Business Focus: Little Valley Brewery

Wim van der Spek at the Little Valley Brewery
Wim van der Spek at the Little Valley Brewery

This week’s Business Focus features Wim van der Spek, co-owner and master brewer at Little Valley Brewery, which is based in Hebden Bridge.

Why did you start your business in the first place?

Sue Cooper on left and Wim van der Spek on right from Little Valley Brewery.

Sue Cooper on left and Wim van der Spek on right from Little Valley Brewery.

I’ve loved beer since being young but it was probably a mix of passion for beer and a set of circumstances, or fate, that lead me to starting my own business in Yorkshire.

When I was at high school I set up a beer club called ‘De Gustibus Est Disputandum’; the members of the club still meet today. I later went to Wageningen University in Holland to study food science, and I then worked in that industry for a handful of years before eventually moving to Germany to study at Doemens World Brew Academy to become a qualified master brewer. It was after this that I thought I’d see a bit of the world so I got my bicycle and cycled from Holland to Tibet. When I reached Nepal I met my partner, Sue. A short time later in the year 2000 I moved to England to join Sue and the rest is history. I set up Little Valley in 2005 after having notched up a bit of British brewing experience on top of what I’d done on the Continent. The variety of experiences meant that I was able to bring a whole different range of ideas to what I do at Little Valley.

What is your business motto?

My business motto is quality always comes first, which isn’t always easy and of course we all make mistakes sometimes. A focus on quality might be costly and it might slow things down, but it repays itself in the long run when you know that you have consistently good beer that people come to know and love.

Little Valley Brewery's bottling plant.

Little Valley Brewery's bottling plant.

What advice would you give to anyone starting their own business?

My advice to anyone wanting to start their own business is to make sure you do your homework. Be critical about your business plan and be realistic. Understand the level of investment that has to be made and once you have a complete understanding of the market and feel happy that your product is ready then go for it. Owning and managing my own business is harder than I ever imagined, however it’s also one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. Seeing my beer on tap in a pub or on a shop shelf knowing that I have put so much effort into it is incredibly gratifying.

What was the biggest challenge you faced starting your business?

One of the biggest challenges I faced when starting my own business was gaining the initial capital. You need a vast amount of finance to outlay for brewery equipment. There are major start-up cost implications and breweries have very high running costs too. Before you see any return, you have to invest a lot of money, therefore careful planning and budgeting is vital.

What do you enjoy most about being self-employed?

What I enjoy most about being self-employed is the sense of reward I feel. I’m completely responsible for my own success or failure, so when things go right, the sense of achievement is great. I’d like to say that on a hot sunny day I can also just decide to take off on my bike and pedal through the hills of Yorkshire but it doesn’t always work out like that!

What do you enjoy least about being self-employed?

What I least enjoy about being self-employed are the long hours and the fact that I can’t always shut off at 5pm and weekends. There’s a lot more to lose when you are your own boss, and also being responsible for other people’s livelihoods is something I take seriously and want to get right. However, that said, you also have a lot more to gain, and the long hours often pay off.

Which business do you most admire and why?

I admire Rapha Cycling clothing company. I like the history of how they came about and how they communicate this. The company’s ethos very much reflects our own: quality comes first. Their cycling clothes are high quality and very comfortable to wear and this is at the forefront of everything they do. It helps that they look good too!

What achievement in your career are you most proud of?

There are several things in my career that I’m proud of. One is being asked by the Benedictine Community of Ampleforth Abbey to develop their Ampleforth Double beer, 7.0%, which is in the style of the Belgian Trappist Beers and is one of my favourites. I’m also really pleased with the collaboration we have with Brian

Robinson on our Stage Winner Pale Ale, 3.5%. Brian was the first Briton to win a

Stage of Le Tour de France in the 1950s, but at the time cyclists in Britain were not given credit in the same way they are now. I’m pleased that Brian has finally received the acknowledgement he deserves from the wider media for his trailblazing achievements for British cycling, and proud that we have been able to be a part of that.

Where do you see your business going in the next five years?

Competition is always increasing and the marketplace is becoming very saturated

now, but I am confident that Little Valley will hold its own. We’ll be continuing to push forward in all of our markets and we might have a surprise or two up our sleeves for the future!

If you could invent one new product, what would it be?

If I could invent one new product I wouldn’t be telling you about it! I’d work away to get it to the point where I was happy and then I’d release it. There’s time yet and so I might just do that!

If you could work for one company, who would it be and why?

I would love to work for Campden BRI, which is an institute for brewery research. I’d be able to research beer without being compromised by production issues. I would also have the opportunity to troubleshoot in a wide range of breweries, which I’d find both interesting and insightful. Spending my hours purely researching beer would be my dream job!