Scientific approach to the craft

Founders Allan Rice and Sarah Thackray, front centre, educate some young craft beer aficionados on researched reasons to drink Atom’s beers
Founders Allan Rice and Sarah Thackray, front centre, educate some young craft beer aficionados on researched reasons to drink Atom’s beers

A group of moderate drinkers at the Atom Brewery are soberly assessing the prospects of serious growth in markets as far away as New Zealand and Japan

Click to access article as a .pdf

By Mike Cowley

The UK is the world’s fastest growing market for craft beer with microbreweries coming on tap at the rate of one every six days according to Mintel. But few, if any, will have been set up with the rationale of the Atom Brewery of Hull, which was established not only to brew the best in beer but also as an educational establishment.

That’s the reason around 100 students studying for their GCSEs in STEM subjects at local colleges can be found attending regular classes related to the science of brewing at the Atom Brewery each month. And these lessons are given free with the profits from the brewery underwriting the educational side.

This is because the brewery founders Allan Rice and Sarah Thackray are both scientists with degrees to prove it. In fact, Sarah is still teaching chemistry and physics at a local school. Even the head brewer Jack Walker, appointed 12 months ago, is a biomedical science graduate.

It was because both Sarah and Allan wanted a business that had science at its core that they chose brewing in the first place. And why they sank £120,000 – £80,000 of their own money, the rest coming from friends and family and the bank – into equipping the project in Hull. Even the name Atom was chosen because of its scientific connotations.

Having previously worked for two craft brewers, Scots born Allan knew what he was doing but insists that the setting up of their own brewery was “a nightmare, the hardest thing we had ever done.”

Whereas offering education in a brewery – currently taking up 15 per cent of the team’s time – would probably not fit well with traditional big brewers, it is an integral part of the booming craft beer scene where drinking different beers and learning about them is very much the ethos.

Craft brewing has spawned a new wave of brewers such as the Atom Brewery who can be aptly described as beer boffins. Add a new generation of drinkers in the form of craft beer aficionados who are predominantly young and keen to learn and you have a thriving new industry.

Whereas what they brew and drink is still beer, it is far removed from the mild and bitter limitations of previous generations. In 2014, Atom Brewery produced and sold 87 different types of beer with their speciality being the non-hop variety. This enables them to infuse the beers with the likes of cardamom, camomile, coffee and coriander – the list is endless and only limited by their imagination.

Nor are they concerned about keeping their recipes secret, letting anyone who is interested have them even if they are competitors.

“We believe in transparency and just as in science when you do an experiment, you want it to be judged by your peers, the same applies to craft beer brewing” says Allan. “Anyway, if you go to a restaurant with a Michelin starred chef, they will have their recipes published in a book for all to see but you won’t be able to replicate them exactly because you won’t be able to get the same ingredients, the same water.

“It is the same with us, if we brewed 10 miles away the beer would be different because the water would be different.” The first beer the Atom Brewery launched was a coriander and cardamom porter, called Dark Alchemy at 4.9%, and the full production was presold to a micropub in Beverley and a craft beer group in London even before it was ready for delivery.

For this is where the craft beer sector has again stolen the march on traditional breweries. They use social media to pre-sell to the social media savvy craft beer community. They use tweets et al to ensure their new beers are winners even before they have gone into full production.

Late last year Atom took to social media to announce the launch of Neutron Star, a coffee and vanilla porter which at 12.6 per cent was effectively a wine that needed “to be drunk out of a nice glass”. The news of its impending arrival was tweeted a month before launch resulting in the sale of 3.000 bottles on the first day.

It is through using social media to contact members of the craft beer community worldwide that Atom has found a flourishing export market and is currently shipping to countries as far afield as Australia (see panel).

However, to date, the UK remains their main market with Londoners consuming most of their beers although their home city of Hull has seen a significant increase in sales of late thanks to it being named the City of Culture which has seen ‘a new vibe in the city’.

The adoption of social media to generate sales may appear to some as geeky – Allan even signs his emails ‘Chief Beer Geek’ and head brewer Jack can be found on YouTube reviewing craft beers in what spare time he has left – but it is certainly cost effective.

And for brewers, the team at Atom Brewery drink surprisingly little of their own products, so they cannot be classed as drinkers in the unacceptable sense of the term. Allan, for one, insists he will go some weeks without consuming any beer at all.

“We see ourselves as samplers rather than drinkers,” he says.

For more information visit

Social media is a gateway to sales in 25 countries

The use of social media has given Atom Beers and other UK craft beer producers an entrée to overseas markets that can only be envied by other sectors.

To date they have tweeted their way into Sweden, Norway, Finland, Australia and Serbia with social media based discussions ongoing in Germany, New Zealand, Denmark, Singapore and Japan. The goal for Atom Beers is to be shipping beer into 25 countries within the next 12 months, which combined with increased sales in the UK, will enable them to quadruple in size.

Currently making up 12% of the business, the forecast is that export will account for 40% by this time next year. Yet despite the fact the worldwide craft beer community is highly receptive to beers arriving from other countries, the Atom Brewery team are well aware their export success has been underpinned by their regional Department for International Trade team.

“Each country has a different way of doing things and DIT has steered us through the potential minefields,” says Allan Rice. “They’ve advised us on different markets, provided us with contacts in each and helped us understand the legislation.

“We can pick up the phone and speak to our adviser Stephen Noblett at any time.”

In Australia, Atom Beers were faced with having to spend £2,000 to buy market information until DIT stepped in and provided them with everything they needed free of charge. DIT also provided the company with a member of staff for a month to build up a database of contacts.

“All this has eased our way and despite social media, we couldn’t have achieved what we have done in terms of exports without it,” says Allan Rice. “And it has led to our biggest thrill to date of standing in a bar in Scandinavia and watching people enjoy our beers.”