How a life change led to Bill Russell stirring up a heady brew of beer, bread and social enterprise.
I suppose you could say it all began with a disappointing football result. I had been a teacher much of my life, then retired to run a microbrewery and spend more time baking. In April 2017, I travelled to watch Norwich City play away to Fulham. After they lost (again), I stayed overnight with my son in London. I woke the next day with not only a splitting headache but also a paralysed arm, no hearing in my right ear and feeling very confused. I was taken back to Norwich, where I was told I’d had a stroke.
A stroke of genius
After I had an operation, I was sent home to recover and as I regained my strength, I began considering my future. I also started to think about people who found participating in education or employment difficult, particularly people with learning disabilities. I hatched a plan to set up a social enterprise that would demonstrate that people with learning disabilities could succeed and contribute to society. It would teach participants new skills, helping them to build confidence and self-esteem and to move towards employment. As we would be combining a bakery and a brewery in striving for equal chances, we named it Equal Brewkery.
A great source of support and help came from UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs, which gave us a small grant to buy the brewing and baking equipment. They also guided me in setting up a Community Interest Company and mentored me throughout the process. We acquired a kitchen at Independence Matters, a daycare centre in Norwich for adults with learning disabilities. I recruited a group of dedicated volunteers and we began baking and brewing three days a week. We later took over responsibility for a small snack bar in the daycare centre, which generated a small income that we were able to spend on ingredients.
Skills and satisfaction
We work with a diverse group of people who either have a learning disability or live with mental health problems. We teach baking skills and, over time, participants become more confident in their abilities, realising they can succeed. My greatest satisfaction is to see the enjoyment people gain from the sessions, even if things we make sometimes get eaten before they leave the kitchen!
Establishing Equal Brewkery was a steep learning curve for volunteers and customers alike. One of the main problems we encountered was not having enough time during each session to mix, shape, prove and bake the dough. We make Real Bread from good quality flour and didn't want to use any ‘enhancers’, so it often resulted in some of us coming in early and finishing later.
Through trial and error, we discovered that we could slow down the fermentation by placing dough in the fridge. This allowed us to make the dough one day, leave it in the fridge overnight and bake it the following day. A mixture of strong white flour and malted flour gave us a particularly good loaf but our masterstroke was using beer from the brewery in the dough - the result is delicious!
Then COVID hit, and we were closed for eighteen months. When the microbrewkery reopened, the snack bar did not. To ensure we had enough funds to buy ingredients, we realised we had to bake more bread and sell more beer.
In 2022, I saw an advert for a microbakery business course at The School of Artisan Food, which built on information and guidance in the Real Bread Campaign’s book Knead to Know…more. With the support of the Campaign’s Friends In Knead fund, Matthews Cotswold Flour and Shipton Mill, the School was offering a number of subsidised places. I applied and was accepted for the week’s residential course.
It was superb! The tutors had an encyclopaedic knowledge of baking, were informative and – importantly - were very patient. We were taught about the science of baking - for example controlling dough and temperatures - and professional mixing techniques. This was matched with informative, practical activities, including making commercial quantities of focaccia, ciabatta and baguettes. Everything we baked was delicious - I almost cried with pleasure when I tried the baguette! Another particular favourite of mine was a light rye loaf with roasted onion and black pepper.
I learned so much from the course. It opened my eyes to a world of baking I only had scant knowledge of. Unlike me, many of the people on the course were experienced, expert bakers. They were also probably the nicest people you could meet. Such was the camaraderie amongst the group that one of the participants, Veto, held a cake sale and donated the proceeds to Equal Brewkery.
Sinking and rising
Suitably inspired, when I returned to Norfolk we bought a re-conditioned commercial prover, increased our Real Bread production and made plans to supply local cafés. We also began to supply our beer to The Co-operative and soon Equal Brewkery bottles graced the shelves of 15 stores across Norfolk and Suffolk.
It was then we hit another bump in the road, or I should say hole. After heavy rain in spring 2023, a large sinkhole appeared in the front of the daycare centre. After much discussion, Norfolk County Council decided at the end of
May that the centre would have to close for safety reasons. At the time of writing, (August 2023) our remaining beer stock is still being stored at a volunteer’s house and sold online while the microbrewkery looks for a new home.
Although disappointed, we see this - like COVID - as a challenge rather than a barrier. We have every hope that Equal Brewkery will continue to prosper and thrive and that we will be able to write the next chapter in our story.
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 56, October 2023.
The success of Creating a Microbakery - Theory and Practical in 2022 and 2023 led to the School adding it to their regular course schedule.
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Published 4 Oct 2023
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