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Starting a brewery during a pandemic…

I used to think that learning to brew would be a challenging endeavour. But becoming a brewer and helping establish a brewery during a pandemic? Covid 19 was like: hold my beer. After a period of strategic and enforced quiet for most of 2020 and 2021, we felt it was time to introduce Borrowed Parts Brew Co to a wider audience.

It all began in 2018 with discussions around a 5bbl capacity teaching brewery that had been lying dormant in the grounds of City College Plymouth for years, full of dusty boxes of floppy disks and out of date chemicals. Could this become a productive community asset? As a resident who had spent nearly a decade living a short walk from the site I was excited by the possibilities entailed in bringing the facility back into use.

Plymouth is a beautiful and neglected city. Once a significant component in the terrible machinery of the British Empire and post-war Western order, it came up as a centre of mercantile enterprise trading in the crimes of colonial expansion. In the last several decades, it has become littered with the shells of once productive and populated venues and facilities, among them the brewery. Founded circa 2000 and named Points West Brewery, its logo was a Mayflower type ship encircled by palm fronds, presumably transporting a consignment of fortified IPA for the colonial frontiers.

Much of what we speak of when we address the consequences of post-industrial decline in Britain is the story of a nation in the throes of historic transition. From dominance to contested decline in a globalising (and now perhaps de-globalising) world, through to a destination still undetermined. The brewery is a small fragment of this puzzle. Whilst the brewing of beer stands apart from many of the community businesses supported by Power To Change (as we have been), there are fundamental points of intersection between hospitality, community enterprise and the bigger economic context.

As much as Britain is a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ it is now a nation of service and hospitality workers employed often by the former class strata. Often highly exploited, employed on zero-hours contracts and lately bearing the brunt of a pandemic response that favours public health theatre and dangerous gimmicks over adequate protections and support.

One very visible offender is the global brand BrewDog, which has been rocked by allegations from current and former staff whistleblowers. In Plymouth in 2021 BrewDog opened a big box bar and food hall in the British Land development known as The Barcode entertainment and leisure centre partnered to the neighbouring Drake Circus mall. Built over the demolished modernist Bretonside bus station that originated with the post-war Abercrombie plan inspired by the Garden City Movement, an underground car park now inhabits the space left by the evicted premises of two music and community venues and several small businesses, several of which never returned. Above the BrewDog bar reads the words: ‘Community owned’. The question of which community, located where, and how this functions in practice is elided.

But as we can see from the Ivy House pub in London, a type of cooperative whose unionised staff were forced to take strike action, small scale is not automatically a panacea for the wellbeing of staff or community cohesion and empowerment when discussing hospitality. Nor is it automatically and in isolation an adequate response to how we organise in our communities and create lasting structures of influence and refuge. So where do we come in?  

Our name is Borrowed Parts Brew Co. Naming a brewery is a terrible burden given how so many good names are taken. We tried out more ostentatious and declarative names, and more niche and locally historically rooted ones. We settled for Borrowed Parts as it just felt right, and because it speaks to what we’re doing. We are a cooperative society, run on cooperative principles of commonality and reciprocity. Our brewery is leased from the College. We are financed and supported by various strands of grant intervention. We are a craft brewery, and Borrowed Parts sounds like one. And ultimately, it wasn’t taken!

The kit left in place by Points West gave us the ability to produce cask ale, a beer that is more suited to certain conditions, including a healthy ecology of pubs. It’s also a business-to-business wholesale kind of product. Between the pandemic, a patchwork of religious ‘pub free’ zoning, changing consumption patterns and desire to happily co-exist with longstanding local ale producers (ale having also undergone tremendous consolidation), we needed a different approach. Unsurprisingly, we chose craft beer.

In a few short years craft brewing in the UK has emerged from nowhere to become commonplace, and whilst some discuss the peak of the wave, others are noting how much room there remains for other voices and other approaches. The barriers to entry are normally high owing to structural reasons, whether cultural, or as with so many other endeavors economic (see Rebecca Trevalyan’s blog on some such barriers) and thus new brewers are more commonly drawn from a narrow, unrepresentative pool. The craft scene is underregulated in various ways, and traditional unions have been reluctant to approach the sector or even assist union members against unscrupulous owners.

We want to approach things differently, and have several benchmarks. To earn enough income to pay staff on a minimum of real living wage but aiming for a higher, flat wage for all employees, never resorting to zero hours. It’s rarely if ever possible (nor desirable) to run a commercially self-sustaining brewery on volunteerism, and our working group of trainee brewers are drawn from the hospitality sector in the local area themselves. We hope to work with partners on phasing in a 4 day full-time work week, and will be a pro-union organisation. And ultimately, we’d like to open a community owned brewery venue that can act as a social and cultural and not solely retail space.

Allied with City College, we will also be working to facilitate teaching staff and students to make the most of the brewery as an educational resource again, for students and the wider community, not just in terms of hospitality, but science, business and other areas as we grow and develop.

Getting here has been extraordinarily challenging, and half of the work and all its accompanying uncertainty still lies ahead of us. We have faced periods of dormancy and periods of grinding to a halt owing to the way the economy has been alternatively shut down and then forced through bottlenecks of high activity whilst the virus has been running unchecked, not to mention profound supply chain issues caused by or exacerbated by covid, Brexit and ‘acts of god’ few could foresee. We had to navigate different approaches, which thanks to Power To Change we have had the freedom to test. Right now we are gearing up to put out our launch product and publish our website, both of which will be ready after we all recover from Christmas, so stay tuned to Real Ideas channels for more info.

We want to see a future of worker and community run and owned production and venue enterprises. If we are to ‘build back better’, that must include hospitality and service, and that must include an irreversible shift in wealth and power to communities, and not merely empty slogans gesturing at this.

Real Ideas supported Borrowed Parts Co. on the Empowering Places programme. To find out more about the types of support we can offer, take a look at our membership where you could have access to 1-2-1 support, mentoring or coaching.

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