Keystone Brewery in Berwick St Leonard, Wiltshire, is small but perfectly formed. Founded last year by Alasdair Large — late of the Royal Tank Regiment — and his wife, Charlie, Keystone is as micro as they come. The workforce comprises just Alasdair (brewing and deliveries) and Charlie (sales and marketing). Charlie’s brother Nick occasionally lends a hand and a brace of grannies helps out babysitting the Larges’ three-year-old son, Bertie.
‘It’s going well,’ Alasdair told me as we sat over our pints of Large One in the nearby Beckford Arms. ‘We’ve just won a Gold Award from the Society of Independent Brewers for our Gold Spice, with its little zing of ginger, so the hard work is paying off. We’re barely a year old, but the sooner Bertie faces up to his responsibilities and pulls his weight the better. After all, family brewing dynasties have to begin somewhere. All he’s done so far is to rechristen our Gold Spice, Gingerman Juice.’
The king of brewing dynasties is Shepherd Neame, Britain’s longest-established brewer (and our 19th oldest company overall, one spot behind my alma mater, Berry Bros & Rudd), which has plied its trade in Faversham since 1698. There is no beer that I like more (other than Guinness, of course), having been weaned on the stuff while growing up in Kent.
The company’s chief executive, Jonathan Neame, represents the fifth generation of Neames at the helm (the Neames having bought out the Shepherds in 1877), although he didn’t plan to join the family firm.
‘In my father’s day there was little choice but for sons to go into family businesses,’ he told me. ‘But when I was at university in the mid-Eighties, such a move was seen as the last resort. I wanted to spread my wings and so qualified as a barrister before spending five years as a strategic consultant. In the end, though, I found the thought of working at Shepherd Neame irresistible and ended up joining of my own volition. It was the best decision I ever made since it’s a fantastic life being involved with such a wonderful product.’
Shepherd Neame, along with other such familiar thirst-inducing names as Adnams, Arkells, Everards, Fullers, Hook Norton, Timothy Taylor, Wadworth and Young’s, is a member of the Independent Family Brewers of Great Britain, a loose organisation made up of 28 family-owned breweries which between them employ 34,988 people, own 4,507 pubs, brew 459 brands and produce 2.2 million barrels per year.
‘Statistically, most family businesses fail after three generations,’ Neame explained. ‘But brewers often buck this trend, surviving longer because there’ll always be a market in eating and drinking out, because brewers tend to be sitting on sizeable assets with their pubs and because they are conservatively financed and locally focused.’
Michael Turner, chief executive of Fuller, Smith & Turner, producers of the excellent London Pride, the UK’s best-selling premium ale, agreed. ‘Family businesses have long-term focus, not to mention passion, pride and supportive shareholders, and therefore tend to outperform the competition and survive longer,’ he told me. ‘And of course family-owned breweries have that extra mystique. I’ve four boys, aged 14 to 21, who are all unbelievably popular because of what their dad does and what they might do.
‘They and their friends are all aching to go into the business, and who can blame them?’
Sadly, it is no longer enough simply to be a member of the family to ensure a job in the business. Both Fullers and Shepherd Neame insist that family members hoping to join must be the brightest of their generation and must prove their worth in the outside world first. And once you are in, it’s still bloody hard work, as Michael Turner points out.
‘On my second day at the brewery, I turned up at 6.30 a.m., with the day’s brew already well underway,’ he recalled. ‘I’d had a hell of a late night and crawled behind a nice warm mash tun and went to sleep. I half awoke to hear one of the workers muttering, “Here’s the little bugger,” only for his colleague to shush him, saying, “Don’t wake him, he might grow up to be your boss one day.’’’
Keystone Brewery has a few centuries to go yet in order to emulate the success of companies such as these, but, speaking as a beer-lover, I’m delighted Alasdair Large is trying. And, as Rupert Ponsonby, co-founder of the Beer Academy, told me, ‘It’s great to see young professionals leaving their jobs to be brewers, bringing their financial, sales and marketing skills with them — the family businesses of the future. We are en route to being a brewing nation once again, with renewed interest in our fantastic natural drink, beer.’
Bertie, old chap, you had better get cracking.
Jonathan Ray is wine editor of the Daily Telegraph.