Spa town-based Buxton Brewery punches well above its weight

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Geoff Quinn, Denis Johnstone and Colin Stronge

To say it punches above its weight is an understatement. It employs only eight people, who produce a very modest 3,800 hectolitres of beer per year, but these brews are recognised globally as some of the best in the world.

We are talking about the gem that is Buxton Brewery. If ever there was a brewery that is below the radar then this Derbyshire-based outfit is it. It has the honour of being in the top 100 breweries in the world, according to RateBeer, with output like Axe Edge, and Imperial Black scoring highly among the world’s drinkers.

Geoff Quinn is founder and owner, Colin Stronge is the brewer, and Denis Johnstone manages the ship, which is a triumvirate of interesting, talented and pleasingly understated individuals. Maybe it was their friendly demeanour, the lovely countryside around the brewery, or the warm tap room that won me over when I made a recent visit to Buxton. Either way, I found a wonderful set-up.

What makes the brewery so special is that despite its limited resources it pushes out an incredible 40 new beers per year, on top of its core half dozen-ish brews. Johnstone and Stronge agree that the likes of Axe Edge could make up 80% of total output but that this would simply be a bit boring.

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Colin Stronge and Denis Johnstone

“Most brewers do 60/70% of their totals with one beer. Beavertown has Gamma Ray and BrewDog has Punk IPA but we’re not happy repeating things. We enjoy trying new beers,” says Johnstone.

To produce such a large number of brews is more typical of a gypsy brewer – such as Mikkeller, Omnipollo and To ØL – who have the benefit of not having any brewery infrastructure so they can have their beers brewed by a number of different breweries.

This brings me to another interesting point about Buxton Brewery. It produces beers for both Omnipollo and To ØL. This is certainly some achievement because both these two outfits are keen on pushing the boundaries. In Buxton (and especially brewer Stronge) it has a perfect collaborator and the two parties work very closely together on creating real ground-breaking beers.

One notable brew is Yellow Belly, which was initially produced with Omnipollo for the Rainbow Project two years ago and was the stand-out beer of the show that year. It has gone on to spawn some equally outstanding variants including Yellow Belly Sundae. A recent rare cask of this beer sold out in 30 minutes at Manchester’s Port Street Beer House.

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On my visit to Buxton Brewery two people (from the team of eight plus the odd helper) were wrapping bottles of Yellow Belly in its distinctive white paper cover, which is indicative of just how labour-intensive much of the work is at the brewery. Beyond the bottling line much of what takes place is very hands-on.

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This adds to the effort it takes to produce so many – often very complex beers – on what is also a very small site. “Our malt store is only so big and planning is very difficult as we’re now buying our hops three years ahead [on contract] for the likes of Citra and Amarillo. And then we’ve got our beers for Omnipollo to schedule in and they really want to produce their most extreme beers with us,” says Stronge.

There is also a modest amount of barrel-ageing taking place with 100 wooden barrels scattered around the site “taking up [valuable] real estate” says Johnstone, who adds that again this is time-consuming activity but one with which they clearly want to be involved.

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“There are all sorts of flavour possibilities. People think we over-charge for these beers but there is a risk with them so effectively we’re charging danger money. And they are hand-bottled, and bottle conditioned. They take three-times more man-days to produce,” explains Johnstone.

While acknowledging the hard work and effort involved, there is no doubt that the three key characters at Buxton would not have it any other way. Their spirit of adventure very much personifies the finer aspects of brewing at the smaller end of the scale.

Whereas many large organisations become constrained by delivering on set margins in order to satisfy shareholder demands Buxton is, in contrast, a gloriously free beast (to the great credit of Quinn) where Stronge and Johnstone can work their magic and deliver a constant stream of wonderfully inventive beers.

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Tasting at Buxton Tap House

While they might fly under the radar in the UK they have certainly caught the attention of discerning beer drinkers around the world and for the past three years as much as 50% of the output have been shipped out to 20-plus countries with Italy, Spain, Ireland and Sweden keen buyers of Buxton’s beers.

Buxton Brewery manages to be the oddest of beasts in being quintessentially British in terms of its low-key modesty and self-deprecation while its outlook is global and its inspiration is very much derived from activities way beyond these shores.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider