Claire adds the feminine touch to beer business

Welbeck Abbey Brewery head brewer Claire Monk
Welbeck Abbey Brewery head brewer Claire Monk
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Complete strangers often propose marriage to Claire Monk.

She’s intelligent, attractive and single (for now) but there’s more to it than that.

Claire is a brewer. One of the youngest head brewers in the country and one of the few women in the top beer maker’s job.

Men can get a bit emotional about that sort of thing but she’s learned how to let them down gently.

Claire, aged 26 learned the rest of her trade under the tutelage of the late Sheffield beer guru and real ale pioneer Dave Wickett who died last year.

Now she brews 200 barrels of real ale a week at Welbeck Abbey Brewery near Worksop where sales are up by 33 per cent in the last six months.

But it all happened by chance.

Claire was a Biology and Microbiology student at Sheffield University and didn’t really know what she wanted to do.

Then she met Dave Wickett. The man who kick-started Sheffield’s real ale revolution back in the 1980s was lecturing on one of Claire’s courses and after a pint or three one afternoon Claire told him she loved beer and wanted to try brewing.

Six months later she was running her own brewery.

“Dave took me on a week’s trial at Kelham Island Brewery and he liked me and gave me a job,” said Claire who grew up in Suffolk before moving to Sheffield.

“By chance at that time Dave had met Alison and Willam Parente who own Welbeck Abbey and they had told him they wanted to open their own brewery. Dave said he would train me for six months and then I could help set up their brewery.

“I thought I would be helping someone else but when the time came I was given a budget of £100,000 and told I was in charge!

“It was a bit nerve-racking at first but I got through it, at first on my own and then with a van driver.

“Our first brew – all 360 gallons of it, had to be thrown away but that’s not unusual in a new brewery and after that we’ve been pretty much OK.

Welbeck Abbey Brewery began with one brew a week and now do up to five. Their beers are highly regarded by real ale lovers and having a woman at the top may have made a difference.

Some traditionally brewed ales can suffer from over-heavy flavours and powerful alcohol kick but Claire doesn’t go for that kind of thing.

“We like to brew easy-drinking session beers,” said Claire who now leads a team of six at Welbeck working out of an old farm machinery store. I love beer but I don’t like it when it’s overpowering. We don’t do the really big, heavily-hopped flavours or the crazy stuff at six and seven per cent alcohol.”

The brewery building looks like any other modern farm building but instead of tractors there are beer tanks, sacks of hops and barley and a sign on the wall near the tiny office which says: ‘Beer is for all day, not just for breakfast.’

“Our beers only contain water, yeast, hops and barley and we brew five core beers and seasonal beers each month. Brewing is a scientific process which is where my degree comes in. You have to work out how much sugar is needed for the yeast to ferment into alcohol, as well as deciding on what style you want. However, the flavour can vary depending on the water used and how the hops affect aroma and bitterness.

“Next year we are hoping to use Barley from the Welbeck estate to make the malt for the beer which would be fantastic.

“Making beer and running a brewery is the easy bit for me, sales is the tough part. I used to take beers out to landlords to try but a lot won’t unless they’ve heard of you. Fortunately, enough did for us to get started and it’s grown from there.”

But it’s getting tougher.The blossoming of the real ale market has propogated a boom in the micro-brewery industry with six breweries in the Worksop area alone and 14 in Sheffield.

“We sell to pubs in Sheffield but it’s a really difficult place to expand in,” adds Claire.

Is it more difficult for a woman? “People are surprised, but usually in a nice way, when they realise the head brwer is a woman,” laughs Claire.

“I try to be confident in what I’m doing and I believe in our beers so that makes it easier. It would be no good me being all namby-pamby about it. On the practical side I’m pretty strong for a little woman but it’s more about technique and learning to handle things than it is about strength. Besides, I like the physical element of the job.

“There aren’t that many women brewers although the East Midlands does have a good few. There’s Alison Newbold at Woodstreet Brewey in Hillsborough but I don’t know of any other women brewers in Sheffield.”

So what about those marriage proposals?

“I can guarantee that someone will ask me to marry them whenever I go out and give talks on brewing. My record is four proposals of marriage in one night!”

But it looks like they’re all too late.

Claire is marrying Tom Roe next year – he runs the Grey Horses pub in Carlton-in-Lindrick near Worksop.

The wedding ceremony will be in Suffolk but the reception is at Welbeck and Claire will be brewing a special beer for the occasion – and she knows how to drink.

She might only be 5ft 3ins but she can handle her beer as well as brew it.

“I drink beer most days because of work and tasting it but if I go out for a night I can drink six or seven pints which isn’t bad for someone my size.”