Cheers to Christmas: Organic Ale

by Michael Wale

Wim Van Der Spek and Sue Cooper met in Nepal 12 years ago, which sounds fairly normal. But their meeting was very different indeed.

Sue was about to cycle home to the UK after working for two years with the Voluntary Services Overseas. As for Wim, he had just cycled to Nepal through Tibet from Holland. Because of their love for cycling they were introduced, but then cycled off separately.

But they were obviously meant for each other, because they ‘bumped’ into each other in…India, as one does! So they cycled together through a couple of countries. Wim was on his way to Munich to take his Brewers certification. Sue was going back to Britain with little hope of a job.

Later Wim was to end up at Black Isle Brewery in Scotland. Sue managed a Development Trust in Burnley while living in Hebden Bridge. In the mid-2000’s Wim came south to be with her. After surely qualifying for one of the long distance love affairs of all time.

Wim worked for a Halifax food packing company while the couple put together a business plan to start an organic brewery. They needed above all a cheap building which they were to find high up on the Pennines, 1,000 feet above Hebden Bridge at Turkey Lodge farm. The landlord was a pig farmer, but had decided to retire and switch from agriculture to a future in business.

But for the two budding brewers time and money had to be spent on their first brew without a hope of profit, in their bid for Soil Association recognition. They were successful and are totally organic with the Soil Association logo on every bottle.

It was only four years ago that Sue started to work full time in the brewery, because she had had to support its early days with her earnings. Now the Little Valley brewery employs six people. Sue does the selling and marketing of the bottled production. She says : “ You can have a fantastic product with mediocre sales. You don’t get anywhere. The pub market is 90%-95% tied. We’re creating a data base all the time. In the cash market what counts the most is good beer, and what is important is the price. The organic thing needs to get over that. 

Organic is about lifestyle choice, you can’t say it tastes better. For everybody else it’s about good quality. It’s got to be commercially viable. It does cost us more to produce, but you have just got to be competitive in the marketplace”.

Sue talked to me in a small room with their dozen different bottled beers on display up one wall. Every now and again the phone would rung and she would have to dart away, because it could mean an order. Little Valley, and that means Sue, is now selling half a million bottles year. As she says : “ Our main growth has been in this past year. In fact our overall sales went up 52% , that was because we put more time into sales and marketing”.

Sue even had a visit to Clarence House, where she met Prince Charles as a result of one of their beers Tod’s Blonde winning an organic award, which he presented. They were also invited to brew and label a special beer for a Soil Association event.

As a result their market is widening. Booths, a family run group of supermarkets based in the North of England, are stoking Little Vallet beers,, as are Asda is stores local to the brewery. Sainsburys too have taken the organic beer into some of its Yorkshire stores, but the most interesting development is the export market. Bottles of Little Valley organic ales are now being shipped to Finland, Denmark, Holland. Ireland, and most recently Hong Kong.

The drawback of all this success for Wim and Sue is that they hardly get any time off at all. Walking has re-placed their love of cycling, and on a recent day, one of their birthdays, they did get time to do a long walk across the moors on the land leading away for miles from their brewery.

Over Christmas Wim thinks they may only have one day off, because of the brewing process that takes three weeks, and has to be inspected not only daily, but every few hours, as the beer is piped from room to room at varying temperatures. Then there is the bottling procedure to be gone through, and those bottles have to be rested before being boxed up and despatched to customers.

Wim told me : “ I’m not quite sure what we will be having for our Christmas dinner, but the main thing is we will both be having a rest from the brewery, but not for that long. It is a very personal business, and we are at the centre of it. Not that I mind because I love the process of brewing”.

That says it all really. A dedication that is transmitted to the taste of their beer. As far as I was concerned…delicious. Here’s to an organic Christmas.

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Michael Wale
Michael Wale is a writer-broadcaster. His book, View From A Shed, tells the story of how he saved a West London allotment, and the characters who inhabit it. He is an inner city environmentalist, who runs a large allotment association.

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September 2014 in Food & Drink