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Interview with Greg Pilley, Stroud Brewery's Managing Director

Quick fire questions to get to know Greg:
  • My name: Greg
  • The brewery I work in and my role: Managing Director at Stroud Brewery
  • In the past I’ve worked as a: 
    "I studied Marine Biology and later I spent some time later in Nigeria managing a small wildlife conservation project there. As a result of that I started looking into traditional alcoholic beverages in Africa travelling around for 5 years looking at different indigenous drinks. Later I did a bit of landscape gardening in London and updated some guides for Cameroon, Kenya and Nigeria.
    Later I was interested in starting my own veggie box scheme supporting local farms which didn’t work out sadly but I was offered an opportunity linked to Community Supported Agriculture looking at how people can partner up with local farms to get food for their businesses and homes. This brought me to Stroud where I then decided to start a local brewery in Stroud with a fellow beer enthusiast."
  • My favourite type of beer:
    "I get stuck with this question because I honestly like all of them depending on the time and a context but my long standing favourite is our Budding - an easy, well-balanced, not too bitter and good flavour pale ale. In summer I do like the West Coast American IPAs for the flavour experience. Having said that I had an amazing coffee chocolate milk stout yesterday which I really enjoyed and confirmed my belief that we definitely have to make a milk stout ourselves, but getting that organic lactose proves to be difficult.”
  • In my free time I like to:
    "I enjoy going out for a paddle and a cycle. My ambition is to spend more time out in the wilderness with my camping gear."
  • My favourite bit about working in a brewery:
    "Mainly it’s the diversity. There’s a bit of everything - marketing, artwork, producing something people can enjoy. Now what I enjoy most is seeing the organism and autonomy that we’ve become and the people around it that make it happen."
  • A message I want to give to young and aspiring brewers:
    "There’s a fantastic book which is called ‘Designing great beer’ by Ray Daniels and although it being quite old, it cites every style of beer and its parameters. Apart from teaching me how to brew them, it gives you real insight into how to design good beer and how to experiment around that.”
Here's the full transcript of our interview:
  • Greg, how were the last months for you and has Stroud Brewery changed as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown?
    "Undoubtedly yes since our biggest customers are pubs in our area. 70% of all our sales were casks to local pubs which we’ve lost entirely for 3 months. Although it has come back slowly, we shifted our focus towards packaged beer during this time. Hence we’re also thinking about getting our own canning machine.
    Cask packaging is reused so in terms of margins cask is the best for us and if it brings people together to enjoy our beer that’s even better so drinking in a pub is fundamentally what our business is about. Drinking it out of a glass/ can packaging allows you to become more of an explorer and this is where things such as your QWERTY Beer Box come in handy as they allow people to see what’s out there and to find their favourites. For us, as a dedicated organic brewer, packing our beers in can and boxes opens us to a bigger market. However it is slightly counter intuitive for us in terms of the social bit and also the environmental cost - putting beer into small pack comes at a much much higher environmental cost compared to casks. We’ve had most of our casks since I’ve started 15 years ago. Glass bottles get used once, then get chucked into the recycling (hopefully) and overall generate much higher environmental costs in terms of transport."
  • Has your overall strategy therefore changed?
    "We have definitely become more resilient. It’s always been our strategy to sell wherever we can - we’ve sold to pubs, directly to customers, a bit of export etc. Small pack into retail hasn’t been a major focus beforehand but is definitely something we need to shift our focus towards as I said.

    We’re also going through a rebrand at the moment and we’re very lucky that we have an extremely strong local following, largely in pubs. But we want to make ourselves even more relevant and aim to export our brand more further afield. We do differentiate ourselves from the vast majority of breweries by being fully dedicated to organic brewing. Hence the rebrand should hopefully help boosting this message. Now it is Organic September but the rebrand will happen later in October. We are extremely excited for that and we are really hoping this will open up some doors.

    The other thing of course is our online sales and you’ve helped us a lot there with our Amazon shop. It is obvious that this is the first place where people go and we want to redo our own website so we can sell directly to our consumers through our own platform to replace the need for Amazon. If things would get locked down again we’ve got that ready!"
  • Other than yourself, we’re aware of 5 other fully organic breweries in the UK. What are your thoughts around that and do you believe recent events will increase this number?
    "I definitely think there will be more breweries shifting towards organic. I was looking at this in more detail a year ago and I also found 5 dedicated breweries that brew exclusively organic beers and there’s about 22 more that are certified to brew organic beer. Those quite often have one or two organic beers primarily to meet this niche of the market and less due to their values and their ethos. I think coming out of Covid people have started to ask more questions about life and our impact on ourselves and the planet. One of the things that comes out is that we’re becoming more conscious about our own vulnerability in terms of health but also the awareness of our life system and our planet being eroded. Organic farming is definitely becoming better understood as the sustainable way to farm and produce food.

    To sum up, I believe evidence shows that the organic market is growing especially with alcoholic drinks, but funnily enough with wine and not with beers. In fact, this is largely because organic growing suits grapes very well so there’s a lot of new organic wine out there which does improve our wildlife to the point where big wine producing countries such as Italy and France are really taking important steps there.

    Our stance is that if you truly want to be a sustainable brewery, and there’s a lot of them out there who do a lot of great things, you have to focus more on the raw materials rather than just looking around inside your brewery. The biggest input remains barley malt so if you are truly dedicated you would choose sustainable agriculture and I’d encourage any brewery to adopt that. We get asked very often about what it takes to be a fully organic brewery and to be honest it is not that much at the end of the day. The biggest cost is the compromise - we’ve got less raw materials available to us since a big amount of raw materials conventional breweries use are not available to us. This restricts us, especially when it comes to hops. There are only a handful of organic hops in the UK so we need to import some from Central Europe, America and New Zealand."

  • It really seems like hops are the bottleneck there. Moving on, we know the Cotswolds have great beer, we’ve met a lot of the amazing Devon brewers now and are about to tap into the Bristol craft beer scene. What other region would you suggest us to look at?
    "That’s a difficult one - there are so many breweries in the UK. For example East Anglia has got amazing barley and a couple of good breweries."

  • Is there anywhere you maybe spend your holidays where you’ve tasted great beer?
    "No, not really to be honest. I’ve only had 4 days of holidays since Christmas sadly so I barely get away. Manchester is seen as a craft beer hub by many but I wouldn’t go there on holiday. Unfortunately I do a very poor job exploring other breweries. Rob from the Good Beer has started some boxes and has sent some my way. I’ve really enjoyed those and this is where I had that great Milk Stout I mentioned earlier for example. When I do travel somewhere and go to a pub, inevitably the choice you have when it comes to cask beer is going to be around fairly light blonde ones. I discover new beers more through trying packaged beers that we receive."
  • Your mission sounds great and QWERTY Beer Box is somewhat aligned in terms of expanding that reach of local breweries and accessing a bigger market across the country. Do you want to say anything more regarding your organic push and the rebranding before we finish?
    "We really try to be very honest and transparent about what we can achieve. Some breweries say that they will save the planet. Of course, drinking Stroud Brewery beer will not do that but cumulatively all our decisions and actions should make a difference. The underlying message is that people are pretty disempowered these days and we feel quite disengaged from politics in the world and how we can make an influence. But the only thing that we definitely can do is to spend our money in the right place - just don’t spend it on business that do harm. If we are more conscious about what businesses are doing and the impact they have, then this will bring about true change. That’s the underlying message we want to give across."

  • What a lovely statement to wrap up with. Thanks a million for your time and good luck in Organic September!

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