The British are coming
British Bulldog Brewery looks to carve out a local craft-beer niche
In the oak-strewn foothills just north of Chico, British expat Stephen Kay and his family have been quietly making preparations to provide craft beer aficionados in Chico and the surrounding area with a lineup of internationally inspired beer options.
Production at the family’s British Bulldog Brewery is set to begin later this year, when construction of the facility is completed and the proper permitting and licenses are in place. But the brewery will not be the sort of tasting room and restaurant setup that’s the norm for many microbreweries. Rather, it’s located in a low-profile building just a quick walk across the driveway from the house where Kay has been perfecting his homebrew technique for the last six years. This is convenient not just for Kay, but for the rest of the British Bulldog team: his wife, Alison, daughter Emma Martin and son-in-law Justin Martin.
“It’s a family affair,” Kay said. “The whole thing started as a family affair, and it’s going to stay as a family affair. That’s basically the idea of the brewery: This whole industry is going to be built as a family, village-like brewery.”
Fittingly, the idea to take Kay’s homebrew beer—a hobby he originally picked up as a teenager in England—and market it commercially grew out of a challenge by Justin when Kay, an accountant and business consultant with a background in microbiology, found himself at something of a crossroads professionally. Kay was dubious about whether a small-scale operation like his would be financially viable.
“Any article you read online says, ‘Never get into nanobrewing; never get into microbrewing. It doesn’t work. It’s going to be 50 years until you get a profit. You’re always going to be too small,’” Kay said. “So I started looking at the numbers just to prove to him it doesn’t work. And, well, it does.”
According to Kay, the key to getting British Bulldog Brewery to pencil out is limiting both the size and the scope of the operation. The beers will be available only in kegs and growlers, and will not be available in stores. And the brewery’s maximum projected output of 1,000 barrels (the equivalent of 2,000 standard kegs) a year is just one-thousandth of the million-barrel production capacity of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Chico facility.
“The fact of the matter is that it does work as a nice small business if you always want it to be a small business and you always want to self-distribute and you just want to be local—beyond that, you need to be 10 times the size to make the same money, in terms of volume—and we thought, well, we could do that.”
Before going any further, however, Kay felt it was wise to get a few outside opinions about the quality of his beer.
“The final test really was to say that we’re still not going to do this unless people like our beer outside of the family,” Kay said. “And that was the piece that I was trembling at.” But after Justin set up staff taste-testings at several local bars and restaurants, Kay’s uncertainty about British Bulldog’s potential commercial viability were put to rest.
“We took some bottled samples of what we had on at that time,” Kay said. “They sat down and sampled them and said, ‘So, when can we start delivery?’”
The answer to that question is: soon. A brewing system, currently being manufactured by Nevada City’s BrewBilt, will be delivered soon and British Bulldog Brewery hopes to be up and running by November, with beers on tap at local bars and restaurants soon after.
To start, Kay said that British Bulldog will be focusing on British-style pub ales with one or two year-round staples, plus rotating seasonal beers. Beyond just the name of their brewery and the names of their individual beers (all of which are inspired by military history—Barrage Balloon Blonde, Red Baron Red Rye, Mad Jack Scottish Ale, etc.), British Bulldog hopes to honor the long tradition of beermaking by brewing authentic British beers.
“If you closed your eyes and drank one of our beers,” Kay said. “You should feel like you could be in a British pub.”