From little acorns… the unstoppable rise of Oakham Ales

According to CAMRA, there are now 52 breweries in London compared to 44 last year and 23 the year before that. With so much beer being brewed in the capital right now, we’re spoilt for choice, and sometimes it’s easy to overlook the exciting stuff happening elsewhere across our fair land.

So ICIP is delighted to meet with Oakham Ales, an innovative brewery from Cambridgeshire, to remind us that there is much, much more to discover beyond the mysterious force field of the M25.

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“I’ve been with Oakham for just over nine years, and it has changed so much in that time,” says Nigel Wattam, Commercial Manager at the brewery. “Back then, there were nine or ten of us and we did everything; we racked the beers, we delivered, everything. We’re up to 40 people now.”

Originally established in Oakham, Rutland, in 1993, the company moved to Peterborough in 1998 and opened a new brewery in 2006. Currently, Oakham is churning out a staggering 6.5m pints a year. There is increasing international demand for their beer, and they now export to countries as far flung as New Zealand and Hong Kong. “It’s been in Australia, it was in a shop a couple of blocks away from the White House, it even went to Brazil before the World Cup! So it’s popping up all over. I lose touch where it’s going to be honest!” says Nigel. “I was chatting to our friends from Arbor Brewery,” chimes in Nick Jones, National Accounts Sales Manager, “And they’d been talking to distributors in Rome. They said: ‘I saw a fucking Green Devil lorry driving around Rome, what’s going on?!’”

But the brewery is still hugely popular on its home turf in the UK, managing to walk the tightrope between traditional ale fans and the more recent beer geek boomers. It’s rare to find a brewery showing up in Greene King pubs and winning awards at CAMRA’s GBBF but also on offer at a pump takeover at The Craft Beer Co.

“The one constant as the brewery has grown is that the quality has stayed the same,” says Nigel. “Everyone will have some problems with cask ale, but the ethos has always been you’ll always get the flavour, we’ll always use loads of hops and the quality has to be right. If it’s not right, it’ll just sit there and it won’t go out.”

“Consistency is the key,” agrees Darren Moore, manager of Oaka in Kennington, one of the brewery’s pubs (on which more later). “I’ve never had a bad cask from Oakham. That says everything about the brewery. Some other breweries… sometimes their beer is amazing, and sometimes it’s awful. The customer won’t understand that; consistency is so important.”

“You only have to supply a few bad lines and the landlord will lose confidence in you,” Nigel nods. “Even I was surprised about the number of things we check on. By the time we rack it and get it in the barrel, it should be as perfect as we can get it. Sure, it occasionally gets a bit hot in someone’s cellar, but there shouldn’t be anything else that goes wrong with it. And that is why we get so few returns.” This seems to be the crux of Oakham’s success. “We’ve got some great relationships with some big players in the free trade that other producers would love to have, but we’ve got the reputation in some places where they daren’t take the beer off the bar. They shift so much in a week and the quality is there… as long as we don’t do anything mental, it’s there as long as the landlord is!”

Oakademy_of_Excellence_Logo1Recognising the importance of their relationship with their suppliers, Oakham have started up the ‘Oakacademy of Excellence’, a suppliers club. “It’s been going a little over 5 years now and anyone who stocks our beers permanently can join the Oakademy,” explains Nigel. “We make some special beers that only they can get hold of, we do glassware for them, the sales guys visit them regularly, and we have an annual event where we invite them down and have a few beers and a bite to eat. They get support for their loyalty.”

“Unlike some other breweries, we still have people on the road,” says Nick. “It’s still a face-to-face industry with us, and publicans like that. It’s not an email business.”

“For people like me, having those two or three extra beers draws people in. People look forward to them,” Darren agrees.

We are yet to touch on Oakham’s frontrunner… Citra.

500citraUnless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, it’s highly unlikely that you wouldn’t recognise the cheeky little anthropomorphized hop flower grinning out from the Oakham Ales Citra label. Two-time Gold winner of the International Beer Challenge, this fruity, hoppy 4.2% APA has taken the beer world by storm.

“Our biggest Citra stockist is The Wellington in Birmingham,” says Nigel. “They will do close to 900 pints a week on one pump!” But the beer is not just popular in pubs. “In the last 18 months to two years, the bottles have actually gone potty. And Citra is the biggest by some way – it’s over 50% of our bottle sales.”

Demonstrating its wide appeal, Bottled Citra is sold in Waitrose and Tesco supermarkets, as well as a variation of the recipe (at a slightly more potent 4.9%) being available in Marks and Spencer where it is rebranded under the store’s own label.

“It’s crazy that one beer should make a brewery so famous, especially in London,” says Darren. “The brewery just smells of Citra,” agrees Nick. “When I open an M&S bottle at home I just think ‘ah, that’s my work!’ because it’s just that distinctive smell.”

“Every year our Head Brewer, John Bryan, goes over to American and he’ll taste and smell the hops in person,” says Nigel. “Each field is different and he’ll choose the best for us. You could have 20 fields of Citra hops and he’ll pick the two that are best. John thinks that the US hops are the best in the world; that’s why he uses them.”

Because of the all-encompassing fame of Citra, we’re shocked to hear that it’s not the brewery’s biggest seller overall. “JHB (Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, 3.8%) is the biggest cask sale,” says Nick. “Bishop’s Farewell (4.6%) actually edges second on cask.”

With a hophead Head Brewer, Oakham’s core range of beers lean towards a particular flavour profile. “People say ‘why don’t you make a brown beer?’, and I say, if you’re a carrot farmer, don’t grow potatoes,” says Nick. “Our identity is pale ales.” But this doesn’t mean that their range is limited. “We have the Black Hole Porter (5.5%) on all year round, and we have Hawse Buckler (5.6%) which is another dark beer,” says Nigel. “Alongside the four seasonal we have four aged or vintage beers which are usually available all year round, as well as an Oakademy special. Then we’re normally got something wheedled away on what we call the compost heap, which has been there a while. Like the Black Baron (8.8%), which is fantastic.”

DSC_0199“I think at the moment we have 12 available, I think at Chelmsford Beer Festival three weeks ago we had 15 on,” recalls Nick. We’re shocked – is it difficult to juggle producing that many beers? “It’s not as difficult as it would appear because six of them would be aged beers which can be brewed, put in a cold room and then released any time we want,” he explains. “So we’ve got the five core beers brewed at least weekly, then the Oakademy beers every month, the seasonal beers every quarter, then four quarterly specials – they’re supposed to run on to each other but they don’t because they keep selling out! – and then the aged and vintaged.” We’re tantalised by the sound of Oakham’s vintage range. “The aged beers can sit in the cold room for one, two, three years… they just develop another level,” says Nick. “I’ve had 3 year old Atilla (7.5%) that tasted absolutely fantastic,” reminisces Nigel.

Producing these highly-hopped beers comes at a price – hops don’t come cheap. “Even though it’s a bit more expensive, we’re pretty sure if someone has one pint of our beer, they’ll come back and have another one, which is what you want people to do!” says Nigel. In the capital, we’re not shocked to pay £6 for a pint of craft beer. But is it harder to convince drinkers up in their homeland of Cambridgeshire, for example, to pay more? “From my point of view, I sell my beer for a £1 more than it sells in Peterborough, but that’s because I have more to pay out,” says Darren. “It’s not the price of a cask! I’m from Yorkshire and I wouldn’t dream of spending more than £3 on a pint there! Whereas in London I’ll pay £7 for a pint of Kernel IPA because I know how much it costs them to brew it. It’s understanding it, and people understand that things cost more here.”

“Price can be an issue with some outlets,” says Nigel. “We do have to stick to our guns sometimes and say we know it’s a bit pricier, but it’s a quality product. We think that when you put it on the bar, you’ll sell it; you won’t have leftovers you’ll have to throw away. You try and strike a balance. Hopefully you’ll have a guy that’ll come back the next night to drink it again because he knows you’ve got it on.”

“Make the same cash margin and see what happens,” is Nick’s challenge. “The people who stock our beers regularly and successfully will say, ‘no problem, JHB £3.20, some other bollocks at £3, and JHB still sells more’. And people come back and drink it again. There’s a commercial argument there that people support.”

Not content with producing a range of popular and delicious beers, the brewery also partakes in a spot of beer and food pairing. When you think of sitting down to a Thai, Chinese or Japanese meal, what drink do you immediately associate with it? A bitter green tea? The fruity acidity of sake? Perhaps a cold lager-style beer like Chang or Asahi?

How about a pint of ale? Not too sure? Think again.

DSC_0195The Oaka Group – a sister company to Oakham Ales – operates five venues uniquely specialising in pairing their beers with contemporary dishes from the Far East. The brainchild of founders Patcharee Shaweewan and Paul Hook, the chain features three venues in Peterborough, one in Birmingham, and, as of 2013, one in London.

On ICIP’s first visit to Pan-Asian restaurant Oaka, we were initially bemused at the sight of hand pumps on the bar, but were quickly converted. Heavily favouring the citrussy, piney zing of American hops, Oakham Ales’ range is an excellent match for the oriental menu. The bitter, hoppy ales cut through hotter, chilli-based dishes, but the freshness of those US hops also complement the invigorating Asian flavours of lemongrass, coriander, lime and ginger. This successful blend of east and west is a characteristically individual move by a brand who excel in pushing the envelope.

With wide-reaching appeal and a good eye for development, Oakham’s growth looks set to continue. They’ve recently acquired a wine division (Bellwether), and began producing a cider in conjunction with Hogan’s last year (Oaple, 5.8% and made with apples from ICIP’s friends at Stocks Farm!). Earlier this week, Citra walked away with two awards at GBBF (Gold in the Golden Ale category and Silver in the Supreme Champion competition), proving its popularity with real ale drinkers. With the success of Green Devil on keg, they will only admit to “looking at” something in the lager or black IPA line, but whatever they come up with, we will certainly look forward to it with high expectations.

– PS

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