Pete Flynn profiles local entrepreneur whose small brewery goes from strength to strength
I was in for a surprise when I met Jim Southey, head brewer and owner of LoveBeer, as Nellie, Purdie, and Bonney came bounding towards me barking loudly. If you are familiar with the tasty beers he brews in Milton, near Didcot, you will know that the ales are named after owners’ dogs, be it those from LoveBeer or the pubs they supply.
Jim started the business as sole brewer around 2017 following a visit to a brewer friend in Devon, and now has two experienced full-time brewers helping him: Peter Brooke and Harry Benbow. Jim has always had a passion for beer and has brewed on and off for most of his life.
The brewery is situated at the front of his house and comprises a six-barrel plant complemented by a brand new eight-barrel fermenter. “‘Ombibulous’ is the word of the day,” Jim told me. With 14 different beers available via his printed menu, the word – meaning sampling all kinds of alcoholic drink – is one to consider. But perhaps not at 9.30am, so I settled for a mug of tea.
I asked Jim how he manages day-to-day running given that some small breweries are succumbing to spiralling costs which they can’t pass on to customers. “I’m convinced that we are possibly the only small brewer that relies solely on solar power for the seven-hour production of a brew,” Jim said proudly. His vision is to create a long-term sustainable business free from fossil fuels, whilst saving on costs. Jim is also encouraging his suppliers to introduce an ethos of sustainability, as some still wrap products in plastic. With a seven-year financial payback, the emphasis is on the longer term.
Jim is very keen to exploit a profitable sales opportunity, as he and his team have an established takeaway service which was set up pre-Covid. His regular beer festivals are very popular with CAMRA members and local drinkers alike, with Abingdon Morris Men and local bands performing to around 300 revellers. Working hand in glove with local pubs is certainly a way to get his beers out there, as are farmers’ markets, festivals and events. An opportunity to consider a local outlet was passed over this year but other possibilities will arise.
“The current brewing site is at maximum capacity and a difficult decision will be to justify where to move to next,” he said. Taking a wrecking ball to his delightful house is not an option!
Jim hosts an annual get-together with local CAMRA members to talk about all matters beer. One criticism he has of CAMRA is its primary focus on prices, pubs and customers whilst no mention is made of the complex supply chain structure. Spiralling input costs have resulted in exponential increases in the price of energy and hops, for example, over the past 18 months. Profit margins are going to be higher on beer sold via the brewery shop, farmers’ markets and events, so Jim is keen to expand this.
Jim buys his hops, as most small brewers do, from wholesaler Charles Faram Hop Merchants and Factors, which has been around for over 150 years. It provides an artist’s palette of flavours to create every type and style of beer, from the traditional hop varieties to exciting new developmental varieties from Faram’s own breeding and development programme. Jim is one of the first brewers to get his hands on the Harlequin varietal, a unique UK hop. It is used successfully in the production of Skyfall, a handcrafted golden ale with delicious floral and tropical fruit flavours (according to the LoveBeer website).
Jim is keen to use British hops as they are competitively priced compared with their American cousins, which can cost three times as much. “It’s all about buying in volume with both hops and malt contracted, so you know what amounts to purchase in advance,” he said.
LoveBeer produces white label beers for three local pubs: the Fleur de Lys, East Hagbourne; the Jolly Farmers, Oxford; and the Plum Pudding, Milton. The idea is to provide a locally produced house beer for the pub, as more and more people are asking about provenance of the product. What is proving particularly difficult, he told me, is to sell in Oxford pubs as competition is fierce among local free houses.
We talked about his own pop-up bar which is now open 1½ days a week, normally serving two guest ales. Appropriately, the name of this smallest of micro-bars is the Doghouse. With bus routes close by, it would be a very attractive option for spending a Friday afternoon sampling outstanding ales in the company of Jim, his team and delightful dogs, and it’s worth mentioning that the Plum Pudding which serves Jim’s OG beer is a five-minute walk away.
I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the team and I’m convinced that the word “ombibulous” will keep me thinking about trying different brews, and hopefully others too.