Wimbledon's craft serve

There has never been a more exciting opportunity for entrepreneurs to break into the burgeoning British beer scene as the nation’s love of craft brews shows no signs of abating. Drinkers are more experimental than ever and desperate to try quirky new beers that can demonstrate provenance and heritage. But two obvious challenges arise for newcomers to the market.

First, finding a way to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace. And second, achieving a clean and consistent beer on an ongoing basis when you are not blessed with the glittering equipment the larger brewers can call upon. So how do you solve them? 

Well, if you’re Mark Gordon you name your brewery after a world-famous town synonymous with British tradition, invest in top-notch equipment and bring in the head brewer from Fuller’s – producer of the supremely clean and consistent London Pride – to run the place. Wimbledon Brewery has gone from strength to strength in its short life, and brewer Derek Prentice is loving every minute of it. 

“I have spent 49 years in the brewing industry and this is the most exciting time I have known,” he says. “Twenty years ago all I saw was brewery closures and large-scale brewing operations directed from Belgium and Denmark. Now brewers are coming back to control the beer and I would recommend a career in brewing.”

Prentice is putting together a team of brewers to succeed him, including his son, as he is retiring soon and demand for Wimbledon’s beers is skyrocketing. It only opened in 2015 – on a Wimbledon industrial estate, in a unit that formerly sold car parts – and has already secured listings with Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Oddbins, Majestic, plus numerous pubs, bars, independent retailers, luxury hotels, restaurants and airlines, including British Airways. “There are 2,000 brewers in the UK but we have a USP,” says Gordon. “We have the name and we have Derek and that counts for something.”

After deciding to swap a City career for the beer industry, Gordon was astonished to discover that nobody had snapped up the Wimbledon name from a brewing perspective. “Wimbledon gives us an advantage in certain markets, just because of the name,” he says. However, he was approached by the local history society and learned that there was once a Wimbledon brewery which burned down in 1889. The team decided to use this as a marketing tool and the brewery’s logo features a phoenix rising from the ashes of the 19th-century building. The brand is designed to be quintessentially British and eschew gimmicks – Gordon rejected a proposal to produce a strawberries and cream beer – to focus on classic styles, done well. “We want to create something separate from the tennis, but it’s premium and English and these are associations we like. It is designed to be balanced and the right side of interesting,” he adds. “Derek and the team do it very well. It’s a different direction from a lot of microbreweries. It’s understated. It’s confident.”

fighting the multinationals

Prentice enjoys being at the forefront of the local beer movement and believes Wimbledon and its peers could fight back against the multinationals in future. “There is a move towards local producers and having choice,” he says. “Then you just need to get the consistency right. It’s up to us to make sure the beers are good enough and in the format people like. 

“I have really enjoyed brewing here for the past two-and-a-half years. It’s manual but in general, in terms of consistency and what we are able to do, we can get some really good beer. 

“There is potential to take back some of the trade we lost to multinationals in the 1970s and 1980s. Coors, Heineken, Carlsberg, Inbev picked them up. Now in any bar you still see Carlsberg, Foster’s, Heineken, Stella, Peroni. I would like to see us producing beers that can take those head on. If we all get the quality and the marketing right, market change will happen.”

If a newcomer to the craft beer category were to open a beer that had a fault or was not as the brewer intended, that could damage the brand and, indeed, the entire category as it puts off potential customers from experimenting. Unfortunately it happens far too often in the current market, but brewers such as Wimbledon have the luxury of mitigating against it as they were bankrolled to the right degree from the start and could invest in the right equipment and expertise.

“I hope to bring in that consistency,” says Prentice. “Although we are very hands-on here, we put in controls that I would expect to see in a much bigger brewery to achieve consistency.

“Consistency is one of the issues the emerging craft sector has experienced. As it is growing and maturing and teams are getting better knowledge, that consistency is improving, but we still have some way to go. 

“I like to think we are as consistent as we can be. I feel we are getting the consistency you would get at Fuller’s. On the beers we have been brewing for some time we are getting the same results. 

“When breweries start up they don’t often have the luxury we have of being able to invest in the equipment – the stainless steel, the water treatment, the hygienic valves – and we are able to get the boil right to get clean beer. We get better quality wort at this brewery than at any I have worked at.

“Among younger drinkers there has been a move away from pilsners and that has allowed brewers such as ours to come to the fore. If we get the quality, consistency and provenance right there are good opportunities.”

The brewery has been in talks with one major retailer but will not go beyond that for a while as it is already operating to capacity and is trying to take over the industrial unit next door to double its output. If and when that happens it looks like only a matter of time before it will need to secure new premises. 

“I would be very surprised if we don’t have to move at some point,” says Gordon. “If we take over next door it will give us another couple of years. We want a canning and bottling line and we will need more space. I thought this would last us four years but after two-and-a-half years we are creaking, which is good, better than the other way around, but we need to expand.”

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