Everyone told them not to do it, but Claire Brown had been made redundant and needed a job.
When her boyfriend at the time told her to come and work with him, she dismissed everyone’s misgivings about working with your other half and decided to go for it – it was the best decision she could have made.
Now, 15 years later the pair of them are happily married with two growing businesses in tow, Lincolnshire Brewing Co. and Spirit Bar, as well as owning The Crafty Bottle on The Strait in Lincoln.
Having started out as a graphic designer, Claire had worked her way up the ladder and moved into production management, becoming more involved in staff management and HR. Her and Karl had been together for around two years when she went to work for him.
Karl had been in the bar industry for years and it wasn’t until after the pair set up Spirit Bar, an outside events business, it became apparent that there was a gap in the market.
Claire said: “Over the years, we noticed there was a trend as more and more, people were asking for real ale on the bar.
“Real ale is very hard to transport, particularly when it’s come from another distributor. You can’t just keep moving it around and when you’re doing a one-off event, it needs to be right.”
It was from this that Karl decided to try his hand at brewing his own real ale. He invested in a small site on Monks Way in Lincoln in 2012 with a two and a half barrel system and started to see what he could come up with.
Brewing up a storm
Karl started to dabble in brewing his first beer. It took nine months but he succeeded, and enjoyed trying out his experiments.
First to the market was Friendly Rottweiler, named after the couple’s dog and it wasn’t long before it sold out. This was followed by Spicy Sausage in honour of Claire’s father, a butcher with a great reputation and they even brewed up a special recipe for the anniversary of the Magna Carta 1215.
The range kept expanding to include Great Tom, named after the clock bell on the cathedral and Angry Rottweiler, Friendly Rottweiler’s alter ego – not that this reflected their dog, who Claire says wouldn’t hurt a fly.
But all of their brews have one thing in common. They are all Lincolnshire focused.
“A lot of breweries around the area focus on the RAF and the planes and the war. But there’s only so many times that you can use ‘Bomber’ and ‘Command’ in a beer title.
“So we try to focus on names that are more personal to us, or to Lincoln itself and we still try and do that.”
One thing that the couple have learned throughout the process though is that there are no mistakes, only unintentional discoveries as with one of their one-off real ales, Dave’s Fook Up.
“Dave works in the brewery with Karl as a junior brewer and the proper story was that he was asked to do something, he didn’t concentrate and the beer was sparged too quickly, which is how you get your ABV.
“It was supposed to be Don’t be Bitter, which is a session bitter we do, and instead of coming out at 4% ABV, it came out at 6%.
“We were going to throw the beer away until I suggested that we do something with it and create another beer, a one-off beer. So Dave’s Fook Up was created.
“In The Crafty Bottle, we have quite a few beers from very prominent breweries where the names are a little bit less to be desired. These tend to come from massive brewers in America, and I just thought ‘Well, why not?’.
“Poor Dave, it wasn’t really his fault, he was learning, but I think he quite likes the idea that he has a beer named after him and he gets that it’s quirky and it’s great. It’s good to have a bit of a story behind the beer,” Claire laughed.
Betting on football
Claire wanted to do something that would not only boost trade but also promote the city. She secured a deal with Lincoln City Football Club to create a Lincolnshire red real ale called Cheeky Imp.
“I think I sent them a Facebook message and didn’t hear anything back for about a month. I didn’t expect it to go anywhere at all and then I got a phone call and this voice says, ‘Hi Claire, it’s Roger Bates Director of Youth Acadamy for Lincoln City.’
“I’m mouthing to Karl, whilst pointing at the phone. ‘It’s Lincoln City! It’s Lincoln City!’
“I was so excited.”
As Lincoln City, progress through the FA Cup, the first non-league team to reach the quarter-finals in 103 years, sales of Cheeky Imp have more than doubled and Karl has been stretched to keep up with demand.
“There’s been interest from pubs that don’t normally have it and are wanting to order it for the next match. We couldn’t have predicted that this was going to happen.
“People love buying it and we have sent it all over,” said Claire. “In the last week, we have sent some to Hong Kong so that a guy that’s living out there from this area can drink it while he’s watching the next match.”
10% of every bottle and every firkin, which holds 72 pints, sold is donated to the Lincoln City Youth Academy. So far, sales have raised over £1,500 for the club.
“It gives the parents and the supporters of the club a link to the club and it’s not really sponsorship but it’s raising money. The fans of the club are very passionate about football, they buy all the kit and I really like having the beer for the club, I think it’s great.”
I’ll drink to that
With sales and orders continually on the rise, Lincolnshire Brewing Co. invested in a new brewery at The George in Langworth as well as taking on the pub itself and saving another local drinking establishment from being closed in July, 2016.
Plans for the site include offering brewery tours, tastings and other exciting events such as wedding receptions, as well as food for customers in the pub once renovations are complete.
“The menu, which will feature around the beer, like beer battered fish and chips using our own beer, bangers and mash with sausages made by my dad, Whisby butcher, with our beer spicy sausage and steak and ale pie.”
The four-acre site has provided enough space to more than double the company’s brewing capacity to 5,000 litres a week and created several jobs.
Over the years, the company has grown by 75% and Claire and Karl have high hopes that they will be able to grow the same again over the next year.
“We would like to move into the craft beer side this year and we’re setting up another arm of the brewery to do that and just keep moving forward. Trends change. There’s definitely a market for the traditional real ales, but there’s also a massive market for these new and funky craft ales.”
Claire admits that without the loyalty of the staff, they would be at a loss, especially their Brewing and Events Executive Sam Abbott.
“He is literally Karl’s left hand and my right hand. He’s great. He is very much a key part of this company and if he was to leave, we would be really, really gutted to see him go because he does bring a lot to the business.”
Claire laughed, “Every time he comes in and we say, ‘Sam we’ve got an idea,’ you can see him go ‘Oh! That’s more hours I have to work’.
“I think we just keep pushing forward and I think you have to do that, you have to keep coming up with something new.
“Karl and I are very fortunate that we can spend 24/7 together and still get on,” Claire said with a smile across her face. “We’re very like-minded, but things that he’s not so good at, I am and vice versa.
“We both have weaknesses and strengths and I think we compliment each other and bring different elements to the business.”