As a lead up to this year’s Birmingham Beer Bash and the inaugural Birmingham Beer Week we, of the Collective, thought it would be nice to have a chat with the 3 West Midlands brewers that are going to be at the Beer Bash.
The Life of Gwen
Our second profile is with Gwen Sanchirico of Sacre Brew, in Wolverhampton, who told us her rambling (her words) story of how a woman from over there (USA) ended up brewing over here. As usual we discussed her formative drinking years which, since her parents are Argentinian, involved wine rather than beer, and when she did start drinking the latter at college in New York, the choice apparently wasn’t great.
Did you start off drinking Bud and Miller?
My parents are from Argentina so I was allowed to drink wine growing up, diluted of course. So I really wasn’t interested in beer until I went to college. I hadn’t really tried beer much before then. I came to the UK in 1984, when I was 16, and had beer here.
Refining a Palate
She quickly made the distinction between good beer and crap beer, and as the burgeoning US craft beer scene began to grow, was able to begin drinking a few more unusual beers. She reckons her first epiphany beer, as we like to call them, was a Witbier from a small US brewery that no longer exists, and then Midas Touch from Dogfish Head.
I went to University and did a lot of beer drinking there. Well, I wasn’t a big drinker as most of the beer then was shit and even early I realised I had a refined palate – well, identified good beer from the bad.
To put things in context I went to University in 1985 and the craft beer/microbrewery revolution had started in the US in the 1970s when President Carter legalised home-brewing; his brother was a big fan of beer. What happened was a lot of people started home brewing and they realised their home-brew was much better than the crap they could get in the stores, so many went into business as micro-brewers, and people responded because there was more variety. The entire beer culture that had accumulated via immigration into the US was wiped out by Prohibition. So by 1979 nobody had a clue, unless you travelled to a place with a big beer culture.
Was there an ‘Epiphany’ beer?
Nothing really blew my mind away at college, but sometime later – there was beer called W!t. It was a witbier, but not a typical witbier, as it was Americanised, and a little different. It was really easy drinking and had lots of interesting flavours. What really made me crazy, in a good way, was Dogfish Head Midas Touch. I tried that and it’s like a wine or brandy, not really beery, just this amazing combination of flavours and textures. Dogfish Head worked with this molecular archaeologist, who would analyse residues inside pottery at ancient grave sites and archaeological sites. They would test it and they identify what the crud on the pottery was. There was a site in Turkey and they analysed the pottery used to store a liquid back then. They used that and a bit of artistic licence and produced a beer called Midas Touch. It had raisins, honey, grape must, some type of grain, and malted barley. Dogfish Head created a series of beers reconstructed from archaeological sites thousands of years old to show, fun, but to also show beer has been around before agriculture, and in every culture. So it’s an important beverage. Midas Touch really resonated with me. It’s more like a Barley Wine character, but actually some ancient and weird thing.
Sacre Home Brew
Both beers opened up a world of possibilities and when she started home brewing in the 90s it led to some experimentation i.e. her first beer was a spruce beer.
In 1993 there was an article in the local magazine, while I was living in Manhattan. They interviewed owners of two home brew stores in Manhattan and there were saying ‘you buy a kit for this much, and in brewing you could do this, this, and this’ – the reporter broke down the cost per bottle etc. That really appealed to me. I like cooking and stuff. My boyfriend and I then bought a kit. The kit came with a book called ‘The Joy of Homebrewing’ by Charlie Papazian and he covered different styles. There was a lot of emphasis on British beer, different stuff, at least better than ‘Old Milwaukee.’
I was very creative as a home-brewer and would make beer with vanilla and beetroot; spruce was my first beer, and I liked to experiment a lot.
Jumping the Pond
After moving around a lot including 6 years in Idaho she ended up back in New York and met her future husband at a gig in Brooklyn. After a couple of years of a long distance relationship it was decided that one of them would need to move and, to some of us, it seems Gwen drew the short straw and ended up in Wolverhampton in 2012.
So what brought you to England in the first place?
I married a man living in Wolverhampton. We met at a concert in Brooklyn. We did the long distance thing, but realised if we wanted the relationship to continue we would need to get married and one of us would need to move. It made more sense for me to move here. Even when being given the choice between New York City and Wolverhampton – the choice was obvious!
Her most recent job in the States had been as a project manager for a software development team but a similar job was hard to come by in the UK, so when Wolverhampton City Council announced a contest to find budding entrepreneurs, she thought she’d have a go. And after complaining about the state of some of the British beer she was drinking, her mother in law suggested she opened a brewery, and so Sacre Brew was born.
When you moved here did you know what you wanted to do? Did you consider brewing?
No, not really. I couldn’t get a job over here. I had the credentials, but people didn’t seem to… understand them. I was aware of a glut of project managers looking for work at the same time. Plus I’m an immigrant, and that’s always a disadvantage, as they assumed I would move back in a year etc.
After a year I got sick of looking – and it was soul sucking looking for work. I hadn’t brought my kit with me and hadn’t brewed in a few years. There was a contest for entrepreneurs who wanted to start a business. Wolverhampton Council organised it. There was a financial reward for winning it. I filled out the form and was selected.
They gave us training, including how to do a business plan and how to do financial forecasts etc. There were a series of workshops. There was a lot of mentoring with the financial stuff. I submitted an application as I was not working and my husband said ‘you have to do something.’ He agreed I shouldn’t work at Burger King, so that was cool. I assessed my skills and asked myself ‘what could I do here that would be of value and would like to do?’
I was at the pub with family and I had a beer and I was bitching about it like I usually did, and my mother-in-law said, ‘Why don’t you open your own brewery, join the competition, and see what you get?”
The Name Sacre Brew
She told us that she had played bass guitar for many years, including a project that just had 2 bassists which must’ve been interesting, but the brewery name came from her stage name in an earlier band, Gwen Sacre-Bleu.
I played bass guitar and played in bands and stuff, as often as I could. I started playing guitar when I was 13. In college somebody needed a bassist, so I bought a really cheap bass. My stage name was Gwen Sacre-Bleu, with this horrible band haVeblue. Each band member had ‘blue’ in their name. As my name is Sanchirico it has some of the same letters and sounds. When I was looking to open the brewery, looking to build a website, Twitter, things like that, I still didn’t have a name. It was the last thing I did. One of my friends suggested my old stage name, and another friend said, ‘How about Sacre Brew?’ and I loved it. A lot of people seem to like it, although a lot of people mistakenly call it Scare Brew.
A Home to Brew From
Her first 3 months brewing were on a small 20 litre kit in a local restaurant called the Hungry Bistro where she sold her beer, but after a 6-month search she found a place on an industrial estate in early 2014.
First I linked up with one of the Wolverhampton business competition winners, Richard Brown, who had opened a restaurant called Hungry Bistro, and makes nice affordable food. We had similar standards and philosophies about food and drink. He invited me to brew on his premises with my 20l pilot kit until I found some premises. The relationship was he would get to sell my beer in his restaurant and anything left over I could sell to others. I was glad to get stuff out there and start building a reputation. That was really helpful. It took a few months to find a permanent place. I really needed to make a pest of myself to get it. I moved in March 24th 2014.
With help from some local bottle shops stocking the beers as well, and a bit of crowd funding she was able to upgrade the equipment and her flagship beer, ‘Man on the Oss,’ was launched. This was a sessionable saison, whose name was inspired by hearing the locals of Wolverhampton arranging to meet by the statue of Prince Albert on horseback, but she told us a lot of the names have no meaning, and some of the weirder ones are done to mess with people’s heads i.e. who is Ocipio and where does this blood lust come from?
Gwen’s history of fundraising was instrumental in setting up, as crowd funding played a major part in meeting the financial needs of setting up. This process also helped to build a sense of community around the brewery, something Gwen has been keen to continue to foster.
When I moved to Idaho I didn’t really know many people, so I got involved in the local Green Party. I did lots of issues-based activism, community organising, and campaigning on things that were important to me – mostly environmental and social justice stuff. I worked on 13 different campaigns for various offices from highway division commissioner to state senate, and did some fundraising for those campaigns. So I learned how to ask people for money.
So when I wanted to set up this brewery, I had nothing, I never made a lot of money working, and what little I did have I blew on flying to UK to see my now-husband. All I really had was my pension, which was only made up of the money my employer contributed, so it wasn’t a lot.
I realised I needed more money. Through the financial planning I had to do, I worked out what I needed to set up. I had seen Indiegogo campaigns for a number of things, including microbreweries. I researched crowed funding; I looked at what other microbreweries where doing and what incentives they were offering and decided I would give it a try. I had no other recourse. I didn’t really want any investors, because I didn’t really want people telling me what to do, especially when you have quite strong ideas of how you want to do something.
I raised more than £6,000 in 30 days and it was a really good experience – it was very humbling and it was incredible that people wanted to contribute. People were generous and people continue to be generous, as the brewery continues to receive donations now.
It has been really helpful as the brewery had a few problems over time, last year – I needed a new bottler as I was still using a normal one like home-brewers use. I found a very basic but efficient bottler at a very reasonable cost. This time I decided not to go with Indiegogo and raise the money via my own website and social media. I was able to raise it and that is where I met Alec (@MrTeaBelly) who has become one of my main volunteers in the brewery.
A Brewer with a Community Focus
It’s clear from talking to Gwen she is a person who cares and believes in action. It is fantastic to see Sacre Brew is a business that is ran along the lines of her values and beliefs.
It strikes me that they’re doing the crowd funding and seeing how you interact with people and fans of the brewery it seems you have created a kind of community feel has that been something you have purposely tried to create.
Yeah, I have a manifesto how I think this business should be run, and community building is a part of it and giving back to it is important to me. I tried to do this in practical ways such as giving away some of my mistake beers to a local art gallery, and I am very generous with many of the customers that come to the brewery.
You know beer brings people together and I think a brewery should do it should too because that’s where the beer’s being made.
I really like art and believe that art should be integrated into everyday life. It stimulates and creates conversation, and I want people to be stimulated by my beer, including the name, the artwork, and beer itself. Some of the artwork on the bottles is from friends, but also local artists. I’m not able to pay them but I do try to give them lots of exposure, including space on my website, information on the bottle, and exposure via social media.
I feel that a lot of your values and your attitudes are born out in your beers in the flavours in the style that you make.
I have a friend that does describe Sacre Brew as an extension of me so if you don’t like me, you’re probably not going to like my beers. I also run the brewery with my own values and philosophies.
Gwen does not plan to stand still and has big plans for the future.
What is the future for Sacre Brew?
In the short-term I would also like more space in the brewery with more fermenters coming enabling me to increase production. Long term, my original plan was to open a Brew Pub, a space for people to come and drink my beer directly from the source and eat great food; the bar at the brewery is a bit of a trial run for a Brew Pub. I would like to continue to engage with the community including using more local artists for the bottle labels. I envisage my beers becoming sought after, exciting recipes that people travel to have therefore bringing people to Wolverhampton.
Gwen, a woman who speaks her mind and lets her beers speak for themselves, and you can hear them both speak at Birmingham Beer Bash.
Sacre Brew can be found at Unit 13, Monmore Road, Wolverhampton, WV1 2TZ, www.sacrebrew.com, @sacrebrew & www.facebook.com/sacrebrew. The tap room at the brewery is currently on hiatus but will be open most weekends again in August (see social media or contact Gwen for more info) and if you’d like to find out more, you’ll be able to meet Gwen at Birmingham Beer Bash and try some of her award-winning beers.