• stevehobman

From adversity comes diversity: brewers bounce back from Covid with new craft brands


The Weetwood brewing team toast the launch of Freewheelin: L-R Pete Glover, Matthew Knop and Andrew Blythe.

Many independent brewers are pulling back from the horrendous blight of COVID-19 with a raft of new initiatives,


When the first lockdown hammer blow fell many brewers who had relied upon cask ale sales in the on-trade quickly adapted, going into canning, kegging and bottling and then setting up national on-line ordering and delivering.


As staff were furloughed it was a very tough time, with all remaining hands to the brewing pumps as brewers desperately fought to keep their businesses alive. One success story was Shropshire’s Stonehouse Brewery , which we highlighted last year (see https://www.beertoursuk.com/post/stonehouse-is-back-on-the-rails-for-post-covid-recovery).


Now well established brewers are taking a close look at their future and launching new 'craft' products alongside their core cask ale business as they energetically embark on the road to recovery. However some, instead of simply extending their existing offer, are choosing to create completely new brands with their own distinct identities as they broaden their offers while granting their brewers new creative freedoms.


Here we spotlight two neighbouring North West brewers - Peerless and Weetwood - that are looking to the future by developing entirely new brands.

Peerless brewery boss Steve Briscoe launched Free Rein

The Peerless Brewing Co is a 12 year old business which saw exponential growth for several years, very much tied to the sale of cask ale to pubs throughout the North West and with national pub chains.


The Birkenhead brewer produces an award winning line up of cask ales, including top seller Triple Blonde (4.1%abv), the outstanding Knee Buckler US style IPA (5.2%abv), specialist ginger brew Jinja Ninja (4%abv) and the deliciously complex Oatmeal Stout (5%abv).


Today, in the fight back from the blight of Covid, new boundaries are being pushed with the launch of ‘craft’ brand Free Rein.


With a relatively subdued yet striking can designs, in a sometimes rather psychedelic craft market, a trio of beers across distinct styles were rolled out over the summer.


Tectonic (6.2%abv) is a dry hopped, extra strong golden ale with a distinct but subtle hoppiness, while Mama Loves Mango (3.7%abv) tells the story on the tin - a modest strength fruity pale ale with tropical flavours of Mango, Papaya and Passion Fruit - and coffee flavoured Mocha Matari (5%abv) stout uses the oldest cultivated coffee bean in the world, grown in the Yemen, to deliver an exceptional coffee/beer experience.


Steve Briscoe, founder and MD of Peerless Brewing Co:The general concept was mine, but the guys in the brewery - Alex Morley and Greg Mason - have wanted to do some more creative brews for a while. At the end of the day we all come from a home-brew background where it was always easy to do something different. I wanted to pandemic proof the business and give us something to sell in case of another lockdown.


First beers out from the Free Rein stable.

“Our company focus has always been cask ale and we have shied away from cans and kegs. We decided we would create another brand to avoid confusion. The craft beer market for cans & kegs is now well established, so it seemed a sensible decision.”

The Peerless main copper produces between 4500 and 5000 litres but an old Grundy tank has been adapted for the Free Rein brews in small batches (between 800 and 1000 litres), with three beers produced so far (up to August). In the future Steve says Free Rein will be looking at the kind of beers that don’t do well in cask - Double IPA’s, Imperial Stouts, Fruited Sours.


The Birkenhead brewer produces a This was Russian Imperial Oatmeal Treacle tout and will be a hefty 7.2%.

The Birkenhead brewer produces a t\of its award winning cask ale of its award winning cask ale of its award winning cask ale class line up of cask ales, including top seller r r a hefty 7.2% abv.


Steve adds that just as with the cask beer quality is of the essence: “We get our cans packaged at Morrow Brothers in Preston who have also been doing our bottles for some time. As a professional packager they provide us with full lab results for ABV and dissolved oxygen and also run full microbiology tests.”

Brewer Greg at Peerless, enjoying new freedom with Free Rein.

Why Free Rein? Steve says: “Free Rein just seemed to sum up what we want to do. We can all now brew something without being constrained. When Peerless first started 12 years ago our beers were considered ‘Craft’ - but the market has now moved on.


“I still prefer cask as my go to beverage, but there is no doubt that there is an appetite for beers that are outside the constraints of the cask market. The fact that we will only be doing small batches for can and keg is the main difference."


Free Rein should be found at good bottle shops and craft bars in Wirral, Cheshire, Merseyside but are available for delivery locally or nationally from https://www.beersno42.co.uk/products/free-rein-mixed-case They can also be bought direct from the brewery.


I wanted to pandemic proof the business and give us something to sell in case of another lockdown. Our company focus has always been cask ale and we have shied away from cans and kegs. We decided we would create another brand to avoid confusion.” …. Steve Briscoe, Peerless.

Further south out in the Cheshire countryside the Weetwood Brewery near Tarporley - which began brewing way back in 1992 with innovative cask ales such as the highly popular Cheshire Cat (4%abv) blonde ale - still sold in 18 gallon casks- and Mad Hatter (3.9%abv) a red ale brewed with US Armarillo hops - was also prompted to take a craft keg route during the Covid crisis; Freewheelin was conceived.

First out was Brakes Are Off (6.4%abv) with peachy and pineapple aroma delivering tropical and citrus fruits and low bitterness in the mouth.


Weetwood Brewery director Phil McLaughlin said: “Since we began brewing in 1992, we’ve produced a relatively small number of core beers which are very popular in our county/region. We’re not a ‘new beer every week’ kind of brewery or business. This works very well for us commercially but it does mean our brewers spend the vast majority of their time brewing the core range and have little time to be creative and experimental.


“So we let them loose. The working title of the project was ‘Unleashed’ as in we were unleashing the brewers but gave full control to them in terms of branding and they came up with Freewheelin. Once our teeth had stopped itching at the lack of a g, we loved it. The cans looked great, the first beer, the Brakes Are Off, was wonderful and it will hopefully be the first in a series. The next beer is being considered but isn’t confirmed. A saison of some sort is the favourite – while I am trying to convince them to brew an Impy Stout, it’s their decision. As long as the batch sells and we don’t lose money, we’ll carry on.” See www.weetwoodales.co.uk


“The working title of the project was “Unleashed” as in we were unleashing the brewers but gave full control to them in terms of branding and they came up with Freewheelin.” Phil McLaughlin, Weetwood.

In case this report is worrying real ale drinking fans of Weetwood and Peerless fear not, both remain quite committed to cask-conditioned ale and report that cask sales are coming back with a bounce. Last word from Phil McLaughlin: “Cask sales have recovered strongly – the on-trade is largely booming. It is true to say we are heavily committed to cask."



110 views0 comments