In the first of a new series celebrating the breweries of the North of England, Guy Kilty visits the First Chop Brewing Arm in Salford.
Just three years ago, running a brewery was no more than an idea in Rik Garner’s imagination. After managing The First Chop pub in Ramsbottom for five years, he thought he’d have a go at making his own beer. Now, from a railway arch near Salford Central, the First Chop Brewing Arm pumps out nearly 6,000 pints a week and sends them in casks and bottles to pubs and craft beer shops all over the country.
Garner’s initial range of three beers has now been expanded to 12, all of which are packed with hard-hitting, hop-fuelled flavour. With its distinctive branding and simple, three-letter names like HOP, DOC and SYL, First Chop stands out in a crowded marketplace.
“I started brewing small quantities in a borrowed brewery,” Garner says. “I was going to brew four times in 2012, six times in 2013 – just sort of testing the market, seeing if people liked the beer. By early 2013 I’d brewed in one week pretty much what I’d intended to brew in the two years to keep up with what people were ordering. It’d go in one place and someone would drink it there and someone else would drink it and call us up and ask us for some. It just got on a roll from there.”
That success meant that Garner could stop borrowing a brewery and set up his own. And so the First Chop Brewing Arm moved into its current premises in May 2013. It’s not just brewing that goes on there either. In the back there’s a fully stocked bar while outside there’s space for punters to enjoy live music and freshly brewed ale when First Chop Brewing Arm holds special events. After one almost every weekend last summer, though, Garner plans to scale back on them this year. “They just get in the way of making beer,” he says.
At the moment, three people work at the brewery. Garner is in charge and heads up the all-important brewing process. Apprentice Jack has been there for nearly a year and he’s being primed to take over some of it later this year. Sean looks after sales and delivery – and things are looking pretty good on that front.
First Chop beers are currently delivered all around Salford and Greater Manchester, Merseyside and West Yorkshire. But the company is extending its geographical reach rapidly.
“Last week we sent a pallet down to London. The week before that we sent three pallets to the Bristol area and one to Brighton. There’s a pallet going to Oxfordshire this week. So it’s going all over. It’s been going to London for probably just over a year.”
So does Garner want the brewery to get bigger and bigger? This year will be all about upgrading the equipment, he says, but the plan is not to just keep on expanding.
“I could double what I do now but I don’t think I’d ever want to go any bigger than that. I’m quite happy doing it at the scale that it’s at now and staying at that size. But I don’t know. If we were regularly running out of beer, you never know, do you? You cross that bridge when you come to it.”
And what about the long-term vision? “Retire in about eight years’ time and never work again,” Garner says. “My daughter will be 18 in nine years. She can take over then.”
Does she like brewing beer? “No, I don’t think she’d be interested to be honest. But you never know.”
By Guy Kilty