completed the IBD’s General Certificate in Brewing or have a solid understanding of the science and technology of brewing. Candidates should ideally be working at or towards senior / head brewer level. Additional prerequisites and exam specifications can be accessed on the IBD website.

  • Master Brewer

    The pinnacle of professional brewer qualifications. The Master Level qualifications are the highest professional qualification offered by the IBD. Typical candidates are team leaders or operational / technical managers. Successful candidates should have at least five years of experience working at a senior management level with responsibility for running departments within their manufacturing facility.

    • Module 1 – Raw Materials and Wort Production
    • Module 2 – Fermentation and Beer Processing
    • Module 3 – Packaging of Beer
    • Module 4 – Resource Management and Regulatory Compliance
    • Module 5 – Practical Project

    You must be an IBD member and have achieved the IBD Diploma in Brewing or an exempt qualification from an approved university. Additional prerequisites and syllabus can all be accessed on the IBD website.

    The IBD also provides a range of scholarships and bursaries.

What is a technical brewer?

A Technical Brewer is one of the most senior positions in the beer production process. In your microbrewery, your Technical Brewer is responsible for a wide range of technical and managerial tasks including overseeing the brewing process, sourcing raw materials, packaging, managing teams and maintaining brewing equipment. They ensure optimal brewing conditions are maintained in regards to temperature etc, as well as developing new recipes and products. It’s a hands-on occupation, despite increasing reliance on technology. 

You’ll typically need a relevant degree to become a Technical Brewer. Subjects include:

  • Applied chemistry
  • Biological sciences
  • Biotechnology
  • Chemical, process and mechanical engineering
  • Chemistry
  • Engineering
  • Food science or technology
  • Microbiology.

According to Prospects, you’ll need to have the following skills:

  • Scientific knowledge relevant to brewing and familiarity with the technical language of the brewing industry
  • General management skills and business awareness
  • Decision-making and analytical skills
  • Communication skills and the ability to lead and motivate a team
  • Time management skills with the ability to plan ahead
  • Interpersonal and teamworking skills
  • The ability to prioritise and manage multiple tasks with little supervision
  • Problem-solving skills and the ability to think on your feet
  • An eye for detail to pick up on any potential quality issues
  • Self-motivation
  • A flexible approach to work
  • The confidence to question how things are done
  • Creativity, particularly if producing limited release or seasonal beers
  • Good IT skills.

The International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD), based at Heriot-Watt University, offers a BSc (Hons) Brewing & Distilling.

Entry without a degree is possible at the level of Production Assistant or Brewery Technician. You could then work towards becoming a Technical Brewer by gaining experience and taking qualifications offered by the Institute of Brewing & Distilling (IBD) as outlined above.

It’s also possible to enter the profession by taking a Level 4 brewer apprenticeship. Search Find an Apprenticeship for opportunities.

What about cleaning?

There’s a well-known saying amongst brewers: that beer making is 80% cleaning! Part of the General Certificate in Brewing focuses on hygiene, such as microbiological contamination, microbiological control and plant cleaning. The syllabus goes into the finer detail, from methods for detecting microbiological contaminants, to the different types of detergents used in plant cleaning and the reasons for their choice. Gaining hands-on experience with a local brewery will give you the best understanding of how much time is spent where in regards to the beer-making process.

Top tip: If you’re starting a microbrewery but only have one brewer with the core skill set to make your beer, then you need a contingency plan to quickly replace these key skills should your brewer become unavailable. (Don’t put all your hops in one barrel as it were!)

Do I need a business plan?

Yes. You could be the best brewer in Britain but unless you understand your market, have worked out how you will finance your business venture, and know you have the in-house skills to market your product, you’ll struggle to be successful.

Between 500,000-700,000 new startup businesses are launched in the UK every year, around 20% of which dissolve in their first year. Combined with an increasingly competitive industry, it will take an incredible amount of energy and passion alongside a well-informed business strategy to make it a success.

“Running any business is risky,” continues Tim Hampson. “But hard work, high standards, and a rigid adherence to best practice running your own brewery can be both emotionally and financially rewarding.”

You can ensure you have the best possible chance of success by downloading our free business plan template below. 

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What equipment do I need and where can I get it?

Brewing equipment is one of the major costs involved with starting up a microbrewery. How much you’ll pay for brewing equipment ultimately depends on the size of your brewery and whether you buy new or used. Bear in mind you don’t need the highest quality equipment in the beginning. There’s plenty of adequate kits available online (a quick Google search will point you in the right direction) but make sure you do your research, your equipment needs to be reliable and safe for those who use it.

Examples of the sort of equipment you’ll need:

  • Mash System – Mash tank, lauter tun, electric steam generator, malt mill machine, wort pump, plate heat exchanger
  • Fermentation system – Fermentation tank, yeast adding equipment, cooling pump
  • Cooling system – Ice liquid tank, refrigeration machine
  • Filter system – Filter diameter tank, pump
  • Controlling system – Meter controlling board, refrigerator board, PLC control board
  • Cleaning system – sterilisation equipment, alkali liquor tank, washing pump
  • Kettles
  • Kegs
  • Boilers
  • Bottling and canning lines
  • Conveyors
  • Storage tanks 
  • Filters
  • Beer-labeling machines
  • Piping and tubing
  • Refrigeration equipment
  • Cleaning equipment
  • Waste treatment systems
  • Tap handles.

Top tip: It’s vital that you properly clean and maintain the equipment. Stainless steel makes up a lot of the equipment, and given proper maintenance and care, can last for up to 30 years.

A top equipment tip from Brew School: Get yourself a refractometer to measure the specific gravity of your beer. A good refractometer can be purchased for less than £100 and is useful for both commercial and home brewers. It is easier to use in a microbrewery setting than the traditional hydrometer even though you will need to use a conversion table to derive your specific gravity.

What about premises?

Deciding on a premise for your new microbrewery needs to take into consideration a number of factors, ranging from location to licenses. 

A premises license will be required if you plan on selling your beer directly to the public e.g. as part of a taproom, and personal licenses will need to be held by the staff who will be serving it. If you carry out any licensable activities at your premises without a premises license, you can be fined, sent to prison for up to 6 months – or both! Ensure you do your research and cover yourself accordingly. Planning permission will also be needed to start building a brewery. You can’t just install your brewing set up on any site due to planning restrictions. 

A microbrewery business can also grow by pursuing sideline business opportunities such as selling beer on-site by opening a taproom or even running a full-scale restaurant at the brewery (though this requires an additional ‘brewpub’ – a restaurant that sells beer made on its premises – license). Therefore, when considering your premises – keep expansion in mind and the associated licenses connected with it.  

Opening up your own premises via a taproom enables direct interaction between your microbrewery and your customers. You have complete control of the customer experience, whether it be how the product is served or presented, while giving your business increased visibility and social media presence. Making sure your customers experience your product as you envisaged is key when brand identity is such a big differential in a crowded marketplace. 

As the microbrewery boom continues to blow open the doors of the beer industry, premises have simultaneously evolved with a new type of beer maker. “Forget the stereotype of a brewery owner as a middle-aged man with a freehold premise in the countryside,” comments the UK’s No.1 craft beer magazine, Ferment. “Tiny railway arch city brewpubs run by small teams brewing great beer with second-hand equipment has put the concept of being a brewer squarely within the realms of reality for ambitious young beer-lovers in recent years.”

how to start a microbrewery uk

What about branding and packaging?

With so much competition around, creating a unique brand and product is key to success in this industry. As part of your market research, did you spot any potential opportunities? Whether it’s ingredients, techniques, style of branding? Is there a particular feature of your product that you could highlight in its branding and packaging to promote its unique selling point/s? 

You can find some fantastic creative inspiration online, such as 67 Examples of Awesome Craft Beer Packaging. SIBA also provides a useful supplier directory, specific to labelling and packaging. You can also buy your own beer bottle labelling machine! 

Most importantly, there are strict labelling requirements such as listing ingredients, allergen information, best before date, recommended storage conditions, conditions of use, business name and address, country of origin and more. 

If marketing isn’t your strong point, consider bringing in some professional expertise. Not only can the right marketer refine your branding and packaging, but depending on your budget, they can establish/refine your marketing strategy in line with your business plan, ensuring everything is aligned. Your marketing strategy needs to be established early on in line with your business plan, so the sooner you decide on who is leading your marketing activity, the better. It will surprise you how much time and effort is spent selling your beer, compared to brewing it.

Top tip: Industry experts predict the next generation will be ‘drinking less, but better’. Your key messages should include how flavoursome and interesting your craft beers are. Drive home the quality and excellence of your product.

How do I get my beer stocked in shops?

Microbreweries can sell to the public by one or more of the following methods:

  • The traditional three-tier system (brewer > wholesaler > retailer > consumer); 
  • The two-tier system (brewer acting as wholesaler > retailer > consumer);
  • And directly to the consumer through carry-outs and/or on-site taproom or restaurant sales.

Because microbreweries are so small, their options for getting their names out there are limited. Most microbreweries have a tasting room. If they are ambitious, they are attached to a ‘brew pub,’ a pub or restaurant that’s attached to the brewery so that patrons can get to know and appreciate their craft. Creating consumer demand for your beer will help build your case when approaching shops to stock your product. (It’s important to note that when a microbrewery gets popular and in high demand, they are sometimes picked up by national distributorships, but when that happens they lose their microbrewery classification. If they maintain their tradition of specialty beers, however, they are sometimes known as ‘craft brewers’.)

Independent bottle shops are becoming increasingly popular in the craft beer sector, and can be more approachable than the supermarket heavyweights. (Let’s not run before we can walk!) James Hickson, CEO of Two Heads Beer Co (which operates six bottle shops in south-west London and Kent), shared some helpful tips with London Beer Competition on how to get your beer into independent bottle shops:

  • Go the extra mile: Send in samples with some information and a handwritten note. It shows you care about being in the store and are prepared to spend the time and work to become one of their suppliers.
  • Invest in good branding: Colour works a lot these days. Make it look professional. Ensure it’s coherent and consistent e.g. if you have more than one beer, make sure customers can look at your range and know it’s from your brewery.
  • Make sure it’s perfect: Competition is fierce. Branding will encourage your sample to be tried but if the beer isn’t good, it’s a non-starter.
  • Find out what’s popular: Do you have a beer that fits with the shop’s bestsellers? “Pale ales and IPA are our best sellers by a country mile. At the moment New England IPAs are up there… I think pale ales will always be our biggest sellers in terms of volume,” comments James. When you reach out to your target shops, ask questions about bestsellers, etc, as it might encourage a quicker response by showing you care about their sales, and whether your product/s fit in with that. If it doesn’t, it provides essential information for your product planning.
  • Be persistent: “I’m a big fan of perseverance. It’s the key to sales!” continues James. “I might ignore the first and the second email but you should feel free to persevere. Don’t give up after not hearing back the first time!”

Another way to increase consumer demand is beer festivals. Beer festivals allow microbreweries to seek recognition and set themselves apart. Beer aficionados love beer festivals for the sheer scope and variety of their favorite beverage, all in one convenient location.

And let’s not forget the brand building benefits of social media – keep active on popular channels amongst your target audience and research your key hashtags. Check into local beer festival events that you’re exhibiting at and use the official event hashtag to increase your visibility to those attending. Strategically follow your target stockists online – if they follow you back, they’ll get to know your brand and be more open to being approached. Commit time to your social media – post quality content that your customers will engage with most e.g. if they value quality over quantity, show them behind the scenes photos and images of the passion and commitment that goes into making your beer.

SIBA also runs the Beerflex Direct Delivery Scheme (DDS), which involves the organisation buying over 4,500 draught and bottled beer from around 450 participating SIBA brewers, and selling them to 12 national pub companies and off-trade retailers

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