Beer Buzz meets Marble Beers director Jan Rogers

Marble Brewery

Marble Beers have been at the forefront of Manchester’s brewing scene for over 20 years. They have come a long way since the legendary Brendan Dobbin first helped install a second hand four-barrel plant in the rear of the Marble Arch pub with the fermenters in the cellar of the pub in 1997.

In 2009 the brewery moved just down the hill from the Marble Arch to a new 12-barrel plant in premises on Williamson Street. Now as they enter their 22nd year, they have said farewell to Manchester and relocated to new premises in Salford with a shiny new 2,500 litre (approximately 15 barrel) state of the art plant installed by premium brewery fabricator Gravity Systems, who have been responsible for installations at leading breweries including The Kernel, Wylam and Burning Sky.

At the helm of the brewery since the beginning has been director Jan Rogers. 

Jan and then partner Vance de Bechevel were already successful operators at the forefront of the burgeoning micro-brewing scene in the 1990s with Vance having taken on The Marble Arch in 1988 and the couple going on to run Chorlton’s Marble World Beers Off-licence (living above the shop), followed by the nearby The Bar and Bar 2 when they began the brewery.

Beer Buzz met up with Jan at The Marble Arch to explore the Marble Beers journey.

Why did you decide to set up a brewery?

It was partly for the economics of selling our own beer but also to give people a reason to come to the pub. Even in 1997, competition was tough. Manchester was cool with the Hacienda, Dry Bar, etc, but the Marble Arch wasn’t cool. We needed to help keep the pub in the local consciousness – a brewery was a unique offering.

How did the brewery begin?

Right back from 1988, the Arch had sold beers from Brendan Dobbin’s West Coast Brewery along with Tony Allen’s Phoenix Brewery. Brendan found us the brewery plant and provided many of the original recipes. Mark Dade was running the pub and became the first brewer. 

Initially we only sold the beer in our own pubs but others were wanting our beer elsewhere so we started selling the odd cask. Sales began to grow organically. When Mark left to set up Boggart Hole Clough brewery, it was Brendan that found us James Campbell and it was the triumvirate of James, Dominic Driscoll and Colin Strong that really built our reputation.

Why did the brewery move out of The Arch?

We had outgrown the space we had and the building was crumbling around it. We did look at putting an extension on the back of the pub to house the new brewery but the finances just didn’t work out. 

So we moved to a railway arch with a brand new kit from Vince Johnson Brewing Design. The brewers had space and were having a ball making some amazing beers. As sales continued to grow, we learnt that a split-level site maybe wasn’t the best idea. By the end, it was not a great place to work – everybody was falling over themselves in the brewery and the office staff were half a mile away above 57 Thomas Street.

And so a move to Salford?

We spent a long time looking for a new site in the local area, we met with every agency, lots of developers. But with all the development around the Green Quarter, with every space we found, there was a more lucrative use for the space than running a brewery. So eventually we looked elsewhere and found the new site near Media City.

It’s great that we’ve been able to bring the whole team back together – head office and brewery all in one building. People are getting used to travelling a bit further to work and there is a bit of relearning of sharing a space required – the brewers can’t have their music as loud as they like it for a start – but we are getting there.

The first Marble brewery kit went on to a new life with Blackjack Beers. What’s happened to the second one?

We sold it to Brinkburn Street Brewery in Newcastle Upon Tyne. We’ve known the owner there Lee Renshaw for some time and helped him start his business. Now they are increasing their production, it’s great to have been able to help them again.

The new Marble plant is relatively modest by modern standards. Was there not a temptation to get a bigger kit?

We like the size we are. We are growing modestly but there’s a duty break at 5,000 hectolitres a year and we have no current ambitions to grow beyond that. The new plant and site does allow room to grow in the future but that will be something for Joe (Head of Production) to look at when the time comes. 

Pint pump clip

The brewers have got a couple of 50hl tanks which allows the team to brew enough Manchester Bitter and Pint to meet demand – they are the backbone of the brewery and give the brewers the freedom to make other beers. 

Joe may decide to grow beyond 5,000 hl at some point but for now we are happy.

So Marble won’t be appearing on supermarket shelves nationwide any time soon?

I have nothing against supermarkets and it’s great that people can pick up a great tasting beer with their shopping. But as a businesswoman, it’s not for me – I don’t like the control that big businesses like that can have over their suppliers. We did work with Waitrose through Fullers, but Fullers dealt with that side. 

I don’t begrudge those that have gone down the supermarket route, each to their own and if that’s a model that suits them, all power to them. But ultimately, if supermarkets were the be all and end all, there would only be a handful of breweries left. We like being small, we like being independent and intend to stay that way.

Where do you see Marble fitting in to the ‘craft’ scene.

That’s for you to tell us. 

I don’t consider us ‘craft’ – we just do what we do. We do ‘traditional’ and we do ‘modern’ – I don’t know what that makes us. We were called ‘New Wave’ at one point but that didn’t seem right either. 

Manchester Bitter

Our mission is to straddle the genres. We want people to appreciate the full spectrum that beer has to offer. There is still a lot going for the subtle flavours of a pint of traditional English ale.  There does seem to be a growing appreciation that there is more to beer than 12% stouts and extremely hopped beers and that’s something we are passionate about.

Hopefully we are seeing the end of the beer scene arguing about different styles and different formats with people learning that it all has its place and is what makes beer great.  

We’ve got a really great and stable team down the brewery. Joe is at the helm, organising and planning. He started at Phoenix in Heywood and through his time with Buxton and Magic Rock, he’s got the experience of a growing brewery. 

Slaw is lead brewer and is about to step up to run the brewery while Joe is on paternity leave.  I asked him recently if he was going to be OK when Joe goes on leave – “No problem”, he said, “I’ve done it before (when Matt Howgate left)”. Paul and Carl have been with us for a few years now, providing solid backup to Joe and Slaw, and we’ve just taken on Andy who has joined us from Phoenix. And last but no means least is Graham running the dray. 

Marble Brewery Team
Marble Beers team:
Left to right Back Row, Joe, Carl, Magda; Left to right Front Row, Diana, Karen, Slaw, Andy and Paul.
Photo: Marble Beers

The brewery will have a tap room?

Yes, it won’t be large and it won’t be fancy but we are looking forward to welcoming people to the brewery. We’ve built a blockwork bar but the rest of the design is only just coming together. We plan to offer eight keg beers and three cask and will open Thursday and Friday late afternoon/evening then all day Saturday and Sunday. 

With Seven Bro7hers and Pomona Island Breweries and taprooms just the other side of Weaste cemetery, we hope people will come out and see us. 

We also plan to offer brewery tours – something we just couldn’t do at the old site as it wasn’t safe to do so. 

The Marble Beers Tap Room is expected to be open by the time Beer Buzz hits the streets. It will open from Thursday to Sunday offering eight keg lines and three cask lines. It’s located at 7 Boston Court, Salford, M50 2GN. Nearest Metrolink stop Langworthy.

Worker Bees – Beer Buzz Meets Beatnikz Republic

This is an extended version of the version which appears in Beer Buzz January – March 2019.

Grimsby born Paul Greetham is the founder of Beatnikz Republic Brewery, based on Red Bank in Manchester’s Green Quarter and  their eponymous bar on the corner of Tariff Street & Dale Street in the Northern Quarter. Beer Buzz met up to quiz him on his beer journey so far….

Where did your beer journey begin?
At Big Hands and Sandbar in Manchester.  I came to Manchester to study a Leisure Management degree, swapping to English after a year. At Big Hands I discovered the newly imported Brooklyn Lager while Sandbar offered Fruli, the Belgian Strawberry beer. I particularly remember being blown away by a bottle of Schneider Aventinus Eisbock that somebody bought for me in Big Hands. I had never tasted such complex flavours.

From there I slowly built a love for beer. I moved to London in the late noughties and not long after Kernel were setting up and became a regular visitor in the early years of the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Work began taking me to the USA and New York in particular, where The Rattle & Hum, a back street German inspired boozer became a favourite. They  introduced me to a new world of hop flavours including one seminal night where first tasted Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA – wow!!!!

That was the night I first decided that when I returned to the UK I was going to start brewing. I announced this to my friends who thought it was just the beer talking.

So did you start brewing?

Yes – from the kitchen of a one bed flat in London I brewed my first Simcoe & Citra IPA shortly after that trip. I then brewed constantly every Saturday, quickly progressing to double brewing with multiple fermenters to fill. We held an increasing number of barbeques to get people round to drink the beers. Overall, I must have done 100 brews in the first year in that flat.

In 2015, I was one of the early members of UBrew, the crowdfunded shared brew plant, where I brewed my first commercial beer, Beach Bum, on their 100 litre kit. I hawked the bottles around bars in South East London and didn’t look back.

A year later, I was gypsy and contract brewing my recipes wherever I could find capacity – my beer was brewed as far afield as Hartlepool & Scotland. However, I was often unhappy with the way the finished product turned out – I wasn’t in control. It was clear that to make the beer taste like I wanted it to, I needed my own brewery to keep control – which brought me to a railway arch in Manchester in January 2017.

Why Manchester?

My wife Dagmar was working in Huddersfield, commuting from London two or three times a week.  I knew Manchester from being a student here and know if had an expanding beer scene so it made sense.

I found the railway arch on Red Bank online and put a bid in on it without ever having seen it. I did a course at Dave Porter Brewery Installations to learn how his brew kit worked and started planning on installing a 10 barrel kit backed by investment from friends & family.

Unfortunately one of the investors dropped out so I had to downscale to a 4 barrel plant but with 8 barrel fermenters.

When you moved to Manchester, what were your ambitions?

Being honest – to get to a point where I could create recipes and get someone else to brew it. My interest was in recipes and the business side.

Brewing as a one man band was damned hard work. When I started in Manchester, I had never done a full size commercial brew from start to finish. I learnt by my mistakes and strived to make each batch better.

As we got established in Manchester, I had great support with listings with supportive distributors including near neighbours Blackjack Beers and Bury’s WDS. Fifteen months in, I’d reached my targets but the physical work was taking its toll on the body. I decided that I needed to employ a brewer but to pay a wage on top of my own, I knew I had to increase my volumes.

Was that where you started producing cask ale?

Not directly. In my time in London, cask wasn’t on my radar – it didn’t feature majorly in the bars I frequented. The only cask ale I can recall drinking and loving was a pint of Five Points Pale in the Southampton Arms in Highgate – I remember tasting it and thinking “wow, that’s really good”. However, other bars might have had cask available but they also had so much more to entice me so I didn’t partake.

When I arrived back in Manchester, I started drinking in The Pilcrow, The Marble Arch & The Smithhfield where cask ale was prominent and as I tried them, I discovered the cask beers were every bit as good as the keg beers and often better.

I was loving drinking cask beer, but when it came to brewing it, I couldn’t afford to invest in the hundreds of casks I’d need to sell it so kept on brewing for cans & keykeg.

Eventually,  industry friends put me in contact with rental company KegStar who offered me a pallet of rental casks. I grabbed the opportunity and planned a brew to fill them. That pallet was pre-sold before it was brewed, as were the next two pallets and the next….

Although I’d never brewed a beer for cask, even in my homebrew days, I was given some pointers by friends and quickly learnt to brew cask ale on the job. We’ve had very few problems since – the odd cask gone wrong but few and far between.

Now between 60 & 70% of our production is cask. It doesn’t yield the same margins as our keg production but it sells more steadily and more quickly giving us a stable base.

What’s the brewery capacity?

We’ve expanded to five fermentation tanks and three conditioning tanks doing double brew days four days a week. We’ve got three full time brewery staff – head brewer Lewis Birch who came to us from Magic Rock, Lee Coates who was previously with Blackjack and James Ardwick who is a recent graduate from Heriot Watt – plus Rosie who runs sales & operations and a part time delivery driver

You closed the brewery tap room not long after it opened – why?

It as a lot of work running the brewery on my own and the tap room just added to that work. I got somebody in to run it for me to reduce my work, but it still meant work to prepare the brewery for opening every week. For whatever reason the location just didn’t attract enough foot fall on a consistent enough basis – we had some great days at the tap room but other times were quiet. Ultimately the numbers meant it just wasn’t worth the effort for the income it generated. We now have a cold store where the bar used to be.

But now you have a bar. How did that come about?

It wasn’t really in the plans but a friend who is a commercial surveyor kept talking to me about properties he was seeing in the city. Out of nowhere, I was contacted by an investor who wanted to invest in the brewery. I wasn’t interested in sharing my equity in the brewery so I turned them down. However, I then got thinking on what I could do with investment so I pitched opening a bar – they got straight back to me and agreed.  

A few days later the deal was done and we started looking for the right site.

How was the process?

All things considered, not too bad.

We lost out on our first site which would have been perfect due to legal delays with the landlord sorting out the lease. The site on the corner of Tariff Street and Dale Street was only the second site that we seriously viewed and when I walked in I knew it was right – good space, great neighbors in Idle Hands coffee and in a part of town which is on the up.

Our first choice of bar fitters didn’t work out but once we got past that, our solicitors were great with sorting out the lease, we found a good architect who completed the design and planning and the licensing was straightforward. Our contractors Lancaster Construction were amazing, working day & night to turn a 12 week fit out around in 5 weeks.

The bar has been really well received by our customers. Even when we were in our soft opening phase when we didn’t have proper seating or toilets at the bar, feedback was good. Now it is fully finished we are really pleased with it. We started with a Burning Sky takeover for our soft opening and then had Overworks for our full opening weekend We are developing a regular programme of events including a games night on the last Sunday of the month and DJs on Fridays & Saturdays.

What’s your favourite beer or brewery?

Of my own, it’s Beach Bum – it was the first beer I brewed commercially & it was the first beer I canned. I hadn’t actually drank it for a while but I had a pint a week or so back and I’d loved it – I love the Mosaic & Azzacca hops.

I believe Burning Sky are the top brewery in Britain today – everything they do is great. Internationally I think Garrett Oliver at Brooklyn can do little wrong. I was fortunate to meet him once, he was so down to earth and I still heed the advice he gave me as a fledgling brewer – hit your targets and keep it simple.

What does the future hold?

We’ve just started exporting with a pallet of casks shipped to Sweden. We had to double check taht they really wanted casks.

We’re going to start canning again in January and we’ve already got enquiries for cans from Italy, France & Holland. We expect that canning will take up all of our remaining capacity so growth by some means or other is on the cards.