Cains head brewer Jim Kerr has big plans for Liverpool beer
18 November 2011
TRUE beer lover never leaves their ale behind - so
it was no surprise that Jim Kerr jumped at the chance to come out
of retirement and lead Merseyside's biggest brewery.
Lifeboatman Jim is the new head brewer at Cains, charged with, in his words, "making the beer even better". He has spent almost his entire working life in brewing - the exception being, he says with a wry smile, his three-year stint in a wine warehouse
Jim - no relation to the Simple Minds singer of the same name - started his career with Whitbread in Liverpool, learning his trade in pubs around Merseyside. Years later he was charged with brewing iconic Liverpool beer Higsons - not in Merseyside, but at the Castle Eden brewery in County Durham
After decades in brewing, he had "semi-retired" to Hartlepool when he was called by Cains in June and asked if he wanted to come to Merseyside. "I quickly jumped at the opportunity," Jim smiled. "I wasn't ready for retirement. I still love what I do."
Jim is already tweaking the company's current brews to make sure the Stanhope Street brewery's output stays consistently top-drawer. But his long-term aim, working with owners Ajmail and Sudarghara Dusanj, is to introduce new brews to attract more drinkers to Cains. Jim may only have been at Cains for a few weeks, but his pride in the brewery is already obvious. Just before getting his picture taken, he looked at the metal tops of the brewhouse kettles - the copper whirlpools - which quickly get dusty when the nearby grain mills are working.
"They need to be hosed down before the photos," he declared. Cleaning done, it was time to sit down to chat about his career. Jim, who gives his age as "50-plus", says he has has been a beer lover since his teens.
"I've always been a beer drinker," he added. "When I was working for the wine company, it didn't really suit me." After a Master's degree in food science, Jim started his career in Liverpool as a graduate trainee with Whitbread.
"I did my year's brewing pupillage, from the bottom right the way through the business," he said.
"I spent time in the brewery in Truman Street, I worked the drays, I worked at the Arrowe Park Hotel in Birkenhead as a barman, and got opportunities on the sales side."
Jim spent 22 years with Whitbread, working across the UK from Blackburn to Devon. Finally, in 1991 Whitbread asked him to move to Castle Eden Brewery in Durham.
"I built that up from 'any other brewery' to quite a well-known brewery," he said. "It was almost divorced from Whitbread. People would boo Whitbread but cheer Castle Eden."
Jim was head brewer at Castle Eden until 2000, staying on after a buyout that saw it become a standalone business. In 1998, he was named brewer of the year by the British Guild of Beer Writers.
As the new Millennium dawned, Jim left Castle Eden to head to Cardiff and another of Britain's great regional breweries - Brains - as operations director.
"We re-established Brains as the leading brewery in Wales," he said. "And I got involved in putting the brewery name on the Welsh rugby shirts."
But in 2005, he lost his job in a "cost-cutting blitz" at the brewery. For the first time in his career, he left the brewing business, heading to the Constellation wine warehouse in Bristol.
He spent three years in the wine trade, running Constellation's bottling lines, but his heart lies with the hop rather than the grape.
"Wine wasn't really my cup of tea," he smiled. "I know that's the wrong metaphor! I love beer. My hobby is beer. I've turned a hobby into a career."
So he returned with pleasure to the beer world, joining Heineken in Manchester before moving to its Tadcaster operation in Yorkshire.
"I gravitated to the North East," he said. "I bought a new house there, and semi-retired."
But then he got the call from Cains. Sudarghara Dusanj said: "We've known Jim for a few years now.
"Because we knew how good he was at Brains, we knew we wanted to bring that sort of expertise and experience to brew great cask beers and proper lager."
Jim added: "It's about attention to detail and having a feel for what you're doing.
"Brewing is a science, but I believe there's a bit of art and craft in it as well.
"I've done this all my life. I've got a feel for how beer should be brewed."
That knowledge is even more powerful in an age where interest in real ale keeps on growing. Earlier this month, a survey from the Campaign for Real Ale showed 52% of all UK drinkers had tried real ale - up from just 37% five years ago.
"In my whole brewing career, which spans over 30 years, I've never known so much interest in cask ale," said Jim. " There's a fantastic opportunity with a real brewery to produce beers that people will enjoy.
"I know beer very well. I've got some ideas that we're thinking about here. "We're about to discuss our seasonal beers. But I definitely like the idea of brewing a
blonde beer - I've seen a lot of blonde beers, and
they're doing extremely well."
But success in beer isn't just about what's in the glass - it's about the branding. Many drinkers will happily order beer based on the name - perhaps helping the success of rival beers such as Bishop's Finger and Piddle in the Hole.
"Perhaps we could be more imaginative in naming some of the seasonal beers we produce here," mused Jim. "Some of the microbrewers have done really well by being a bit off the wall and a bit imaginative in how they name the beers.
Even if their beer isn't good, the names are good. We want good names for exceptionally good beer."
Jim, who still lives in Hartlepool, has been a lifeboatman for the past 11 years. Today he is part of the management team at the RNLI's Hartlepool station.
"I still help with the crew, but I rarely go out on call now," he said. And asked what his favourite Cains brew was, he smiled; "Last night I probably had the best pint of Cains bitter ever".
That, of course, would be the beer he brewed.