Thursday, 01 October 2015 11:15

Brewer focus: Mark Welsby, Runaway Brewery

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The unglamourous life of the lone brewer is a far cry from the white-collar world of big business.

Slick suits are traded in for workwear speckled with caustic burns. A modern office fashioned from sparkling glass and steel is scrapped in favour of a dingy industrial unit clad in corrugated metal.

And the buzz of a busy office is swapped for the rumbling groan of trains passing overhead.

Given the obvious differences, the route from corporate cog to solitary labourer might not appear to represent an obvious career path but it was exactly this contrast that appealed to Mark Welsby of Runaway Brewery. After 15 years working as a environmental engineer, he had reached breaking point and saw brewing as the perfect escape route.

Joining forces with long-time friend Darren Clayson, he took a huge leap of faith and bought Bespoke Brewing's old five-barrel kit to fit inside an industrial unit beneath a railway arch in Manchester's Green Quarter. Eighteen months later, Runaway has developed a reputation as one of the most reliable new breweries in Manchester.

"Darren had sold his business and I was miserable as sin in my job," says Mark. "We had both spent most of our lives working in corporate environments, which we hated, so we reached a point where we thought 'if we don't do something now, we're going to look back and think we've missed the opportunity'.

"Darren is a beer obsessive and CAMRA member, and I love the whole pub culture so starting a brewery really appealed to us both. The business environment in brewing is also relatively supportive because the industry is very collaborative and there are lots of microbreweries who help each other out. So it was a chance to move from a very competitive, corporate environment to the opposite of that, which was attractive.

"I just find the whole brewing process very satisfying and there's something tangible at the end. I used to do consultancy and there was nothing tangible about that. Actually having a product which you're proud of is a big change for me and it makes your efforts seem much more worthwhile.

"It was a life decision as much as a beer decision. I could say I loved beer so much that I had to open a brewery but it wasn't about that. It was more that I wanted to improve my life.

"I knew I wasn't motivated by money because, in my previous role, the more successful I got, the more miserable I got. Brewing gave us the chance to leave everything we hated about our previous jobs, so we came upon the name Runaway because we were both escaping our past lives."

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Unfortunately, this contrast between old career and new was also the source of Runaway's biggest challenge.

Without any previous brewing experience, the pair faced an incredibly steep learning curve before even being able to put any beer out to the public.

However, by absorbing crucial lessons from more experienced brewers and being careful not to overstretch themselves, they have largely managed to avoid any costly missteps.

"It has been a really big learning process," admits Mark. "Darren still lives down in Northamptonshire so he largely helps me with things like spreadsheets and accounts, while I do the brewing.

"We started out by doing a brew course at York Brewery with David Smith and I was also keen to gain experience by visiting other, well-established brewers in the area.

"I'm really precious about our output and constantly looking at ways I can refine our processes - as much as anything, it's a case of survival. When you're running a small business like this you have to be really careful not to let standards drop.

"People only see our beer on tap maybe once or twice a month, so if that experience isn't a good one then it's game over. The damage to your reputation would be huge, so it's really important to monitor yeast counts and keep tweaking recipes.

"I'm working very hard to ensure quality standards don't drop and so far we've been OK. But, as a result of this, one thing that has taken a back seat is the experimental side of brewing. I'm too focused on honing our quality to start thinking about what new styles we can create."

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This is reflected in a no-frills core range, which could never be considered groundbreaking but, equally, never seems to disappoint.

Year-round regulars comprise a Pale Ale, an IPA, an American Brown and a Smoked Porter, supplemented by a handful of seasonal specials, including a Summer Saison, Märzen Lager, Rye IPA and soon a Double IPA.

The two pales from the core range, in particular, offer persuasive lessons in simplicity - clean, well-balanced and popping with flavours of citrus and tropical fruit, which are vivid but never crude or overpowering.

Aside from concerns over consistency, this approach also hints at an intertwining of tradition and modernity. Runaway's beer is clearly influenced by the recent American craft scene, while also attempting to capture the straightforward drinkability of the old school English session ale.

Mark says, "Flavour and consistency must be in balance. I just want my beer to be better, not necessarily more exciting. We're not doing stupidly exciting beers because we don't want to do styles where there could be a huge variance in quality. But I'm content with that because, although our beer is never going to change the world, I hope it's beer that people will go back to.

"We've had good feedback to suggest a lot of people who wouldn't usually drink ale drink our beer and that's what I see it as. It's gateway beer and I want to appeal to everyone, not just people who sit round sniffing schooners and describing how it made them feel.

"I also don't want to just dive in and do experiments because I don't have the experience. If I plan to do more experimental stuff, the best way to do it would be as a collaboration with someone else where I can learn from them.

"I love sours and gose, for example, but I don't just want to do them because other people are. I'll only do it if we actually have something to add to the categories."

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One area where Runaway shows a clear bias towards a more modern approach is in choice of dispense.

Virtually the brewery's entire output is packaged in keg and bottle, with only the occasional special being produced for cask.

Although this is a practical decision rather than an ideological one, Mark is keen to change attitudes towards keg beer, particularly among long-time real ale drinkers.

A motion was passed at this year's Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) annual general meeting, which called for a labelling scheme to identify 'key keg' beer that conforms with CAMRA criteria for real ale. This effectively paved the way for beer stored in key kegs - a one-way container that uses air pressure to dispense the beer without exposing it to extraneous CO2 - to be classified as real ale and Mark believes this is a huge step in the right direction.

"We had to make some very pragmatic decisions at the outset, like deciding not to brew cask ale," adds Mark. "Washing, cleaning, chasing round after casks and the investment needed to get enough casks at the start were things we decided we didn't need to do.

"So we were forced down the keg route. We only use key kegs, which was our compromise position because it allows us to condition in the vessel, but I believe it's as much real ale as real ale.

"I'm not down on CAMRA but I did find the general attitude of some of their members towards breweries producing something that's slightly colder and slightly fizzier difficult to understand.

"It wasn't so much that they didn't recognise it but that, at one point, they seemed to be actively against it, which is a bit much when you consider what I'm doing is virtually the same as what every microbrewery has done for the last 30 years.

"Ultimately, I want as many people as possible to enjoy our beer rather than appealing to just one specific audience - whether that's people who drink craft beer or people who drink real ale. It's all just beer in the end and hopefully we can continue to change a few people's minds."

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