Small Beer – big business

by Steve Renshaw

There can’t be many Lincoln businesses that can claim to be a UK leader in their field. But you’ve probably seen the white vans of one such company delivering to pubs around the area. I haven’t enough space to tell the full, fascinating story of how Small Beer Ltd has grown from humble beginnings to become Britain’s leading cask ale wholesaler. But here’s a potted version.

In the late 1970s, Tony Eastwood was a real-ale enthusiast at a time when CAMRA was still in its infancy. Having seen a friend open a successful real-ale off-licence on Tyneside, Tony decided that the formula might work in Lincoln.

So in 1980, Tony and his wife, Judith, took the bold step of selling their family home (at the time, they had two small children) and buying a shop. Initially, Tony continued his day job as a town and country planner and they opened the shop in the evening and at weekends. They collected casks of beer from local breweries and customers would turn up with their own containers to be filled.

As the business grew, they started supplying local pubs with cask ales. However, storage space at the shop soon became a problem and, in 1988, the company acquired a unit on Kingsway. The original shop was converted into a private house but, if you walk down Newland Street West, you can still see the off-licence sign on the wall.

Small Beer has gone from strength to strength. Their annual sales of real ale now amount to around 12,000 brewer’s barrels – that’s around 3.5 million pints! They provide real ales for brewery pub estates, pub companies and free houses. And they supply many CAMRA beer festivals, including the Great British Beer Festival, Peterborough and, of course, Lincoln.

Although cask ale is still central to the business, they now provide all the drinks you’d expect to see behind a bar. Traditional real cider and perry has been a growth area over the last five years. They sell Belgian and continental beers, import craft beers from the United States, and are now offering craft keg beer from UK brewers. There is also a specialist wine division.

The family nature of the business was cemented in September 2008 when Tony and Judith’s son, Rob, became commercial manager, having spent four years at Batemans Brewery as national account manager. Four years later, Rob took over from Dad as managing director and his wife, Karen, left her job as national sales manager at Everards Brewery to take over as Small Beer’s commercial manager.

Anyone visiting the Kingsway site in recent times would have seen how little space there was for such a large business. After 18 months of looking, the company moved to brand-new premises on the Churchill Business Park at Bracebridge Heath during last summer.

One of the local pubs supplied by Small Beer is the Adam and Eve on Lindum Hill. The whitewashed, stone-built free house is reputedly the oldest tavern in Lincoln. The pub has two regular ales and two guests. According to manager, Alex Jones, “Choosing our guest ales is hard because Small Beer has such a fantastic choice.”

And what about the beer? Moon Frost (4.0% ABV) is brewed by Grafton Brewery in Worksop. My pint was a beautifully clear, golden colour with a creamy white head. The initial taste was tropical fruit but a biscuity malt flavour came through. A really refreshing pint!

Read the full story of Small Beer in the next edition of Lincoln CAMRA’s magazine, ImpAle. Pick up a copy from your local pub in January.