Beer Craft

Black Paw Brewery’s Phil Whitfield on taking the leap to full-time brewing

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Many of the rising brewery stars winning plaudits and sealing major mergers in the UK and US are former homebrewers, in a trend that likely adds to the craft beer scene’s vibrancy on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is great for enthusiasts to feel in touch with their beer heroes. But the growing legacy of homebrewers turning pro could also heap pressure on newcomers, particularly in what appears to be becoming an increasingly busy marketplace.

The brewer/proprietor of Black Paw Brewery in Bishop Auckland, Co. Durham, Phil Whitfield, knows all about this trip  – his 10-bbl plant brewery was founded in 2011 when Whitfield left his job at the NHS after decades of service.

After two years of steady growth, in July, his brewery secured £25,000 from the Finance for Business North East Microloan Fund system to grow the business. As part of the planned expansion, Whitfield has ambitions towards export, plans to triple turnover within three years and is considering new premises

Craft Beer World talked to Phil about his leap of faith.

How does it feel to have secured the funding for development?

In the current market I am obviously pleased that we have been able to secure funding as, no matter what I may think about the strength of the business, people will not lend money unless they believe in the future prospects of the business, so to gain funding shows we are not alone in believing our brewery is on the up. Whilst not easy to secure funding the trick is keeping focused and making it work for you once it’s in place.

We have already appointed an experienced sales and marketing manager and have a number of  projects that we can now move forward on including beer by post increased outside functions along with looking at export and a significant increase in our bottle wholesale operations already up by 108% this year.

What would you say to people considering a similar leap from a corporate job to full-time brewing?

If it’s something you want to do fine but be prepared to be in it for the long haul, it is not a quick win scenario. Being your own boss is great but then so is a regular pay cheque at the end of the month and paid holidays – something I no longer have.

Why has Black Paw avoided sensationalist marketing and focused on harmonisation between craft and real ale fans?

We take our beer seriously but don’t forget that beer is about enjoyment and leisure time. There are many good beers around and I am not so pompous to think all of mine are the best (though obviously they are up there). I want to brew beer that people will like at the first drink and into the future. I want Black Paw to be here for a long time – not a flash in the pan.

I find that listening to my customers, particularly on a Thursday evening when the Black Paw Bar is open helps me understand what is important to them and that way I ensure that the brewery continues to produce beer people want to drink. Any new beer goes through a tasting panel to ensure quality and desirability.

Have pubs and fellow brewers in your area been supportive of your expansion plans? Can you give us some insight into your local northeastern scene?

I do have a good local following and pubs in the area are always ready to try a new beer. Having recently visited Kent and seen just how many pubs readily promote real ale it provided some context to what happens here in the North East. There are some fabulous real ale pubs particularly in the bigger cities, Newcastle, Sunderland and Durham but lots of local pubs are less keen to try real ale or are tied and unable to try it, it’s changing but slowly. The significant change is with people buying bottled beer direct from me or buying a firkin directly from us along with hiring a bar so they can have real ale at their celebration be it a party or wedding or other event.

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