An Interview With Nigel Sadler

I am pleased to be able to present the following interview with Nigel Sadler. Nigel has multiple roles within the brewing industry, including Tutor and Advisory Board Member for the Beer Academy, Chairman of the Southern UK Section for the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, Accredited IBD Trainer for the General Certificate of Brewing and Fundamentals of Brewing and Packaging qualifications, Freelance Brewing Tutor and Assessor at Hackney Community College for Level 2 Brewing Apprenticeships, Cask Marque Assessor  and Director and Owner of Learn2Brew Limited. From the commodity and money markets to the brewing industry. Published author and past Vice-chairman of SIBA and Cellarman at the first Beer X back in 2012. Nigel is a great guy and a massive repository of information and advice on the brewing industry. This should be a great article, packed with useful tidbits for the aspiring brewery owner.

 Here’s the interview …

Tell me a bit about what you’re up to at the moment in respect of your multitude of roles in the brewing industry.

You’re right about a multitude of roles, Chris! I’m just back from judging the new IWSC Beer Awards at Craft Beer Rising in London.

So where to start?

OK, I’m currently a Tutor and Advisory Board Member for the Beer Academy where I run Foundation, Advanced and Beer & Food Matching Courses in London. I’m currently Chairman of the Southern UK Section for the Institute of Brewing and Distilling and an Accredited IBD Trainer for the General Certificate of Brewing and Fundamentals of Brewing and Packaging qualifications.

I am a freelance Brewing Tutor and Assessor at Hackney Community College for Level 2 Brewing Apprenticeships.

I continue to run brewing theory courses at my own company, Learn2brew Ltd and finally I spend the rest of my time as a Cask Marque Assessor covering 200 pubs in East London out to Southend, which all have to be inspected twice a year.

On top of all that I’m a member of the Brewery History Society, Master Brewer’s Assoc. of the Americas and British Guild of Beer Writers.

In short I have a real passion about beer from grain to glass!

Wow! It sounds like you’re a VERY busy man! How do you juggle all of these impressive roles? Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping organised and managing all of your commitments and workload?

Keeping a diary is essential, obviously. I’m already looking at dates in 2017 for some events to plan ahead so that I know when and where I can accommodate other commitments. Very often I have to make up time at weekends and do some Cask Marque work on Sundays which is not too popular with my good lady! Some events I have to pass on now, for instance I won’t be at Beer X this year which is a shame.

I read on your LinkedIn profile that you spent 30 years trading commodities in the City. How did you transition from that to the brewing industry? What was the catalyst for such a fundamental change in career path?

I spent a total of 20 years in physical commodities, everything from honey to gelatine then 10 years in the money markets, very active and lively that was at times I can tell you.

The actual catalyst was more of a push! When the recession of 2008 hit the banks reduced our credit lines drastically, customers lost credit insurance and I knew the writing was on the wall. I took a step back and looked at what might be the next step, everything from being a driving instructor to running a pub.

I knew the guys at Brentwood Brewing Company and thought I’d join them to get some hands on experience. So in March 2009 I started doing a couple of days a week there, everything from cask washing and drayman to assisting with the brewing for 3 months.

What brewing and brewery related experience did you already have under your belt when you made this change?

Very little. I had a friend whose father home brewed many years ago and I had attended a couple of courses run by Keith Thomas, back in 1985 I think, who’d set up the fledgling Brewlab in North London Polytechnic.

On top of that I read a number of technical books on the subject which from memory were: George Fix’s “Principles of Brewing Science”, Charlie Bamforth’s “Scientific Principles of Malting and Brewing” and Ian Hornsey’s “Brewing”.

How did you get started in the brewing industry? What was the first step after leaving the big smoke?

After doing about 3 months at Brentwood I realised that I liked the industry and made the decision to go in for training big time. I needed to not only get on the ladder but up it fast.

I went on a number of courses and then started swotting up for my first qualification, the General Certificate of Brewing with the IBD, which I had joined in early 2010. I must say that I believe quite firmly that a good knowledge of brewing theory is key and goes hand in hand with practical experience. Understanding what’s going on at each stage and more importantly how to put things right are essential.

If you had to recommend a handful of training courses for my subscribers what would they be?

Obviously my own at Learn2brew! Seriously I think you need to look at both time and budget and get the best you can afford. Both the IBD and Brewlab do a very good job. I would say however beware of some “Brewing Courses” that are nothing more than instructed guidance on a day’s brew, there’s little technical input in some of these.

I don’t just do brewing though, there’s plenty more to look at from micro and yeast handling through to HACCP and COSSH to consider particularly if you’re looking to go commercial.

To give you an idea of what courses and qualifications I’ve done in the past 6 years:

  • IBD Diploma: Modules 1 & 2
  • IBD General Certificate of Brewing (Cask)
  • IBD General Certificate of Brewing (C&F)
  • IBD General Certificate of Distilling (Grain)
  • IBD General Certificate of Malting
  • IBD General Certificate of Packaging (Keg)
  • PRINCE2 Project Management Certificate
  • IOSH Health & Safety Certificate
  • FDQ Auditing Skills Certificate
  • RSPH HACCP Level 2 Certificate
  • COSHH Level 2 Award in Food Industry
  • Food Safety Level 2 Award in Manufacturing
  • Allergen Awareness Certificate (BII Accredited)
  • Fire Safety Level 2 Certificate
  • BIIAB Level 2 ABCQ Certificate
  • Cask Marque Bar Excellence Certificate
  • Beer Academy Foundation Course
  • Beer Academy Advanced Course
  • Beer Academy How to Judge Beer Course
  • Beer Academy Sommelier
  • Brewlab Brewing Skills Course
  • Porter Brewing Co: Craft Brewing Course
  • WSET Level 2 Intermediate Certificate
  • The Cider Academy: Cider Making: Principles & Practice
  • Campden BRI Yeast Management & Microbiology Course,
  • Campden BRI Advanced Microbiology Course
  • Fundamentals of Marketing Award (LSM)

Wow! That really is a lot of courses!

Out of all of the brewing industry roles you’ve had so far (and it looks like you’ve had quite a few over the years) what are some of the most fun and rewarding you’ve experienced?

That’s quite a hard one, Chris. All are, or have been, rewarding in their own way.Nigel Sadler

I certainly enjoyed my time as Vice-chairman of SIBA and being Cellarman at the first Beer X back in 2012 was a challenge to say the least. I was in charge of organising some 350 casks and 150 kegs. As you can see from this pic we had quite a lot of long and often jumbled up lines to deal with. It was a steep learning curve.

However, I think my latest role with the 4 apprentices up at Hackney College is one of the most rewarding. I hope they go on to great things in the future once they qualify. I really enjoy my role as an educator, whether beer or brewing.

How does the apprenticeship work? What are the eligibility requirements and how is the course structured?

The brewing apprenticeship scheme is, as far as I know, only currently operated by 2 colleges in the UK. Hackney where I work alongside Derek Prentice, former Head Brewer of Fullers among other things, and one in Shropshire which has Don Jeffries, former Head Brewer of Brains, heading it up.

Like all apprenticeship schemes the company needs to apply for a grant via a registered course provider. Once this is done and approved the apprentice spends one day a week with the tutor and 4 days in the workplace for a year. My courses are for Level 2 Diploma in Brewing Skills and covers some 30 selected modules from a syllabus of over 90.

You’ve also had some publications haven’t you? Tell me a bit about those. 

I realised after I had done numerous courses, from GCB to Diploma, that there was almost an overload of information on the subject of brewing but it wasn’t always in a user friendly form. Also, some text books are upwards of £150 each. They not only need to be looked after but are also quite heavy and not easy to slip into a pocket.

Nigel SadlerI produced “Notes on Craft Ale Brewing” and intended it to be a useful source of information in a quick reference handy size guide. It was collated information from a number of sources and covered the main topics from malting to hygiene. It was self-published and has received favourable reviews.

Then I received a call from Ted Bruning, former editor of “What’s Brewing” and an established writer, in late 2013 asking me to join him in co-writing “Wisdom for Home Brewers.” Ted did the prose and I did the tech bit. It worked well and I’m really pleased with the result. Nice to see it’s available across the globe from USA to Australia to Japan. I hope it’ll become a classic in time!

What advice would you give to our subscribers who share your dream of transitioning from home brewing or mundane day jobs to the commercial brewing arena, either by setting up on their own or by working with an established brewery or other related body?

I have to say in all honesty that the market has changed drastically since I got involved even those few years ago. Some 1,650 breweries in the Country and a large number of pub closures mean that competition is strong in most areas. I am pleased to say that I have a good knowledge of business as well as beer and brewing which has been a definite strength. I like to look at the big picture not just my own little microcosm.

Firstly, my advice for those looking to set up would be take the rose tinted specs off and do some good solid research. Route to market is vital. Prices for cask ale are not strong at the moment in many areas. It’s definitely a buyer’s market and bad debts are a reality.

Take a good look round and you’ll find a lot of micros on the market. Very few are doing much more than covering costs and ticking over. Many have certainly seen turnover halve in the last 5 years.

Secondly get some proper training, both practical and theory, in both brewing and beer quality. A good solid foundation is paramount in my mind to make a go of it. There are courses out there for theory and also plenty of micros run “Be a Brewer for the Day” type events, do at least 2 or 3 of these to get a proper idea of what goes on and more importantly the time and effort. Someone has to go into the brewery at weekends and Bank Holidays to take the gravity readings!

Long hard days and a long time before you get a financial reward in my experience.

It is interesting to see that despite tough market conditions there is still a flood of new brewery start ups entering the market. I think that differentiation is key these days, and finding a unique selling point is vital. What are your thoughts on how a new brewery could do this?

It’s very hard to develop a USP and be different, too many breweries are trying to do exactly just that. Weird and wonderful beer styles have a niche market but don’t sell in the volume or at the premium price to make it viable for many.

The charge into canned beer is the latest direction for many but outlets are limited. My advice is to brew good beer consistently, being a reliable business partner to your retail outlets is worth more than many realise. That means on-time deliveries with correct paperwork, POS etc. Good image and branding also help greatly.

Every new brewery will go through a “honeymoon” period of 12-18 months by my reckoning. Local CAMRA branch will love you, visit you and you’ll probably end up “Beer of the Festival”. Make the most of it because when reality kicks in and you become one of 32, as we are in Essex, then it’s a lot different.

Are there any key habits or attitudes you think are essential for anyone wanting to make the plunge into the brewing industry (whatever form that may take)? And can these character traits be learned or developed?

Brewing itself, as we all know, is part art, part science and part craft. A healthy balance and understanding of all three undoubtedly helps in my opinion. I found my passion for cooking was a great aid for flavours and recipe formulation. My love of science is also a big help and has proved to be invaluable at times.

In general keeping it simple at the start, don’t run before you can walk. I think too few understand that being a good brewer means brewing the same beer 10 times in a row with the end result being the same time and again; quality and consistency are what the consumer wants after all. Patience pays.

I know people who have brewed award winning beers and then realised they failed to record all the details on the brew sheet. Being unable to re-produce a popular award winning beer is quite a downer! So being methodical and keeping accurate records are therefore also important.

That does sound horrible. It reminds me of Tenacious D’s ‘Best Song In The World’! Is it important for people wanting to start their own brewery to learn as much as they can about ‘business’ as well as the brewing?

To be honest, Chris, I don’t see brewing as being any different to other SMEs. Somehow there seems to be a romantic notion about it but at the end of the day it’s covered by a whole raft of legislation and needs to have a saleable product at the end of it.

Learning about business, marketing and all the other things I’ve covered has been an undoubted bonus. One of the first things I would say to those looking to go commercial is do an honest SWOT analysis.

We actually provide online courses and support for business planning, which includes how to carry out SWOT analysis and other tools.

What lessons have you had to learn the hard way? And what advice would you give people potentially about to make the same mistakes? What pitfalls would you want them to avoid?

For those looking to set up it would be (once you’ve done all the stuff I’ve already mentioned) look at your budget and then add another 50% to it. Money goes fast in a microbrewery. Having 2 pumps breakdown mid-transfer at 5pm on a Friday, with no spare pump being available, isn’t exactly ideal and yes it happened to me. Had to strip both down and replace bearings etc. Result was a 7.30pm finish. A long day indeed after a 6.30am start.

Secondly, don’t trust anyone when it comes to overdue accounts. If they don’t pay, don’t carry on delivering beer. Simples. There’s no point in selling 60 casks a week and only ever getting paid for 50. It happens. Keep your ears to the ground. I used to check all the agents’ websites for pub sales and lettings once a week. I often found customers on there who hadn’t mentioned it. That’s a sure sign things might not be what they seem.

Thirdly, there are licensees who fail to look after beer properly in their cellar. This is always a tough one and can lead to the tough decision to stop supplying them. Invariably you get a call from a friend which goes something along the lines of “I had a pint of your IPA the other night in the Dog and Duck, it was cloudy and tasted off.”

So you go down to the pub, try the beer, chat to the licensee and it turns out the beer has been on sale for a week or so and the lines only get cleaned every 2 weeks. Now you can offer some friendly advice on cellarmanship and see what happens. Maybe they don’t genuinely know about keeping cask ale and will be grateful but if they refuse and continue serving bad beer then it’s time to swallow your pride and pull the plug. Your reputation is paramount.

Would you say that having a robust and professional business plan and financial forecasting in place is essential to survival in the early stages of a brewery start up?

A solid business plan, not a dream, needs to be the foundation of most things these days unless of course money is no object! I would say it’s a cornerstone.

With regard to the financials: estimate your sales then take 25% off. Estimate your set up costs and then add 25%. If still looks attractive after that then it might be worth having a crack!

One of my best achievements was helping to steer Brentwood Brewing Company to win an Essex Business Excellence Award back in 2010 for Best Small Business. That opened a lot of doors in many ways and gave the company credibility.

If you had to recommend one book or tool related to brewing, what would it be?

Undoubtedly I think the one book would have to be “Handbook of Brewing” by Priest & Stewart. Read it…. From cover to cover…. Twice. This book is a wealth of knowledge.

Choosing one tool is more difficult… I carry a pH meter, digital thermometer and refractometer with me most of the time….. so will leave it at the book!

Further Reads and Links

The Reads:

Notes on Craft Ale Brewing – Nigel Sadler

Wisdom For Home Brewers – Ted Bruning and Nigel Sadler

The Links:

Nigel’s Company, which provides brewing courses – Learn2Brew.

The Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD).

The Beer Academy.

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Nigel Sadler: Industry Mogul on The Importance Of Brewing Education and Advice For Brewery Start Ups!

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