Bateman's Marches On
Added: Thursday, December 1st 2011
If you ask Martin Cullimore if he's suffering from any of the problems affecting the brewing industry, you get a dusty answer. "My only problem is lack of fermenting capacity," he growls with just a trace of a Welsh accent after many years living and working in Lincolnshire.
Martin is head brewer at Bateman's of Wainfleet. The need for more fermenters is his constant refrain and marketing director Jaclyn Bateman winces. "I can guess what he'll be raising at the next board meeting," she says resignedly.
The brewery dates from 1874 and it had its best year ever in 2007. "We had an increase across every part of the business," managing director Stuart Bateman beams. "Beer volumes were up, turnover was up, profits were up. Even our visitor centre made a profit, with some 10,000 visitors.
"All our core brands are in growth. Sales of cask beer were up 10% last year and are up 2% so far this year. That's in an overall market that's down 8%.
"We have 64 pubs and 21 of them are in significant growth. Eighteen of the pubs have shown further growth in the first three months of this year."
Is Lincolnshire in a time warp -- where the smoking ban, credit crunch and increased beer prices courtesy of Chancellor Darling -- make no impact? On the contrary: Bateman's, in common with many smaller family, regional and craft breweries, is bucking the trend and winning support from drinkers tired of over-hyped global brands.
To prove the point, while Bateman's takes cask ales from several other breweries -- "Castle Rock just flies out the door," Stuart says - sales of premium lagers in its pubs are significantly down. The exception is Budweiser Budvar, which suggests that lager drinkers also appreciate beer with flavour rather than fizz.
Bateman's can squeeze 30,000 barrels a year out of the plant but could stretch it to 40,000 if - as Martin Cullimore is quick to point out - the company could add additional fermenters. "I may have to put in a conical fermenter for our bottled beers," he says. There are nine bottles in the range and they account for 10% of annual production.
The Bateman's success story is all the more remarkable, for it was a brewery that seemed destined to close in the 1980s. Two members of the family wanted to cash in their shares and retire to the Channel Islands. Chairman George Bateman, with the active support of his wife, Pat, and their children Jaclyn and Stuart, worked tirelessly to raise the money to buy out his relatives. George was ultimately successful but the brewery was saddled with crippling debts.
"Our profits were negligible," Stuart says. "We survived by selling our free trade to Carlsberg. After five years, we went back into the free trade and we're now doing very well."
Both George and Pat - two of the finest people ever to have graced the brewing industry -- died in recent years, but Jaclyn and Stuart (pictured right) are clearly making a good fist of running the company.
"We're selling more cask beer in London through Punch and Mitchells & Butlers," Jaclyn says. "Out bottled beers are in Aldi, Booth's, Co-op, Morrison's, Sainsbury's and Tesco. The supermarkets drive a hard bargain. Everyone wants discounts but we won't give beer away. We also export to the U.S., Russia, Finland and Sweden."
Bateman's pub estate stretches from Hull to Matlock and St Neots to Norwich. Jaclyn and Stuart are excited by owning their first pub in York. The Wagon & Horses is a former run-down karioake boozer but the Batemans have installed two experienced publicans to turn its fortunes round. It can be done: the brewery's refurbished Palmerston Arms in Peterborough is going great guns. It's a specialist cask beer pub, with the cellar visible from the bar, 15 ales on tap...and no food.
The old Victorian brewhouse at Wainfleet can no longer keep pace with the demand for the company's beers. The mash tun is 110 years old while the 85 year-old copper is so wafer-thin that when it's in use, Stuart says, the shout goes up "everyone out of the brewhouse" for fear it bursts and sprays people with boiling wort.
The kit is now used only for seasonal brews. A new brewhouse, opened in 2002 and dramatically called The Theatre of Beer, has such modern devices as an external wort boiler and a copper whirlpool that enable more brews to be pushed through every day.
Martin Cullimore uses the finest Maris Otter malting barley as the basis for his beers and blends in crystal, rye, wheat and oats according to the recipe. He uses Challenger and Goldings hops while the newish golden ale, Valiant (4.2%), has American Cascade and Simco varieties.
Bateman's has two famous, award-winning bitters, XB (3.7%) and XXXB (4.8%), but the company knows there is still a strong demand for dark beers and both the 3% Dark Mild and 4.7% Salem Porter are regular brews. The darkly delicious Mild does well in the free trade, filling the gap left by other brewers that have turned their backs on the style.
As Stuart says, even the visitor centre that includes a small brewing museum filled with fascinating artefacts and laced with earthy humour - what on earth is Bill Clinton doing to that empty cask? -- is trading well. The centre and the brewery, housed in delightful, creeper-clad buildings topped by an armless windmill, is well worth a visit: Wainfleet is the penultimate stop on the Nottingham to Skegness rail line.
But be warned: you may be accosted by a burly man with a faint Welsh accent, wagging a finger and intoning: "More fermenters, more fermenters."