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It’s been quite a rise to fame for Newport’s Tiny Rebel brewery. In less than ten years, the brewery has gone from two men producing two beers out of a converted garage to a 60-employee strong organisation, brewing on a dual steam 30-barrel brewhouse and exporting beer to over 20 countries around the world. Along the way, the Welsh brewery has found favour among craft beer geeks and traditional real ale enthusiasts alike, but undoubtedly the key moment in its history came in August 2015, when its flagship 4.6 per cent red ale, Cwtch, took home the ‘Champion Beer of Britain’ at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival.
“The week after we won the award I think we brewed Cwtch six times out of eight,” laughs Niall Thomas, the brewery’s Regional Sales Manager. “It was just Cwtch cask after Cwtch cask…but you’ve got to give the people what they want!
“Winning Champion Beer of Britain was absolutely huge for us; we’re the youngest ever brewery to have won it, and the only brewery from Wales. It’s the top brewing award in the country and to have won it so quickly after opening is an enormous achievement. A lot of breweries can only dream of it.”
Tiny Rebel’s journey began in a similar way to that of many other breweries in the industry. Brad Cummings and Gareth Williams (Gazz) were thrown together after Gazz married Brad’s sister and the duo became brothers-in law. Gazz, a keen homebrewer and cask ale lover, roped Brad into his brewing experiments in a converted garage on the weekends. After receiving some positive feedback from friends and family, the two men invested in a fifty-litre homebrew kit and began to perfect their recipes.
In February 2012, the brewery officially launched with two beers, Fubar, a 4.4 per cent pale ale, and Urban IPA. These were swiftly followed by Cwtch and Dirty Stop Out, the brewery’s 5 per cent smoked oatmeal stout.
“It was a pretty quick rise from there,” admits Niall. “The first year we were eligible, our beers took a one, two, three at the Great Welsh Beer Festival – the first time any Welsh brewery has taken gold, silver and bronze at the same festival – and the year after that, we won gold again, which was the first time anyone has defended a gold.”
The following year, Cwtch won Champion Beer of Britain.
With interest in their beers soaring, Tiny Rebel were soon struggling to cope with the demand. “We’d already been at capacity at the old brewery before we won at GBBF,” Niall explains, “and when you win an award like that you’re the biggest news in the brewing industry for the next couple of months. It can put a huge strain on production.” To cope, the brewery squeezed two more fermenting tanks into their old site, and switched to shift patterns, brewing twice a day, ten times a week.
Eventually, however, a new site was needed. Plans were drawn up and investment sourced for a new £2.6m brewhouse site, ten minutes away from the old brewery. The new brewkit was installed in December 2016, and production moved at the start of this year. “All the profits for the past five years have gone into the new site,” Niall says, “the new brewhouse is a dual stream 30 barrel; each stream can brew 5,000 litres and they can run virtually side by side. Going forward if we really wanted to we could go back to a shift pattern and brew four times a day, but at the moment we’re brewing at most twice a day.”
The new brewhouse is certainly an impressive sight, with on site canning and bottling lines, as well as plans for a glass-fronted taproom overlooking the Welsh valleys. So what has been the secret behind Tiny Rebel’s rapid ascent to success?
“I think the key for us has been organic growth,” Niall explains, “We’ve never tried to run too fast; we wait to see where the demand takes us, and we’ve found that whenever we’ve grown, the demand grows, probably quicker than we can. We’re producing as much beer as we can, and there doesn’t seem to be an end to the demand for it, which seems to be a sign that we’re doing well.”
“We’ve also got a really good and talented team. We like to promote and utilise those resources as best we can. I joined the sales team from one of the bars; the management teams in the bars were all previously existing bar staff. We like to foster skills and reward people.”
Looking to the future, the brewery’s focus is on finishing work at the new site, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be releasing any new beers anytime soon. Indeed, one big new release is planned in the next month or so, but is still very much under wraps, so much so that we are forbidden from taking photos or writing about it. “We love experimenting,” Niall says, “Last year alone we released 30 new beers. The new brewery site obviously takes a bit of time and attention away from that sort of thing, but hopefully soon we’ll have the time to do a few more exciting things.”
One thing Tiny Rebel won’t be doing, however, is turning their backs on cask beer, as other breweries in the industry have recently done. “For us personally, we see cask as our personal origins,” explains Niall, “it’s what Gazz was brought up with and what sparked the idea for the brewery. But also it’s the origin story of beer in the UK; it’s a very British style and we see it as an integral part of the beer scene here.”
Nonetheless, Niall is keen to emphasise that the brewery don’t begrudge any of their fellow brewers turning their backs on the style. “It’s their business at the end of the day and they know their customer base better than anyone,” he says. “It would be silly to commit to something that’s going to lose you money, and from a beer perspective you’ve got to brew what you like brewing.”
“It’s down to local preference, but the key is to brew what you love; that’s the only thing we can do.”
*This article originally appeared in Issue 14 of Ferment magazine, and has been reproduced here with their permission*