For the past 3 years New Yorker Gwen Sanchirico has been brewing on a 200L kit out of an industrial unit in Wolverhampton but now it is time for her to return to her home city to be closer to her family. Since we’ve covered a lot of her journey here on the blog (and drunk a lot of her beer!) it made sense for us to have one final interview with her before she heads off back to the Big Apple. So it was that in a quiet corner of Cherry Red’s she and I sat down and talked about Alice Donut, beer, Wolverhampton, and washing machines!
So although we’ve talked before on the blog about Gwen coming to the UK I thought it would be good just to recap how a girl from Queens ended up in Wolverhampton! She told me this is the number one questions she’s been asked for the last 5 years and after a brief discussion on alien abduction she said that she’d gone to see Alice Donut in a tiny venue in Brooklyn that isn’t there any more and whilst there she met her now husband Mark and they just hit it off. But it took another 6 months for them to start dating, long distance. After 18 months of this, with money running out, Mark said they’d have to get married and one of them move for the relationship to continue. So after researching the UK and US immigration policies Gwen realised it would be easier for her to come to the UK coupled with the fact she was falling out of love with her role as a project manager for a software development team at a large New York hospital and that Mark loved his job. All the pieces were in place so after marrying in City Hall in New York they moved to Wolverhampton.
Once in the UK Gwen says “I couldn’t get a job for the life of me. I worked really hard at job hunting. It was demoralising and after nearly a year of that I decided to start my own business.”
She started out by entering a competition in Wolverhampton run by the Portas Pilot scheme, which offered a financial award to the winner. Her original idea was to start an “American/Belgian hybrid beer bar/brewpub where the beer is brewed on site.” Once she was in the competition she had some financial mentoring and help with a business plan and she realised that this was too ambitious and she’d need to scale it back. So this is where the idea of Sacre Brew began.
I asked Gwen about her history of brewing and she told me she started home brewing in 1993, which was when it had really started to take off in the US. She said she liked trying “weird and unusual beers” which were beginning to come on the market there. It really started by reading an article in the local paper about the two homebrew shops in all of New York and since she liked to cook and make her own stuff it sounded like something she wanted to try. So with her then-boyfriend they got some equipment and started brewing.
I moved on then to ask Gwen what were the really big challenges she faced in opening a brewery in Wolverhampton? “Starting it was pretty easy. It was easy to raise money as people get excited about beer!” She started out crowdfunding to raise the majority of the money needed to get started and since people were generous and excited by the idea of a microbrewery she soon reached her target. The first challenge was the size. She told me, “I knew how to brew but scaling it up was more difficult than I realised - not because of the process of brewing but the dealing with people.” One of these main issues was with the kit that Gwen purchased – it was so “not fit for purpose” that there was even an informal support group set up to help people who’d bought the kit! It was a catalogue of disasters from missing parts, to those requiring modification right up to the mash tun supplied being smaller than ordered and not capable of brewing more than a 4% beer. She said that she had to learn a lot including the names for parts and connectors etc. as she said she “didn’t have the vocabulary I needed to request parts from vendors.” All in all, this took about 6 months to resolve which was very frustrating. I experienced this when I brewed with Gwen back in August 2014 with my husband for his 40th birthday – overflowing hot liquor tanks, digging out mash tuns without Charles (the wet vac and general life saver!) and flushing buckets of wash water down the toilet.
But it wasn’t all bad - “the best part is going to Cherry Reds, for example, and seeing somebody order your beer and drinking out of the bottle with so much gusto and going ‘ahhh’ in a really satisfied way afterwards is really satisfying. Knowing that people like your beer is really cool.”
Gwen had a second round of crowdfunding for her bottling kit and has always worked with lots of volunteers so I asked her how that experience had been for her. She told me she had a few dedicated volunteers who came to help out on a regular basis for 2 years or more and those who would help out now and again or even just once. Quite a few people who were interested in getting into brewing themselves also worked with Gwen to see what the experience was like and they would come and spend the day seeing a brewery in action.
We moved on to talking about the workshops that Gwen had started running, was this something she enjoyed? “I do enjoy it. I like the science of it, and there’s a lot of science involved. It’s another way for me to interact with people and the workshops didn’t always involve my beer so it wasn’t just about showcasing my beer but talking about beer in general and the bigger picture and what the range and scope and limits are.” She told me that she’s noticed British people don’t like to complain so therefore quality is worse as people don’t complain when they get a bad beer. “If it’s infected or not ready or not made right or they’re lying to you about what it is, that makes me angry and I want to do something about it. So the best way to empower people is to educate them and the bad beer workshops are a fun forum where you get to drink beer and educate people - and they get it.”
Having been in the UK now for a little over 5 years I wondered whether Gwen thought the beer scene here had changed? Simple answer yes! “When I first moved here one of the reasons I decided to open a brewery was that I was very unhappy with the beer.” She tells stories of quaint English pubs but with awful beer that after only half a pint give you a terrible hangover!
We talked about when she first came it was just Cherry Red’s, Brewdog, and The Post Office Vaults but there is a lot more choice now with places like Clink, Pure Bar, Tilt, and The Wolf and that she’s been involved in the Beer Bash too. Is this something she’s enjoyed?
“I thought it was great. That was the only beer festival I cared about. It was a lot of fun as an attendee and as a brewer. It was great to interact with people drinking my beer and it was great that so many other brewers were there who you could talk to about their beers. And the beer was really good!”
So now that she’s heading home I asked her about the future of the brewery. “I sold the equipment, the Sacre Brew name is still mine, but [a brewery] will continue on in the same premises. I’ve been training them on how to use the kit. There are 6 people who own it; two of them were [Sacre Brew] supporters. They share a passion for beer and the dream of owning a brewery so this was their opportunity.” She told me the handover is going pretty well they’re learning quickly and are enthusiastic. Since Gwen has worked out a lot of kinks in the kit and established links with suppliers the process should be a little easier for them. They are currently working twice a week either brewing or bottling or both.
When we spoke she told me two of their beers were nearly ready with a third ready to bottle and a fourth ready to dry hop. As a side note we’re hoping to go and talk to them (Punchline Brewing) in the coming weeks.
I finished up by asking Gwen if she had any plans to continue brewing when she gets back? She said that right now she’s not sure, she needs to do a bit of groundwork. She already has a lot of contacts over there particularly in Queens, where she will be living. “I do have a business opportunity to start a new microbrewery so I’ve been doing a lot of research on that and getting quotes but right now I need to be there to find a premises, as rent in New York is crazy and at the volumes discussed we wouldn’t cover the rent.” She said that she still has opportunities to help out in breweries as she did on her last holiday. Also that as brewers come and go, she could end up working for another brewery and this is her fallback position if she can’t open her own place. The good news is the name would live on as maybe Sacre Brew New York or Sacre Brew Queens.
I asked her if there were breweries in our ever-improving scene in the Midlands that she would tell people to keep an eye on? “Glasshouse, Josh’s brewery. Just from talking to him I can tell he’s a good brewer. The way he describes malts and flavours and what he does with them as a pallette is very revealing and I don’t get that from too many other brewers. I’ve had a few of his beers as they’ve become available and they are very impressive.”
To close out our chat I asked her what she’d miss most about the UK and her answer was quite surprising! “Washing machines are superior in this country and there are some birds that we don’t have in the United States or New York that are really cool and there’s lots of other little things that have made it nice.” She did also say, of course, that there were many people she’s met and worked with over the past 5 years that she will miss and I am sure that many of them will miss her too. I know I will.
Everyone on the blog wishes you good luck Gwen in your next enterprise and keep us informed I quite fancy a blog trip to New York for Sacre Brew V2.