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Bolton's independent brewers and an innovating industry in distress

“The government has put the small brewing industry in such distress by failing to cut VAT..." - as brewers in and around Bolton innovate and battle for success, at least 100 nationwide have closed and for many - simply surviving is the day-to-day priority

February 29 2024, 11.30am

A man and a woman walk into a pub. The barman looks up and asks: “The usual?”

Not the start of some hoary old joke but a question encapsulating the conditions facing the independent brewers of Bolton and beyond. There are fewer men and women walking in and so it might not be business as usual for this once booming industry.

Not everyone loves the term “craft beer” because it tends to exclude brewers of more traditional “real” cask ales but whether cask, keg, bottle or can, the independent sector took off in the roughly two decades to 2021, reaching a high water mark of 1,902 new breweries, according to the Good Beer Guide. But at least 100 have closed since, and for 63 per cent of those remaining, according to a survey by the Society of Independent Brewers, the business priority is simply survival.

“In Bolton, if you include all the micro-breweries, there must be eight to 10, all vying for an increasingly small marketplace,” Ben Sweeney, head brewer at Bank Top Brewery, tells The Bolton Lead. “Pubs are shutting left, right and centre. A lot of the breweries that have gone or have got into trouble are the ones that have expanded drastically, fairly quickly, with a heavy debt burden. And the recent rises in interest rates have really tightened those screws. 

“Here, we own everything. There’s no debt on anything so we can survive fairly easily, but the marketplace is not what it was. People don’t drink beer the way they used to. People can’t afford their mortgages, the cost of living crisis – everything is screwing people right down to the ground. People don’t have the money to go out.”

Bank Top is prehistoric in the novelty-driven world of beer, started on Back St near Bolton town centre in 1995 by keen home brewer John Feeney, with his redundancy money and a start-up grant. As Bolton’s only indie brewer then, it prospered producing sessionable beers, including a dark mild. A key customer was the Howcroft pub next door, once a regular haunt of The Bolton Lead

Feeney’s friend, former engineer Dave Sweeney, came on board in 1999, using his technical skills to improve brewing efficiency. In 2002 it moved to the long-closed Bank Top tennis club, in the former mill village to the north of Bolton – a grade II listed building near Feeney’s house that he’d long had his eye on but, in practical brewing terms, probably shouldn’t have.

The operation’s custom-built 11-barrel brew plant is packed tightly down some steep stairs. There’s precious little space elsewhere. Current head brewer Ben Sweeney, Dave’s son, perches in the reception on some sacks of malt from longstanding supplier Crisp, his father talking to a contact over the dark wood counter, as he agrees with The Bolton Lead that something changed around the time of Bank Top’s establishment. 

Previously everybody knew somebody who made home brew – someone’s dad or grandad – and more often than not it was undrinkable. It was the internet that allowed amateurs to share tips and raise their standards that not only pleased their friends but enabled them to become professionals as well.

“It was also these,” says Sweeney, enthusiastically holding up a handful of green-ish matter and rubbing it between his fingers. 

The emergence of hops from the US, Australia and New Zealand was the other key component in modern brewing’s growth. They brought more flavours and aromas than the traditional British ones, and they were embraced eagerly, sometimes too eagerly in the case of “hop monsters”, by the trendsetters.

Ben says Bank Top’s range sits somewhere in the middle. Its dark mild and its pale bitter, Flat Cap, are ever-presents since 1995. “Palomino is up there, nice and hoppy but balanced. I don’t see us doing a hazy beer, with their super-strong, punching in the nose aromas. I’d struggle to drink more than a pint of that because they’re so overpowering on the senses. Why brew a beer that you don’t want to go to a pub and drink?”


His brewer’s curiosity has been sated by its Brewery Session Series, using hops newly developed by its sole supplier Charles Haram. One of them, Harlequin, uses the hop of the same name in a search for a UK alternative to the hallmark passionfruit and grapefruit flavours of the ubiquitous Citra of the US.

“It can be be mundane as a brewer working with just eight or nine recipes so it’s refreshing to play around with a new hop, a new malt or a new way of doing things – doing your hop stages differently, for example, or swapping your hops around,” says Ben. “It also gives customers novelty – something new.”

“We’re taxed left, right and centre on this side of the business,”

Sales for Bank Top are pubs and bars broadly along the M6 corridor. Critically though, it also has three of its own outlets – the Brewery Tap, opened not far away in 2010, the Ale House in Horwich and, from 2019, the Old England Forever in Clayton-le-Moors. They eschew modern trappings such as TV, fruit machines and jukeboxes in favour of quiet background music, beer gardens and, of course, their own beers.

“My dad advocated it for years. He said each brewer should own at least one outlet to guarantee sales.

“We’re taxed left, right and centre on this side of the business,” says Ben from his malt-sack vantage point. “We’re lucky if I can get £1 a pint off people, whereas pubs are charging £4, £4.50. 

“That’s where the money is. If you’re a brewer and you own your own pub you’ve secured your outlet and the cashflow’s far greater on that side. If you have one, two, three, four, five pubs you don’t have to go touting for business all the time.”

Whether Bolton has an especially vibrant independent brewing scene or one that’s common to most big northern towns is a moot point. Enthusiasts agree that it’s no Manchester, where few railway arches lack tap rooms. But there are plenty of names, including Northern Monkey – whose co-founder Liam Convey grew up drinking Flat Cap and  was aided in his initial home brewing enthusiasm by a former Bank Top employee who was a good friend – and Blackedge of Horwich, another quality amateur-to-professional outfit, which started in 2009 when there were few others around.

But the wider region as a whole is certainly strong, beer writer Melissa Cole tells The Bolton Lead: “I learnt my beer drinking in the North. The whole of the North West has always been very much a beer area. 

“One of the reasons for that is that home brewing lasted a lot longer than it did in the South so the connection is deep rooted. Also there’s much more of a community pub attitude than I experience pretty much anywhere else in the country. People really do have a generational aspect to their lives and their community, which still exists but has broken up in other areas.

“You often go to the pub with family or the one your mum and dad drank in. It’s something the North West does better than anywhere else in the world. And that will really foster the environment you want to create great breweries that rely on that kind of regular clientele.”

Micro-brewery Northern Monkey started making cask beers in 2016 and then moved on to keg, which uses gas for carbonation. With this newer format, synonymous with the craft beer boom, it’s making beers that are more hoppy than traditional ones. Its range, brewed two or three times a week, has included a flagship mild, but also a coffee stout, a New England IPA, double dry-hopped products, a chocolate treacle porter and a Czech-style pils lager. But also some traditional ones, notes Convey.

“It’s quite a mixture, which keeps your market open,” he says. “Some places will only have traditional beers. Some don’t want any easygoing or boring stuff.

“We’re always doing something new. You’ve got to be pioneering.”


“We’re always doing something new. You’ve got to be pioneering.”


Convey says Bolton’s scene “holds its own” and “if you’re short of a bag of grain you can pop over” to speak nicely to another friendly brewer but he acknowledges that the overall market is saturated. Its sales are mainly in the North West but it also uses the distributor EeBriaTrade for outlets further afield. But it’s a tough environment, he says, with bars and pubs not doing so well. “They’re not buying as much as previously.” 

Like others, he says Christmas is no longer a big deal for brewers. The office parties are much thinner on the ground since Covid. But January was “surprisingly busy”. And as they are for Bank Top and Blackedge, its own outlets are critically important for Northern Monkey. 

It has a big bar in Nelson Square in the town centre, a taproom on Chorley Street on the edge – and, in summer, Boaters Bar on the bank of Lake Windermere, which is unsurprisingly very busy in the summer.

“Your own outlets are crucial,” says Convey. “A lot of brewers are going under these days because they don’t have their own outlets. 

“I think it helps that we’re not that big. Overheads can swallow you up.”

Business was unexpectedly busy at the start of the year for Blackedge too, says co-founder Wayne Roper, one-time Guinness drinker turned real ale fan who moved from brewing his own to setting up the company after taking voluntary redundancy as operations director for a national shopfitting company. He hopes a busy first quarter will stave off the threat of redundancy hanging over two staff as a result of rising costs despite decent revenue.

After he and his friend Shaun Reynolds swapped basic brewing kits as birthday presents in 2006-07, they caught the bug and ascended from Blackrod garden shed to a local unit, after realising they preferred their own beers on a Saturday afternoons to the ones they were drinking out later that evening. 

After moving to a bigger unit next door and opening a bar on a Saturday afternoon, they found 30-40 people agreeing with them and Roper found himself taking the leap to full time, with his dad, a retired salesman, showing him how to do the cold-calling. “As long it paid a wage I was fairly happy doing it.”

Today the brewery is in Moreton Mill, Horwich, with, since 2015, a taproom above. Beers are inspired by British history but also visits to the US West Coast. Among the core, Pike (named after nearby Rivington Pike) is close to a bitter, Hop was seen as hoppy when it was introduced but less so now, and the recipe for a best-selling black stout has never changed. Roper doesn’t have much time for the keg v cask debate that detains some beer lovers, insisting it’s “it’s all handcrafted, it’s all craft beer”.

“The difficulty comes in selling that second, third and fourth barrels…

He says because the barriers to entry are low, there is bad beer out there, but it will sell at first because of the novelty value. 

“The difficulty comes in selling that second, third and fourth barrels. You can only do that if you make a good product that people like to drink.

“We don’t skimp on quality. If something’s not right, it can’t go out. Fortunately I can probably count on one hand in 14 years the beers that didn’t hit the standard or where we said we’ll see how it goes but maybe we won’t brew that again.”

Blackedge’s taproom has “flown all year”, its Westhoughton bar opened in 2019 is “up, though not as much as Horwich”, and now Blackedge has the Ribblesdale Tap in the centre of Blackburn, right across from St George’s Theatre.

“On a Monday morning if you’ve already got 20 barrels of beer loaded on a van without making a phone call it just makes life so much easier,” says Roper. “You can cover your costs with your own outlets. 

“I think brewers that don’t have their own outlets now will struggle. A lot of brewers now are thinking they need a bar, they need to stick some tables in the brewery over the weekend. I think that’s essential now.”

It’s provided some cover for a “diabolical” first two weeks of December. Sales may be over forecast and there’s that strong start to the year “but we have got pressures”, says Roper, hence the possible redundancies. 


Rachel Birch, Director of The Beer School, Westhoughton. Credit: Marge Bradshaw Photography


There is concern that any pub customers that are in trouble may not be able to pay their bills. “But the biggest challenge we’ve had is that our energy contract ended last March and our electricity costs have tripled, which is ridiculous. It’s a full-time salary we’re paying extra per month for electricity at the minute.”

Blackedge joined the Beer School on Westhoughton’s Market St, the bar opened by former teacher Rachel Birch in 2016 after she had had enough of the classroom workload. She’d long been a pint-drinking cask beer lover herself, earning jokes from her family but also a more serious concern. Her move from business plan and loan to learning how to renovate an old offie on the town’s main street was a quick one. Soon after opening, a couple asked to speak her. She thought she’d done something wrong but their request was whether gay people could come into the pub.

“I can’t believe you have to ask that,” she recalls thinking. ‘You have to come off the street to ask the management before you get a drink. Is that a thing? 

“I need people to feel you can come in here.”

“That’s how some women feel, that’s how some minority groups feel. I can’t speak for those groups but I need people to feel you can come in here. This is not the place where people are going to stare at you, belittle you about what your choices are, what you drink.”

As a counterpoint to traditional pubs, the bar was soon doing well, despite her needing to do a bit of gentle education for customers unused to more expensive craft beers. Her beer philosophy is “UK independent beers, often based on a people thing, like with Julie at Neptune in Liverpool - the passion is there. We have nano-breweries, micro-breweries, even up medium-sized like Holts. 

“I find and sell beer that I want to drink.

“We have a massive range, not just hazy IPAs and DIPAs but a bit of everything. Dark milds. People think they only like one thing but come and have a go at something else, ask me questions, why is it £5? I’ll tell you. 

“I’m here to explore and investigate the varieties on behalf of the people of Westhougton.”

Business now is OK, says Birch, better perhaps than you might expect but it’s nothing like it was before Covid, “and I don’t think it will ever be”. Utility bills are “ridiculous”, rent has gone up. Beer prices are rising. Licensing fees and a PRS licence to play music are add-ons.

She has a policy of only taking one barrel at a time so she can keep rotating, but that means more time spent working in the bar, and less opportunity to seek discounts for volume. That might have to change. There are more people living in Westhoughton, because of its links, but they are yet to bring increased footfall to its streets – although she thinks they will.


But elsewhere the closures continue, including Leeds stalwart North Brewing Co, rescued from administration by Kirkstall Brewery, Squawk of Manchester and a biggie that caused shockwaves - Black Sheep, founded in North Yorkshire in 1992. 

According to SIBA, the North West experienced a net closure rate of -14 in 2023, higher than the national average. SIBA chief executive Andy Slee blamed “the combined effect of rising production costs hurting margins and the cost of living crisis lowering sales”.

Ben Sweeney says last year’s reduction in duty on beer actually benefited bigger breweries more than Bank Top and calls for grants for reinvestment in plant and premises to help the industry. 

Cole, author of five books about beer and a frequent judge in beer competitions across the world, says: “The government has put the small brewing industry in such distress by failing to cut VAT and ensuring a secure energy pipeline to the UK.

“Plus there’s been a global squeeze on the price of aluminium and the price of cardboard, which was particularly pushed up during the pandemic. 

“All of these things people don’t necessarily think about when it comes to a brewery. But there is not a single element of a brewer’s expenditure that has come down. The pressures are manifold and that’s what’s putting so many of these people out of business.”

She says it’s time for legislative reform to combat the evils of Beer Orders in 1989. These were intended to loosen the monopoly of the big brewery companies, capping the number of pubs they could own, but had a perverse effect of strengthening their stranglehold.

“Beer Orders reform should stop big companies blocking small brewers,” says Cole. “Big brewers can pay to play. 

“Because of their vast resources they can wait out smaller breweries taking their business by simply making enough money to keep shareholders happy for now and blocking off taps until they choke off competition. That is happening a lot.”

She says bars can do things to ensure they remain attractive – making them warm and comforting, offering good non-alcoholic drinks, “making sure you’ve got an affordable beer on year round - a low ABV beer that you’ve got the minimum of taxation on, making sure that it’s incredibly well priced so that people who are in more difficult financial straits who want to come out and socialise can afford to.

“People might say they can just do without. I’m sorry but you are asking people to totally isolate themselves and that’s really bad for their mental health. I’m not saying alcohol’s good for your mental health but it’s really important people also know there’s a place they can go where they can talk about their problems.”

But there’s an imperative for customers too, she adds. “If you do not support your local breweries, particularly at their own outlets, you will lose them.

“For starters, you are putting money back into your local economy. Every job in brewing produces a job in the supply chain, a job in agriculture and a job in retail. This is unbelievably important to our ecosystem. This is supporting local employment. 

Big breweries don’t do that. Everything is mechanised, everything is done by as few humans as possible. 

“Smaller breweries can’t do that. The economies of scale just don’t work. So they employ people. They employ drivers. They employ people in the taproom. They employ back office staff. This is all really important. It’s valuable employment, particularly at this moment in time.
“You’re not just buying a pint of beer – you’re making your local community better.”

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