MARION SAUVEBOIS meets the no-nonsense managing director behind a range of beers inspired by a rather barmy monk

MUCH like the airborne friar who lent his name to the Flying Monk Brewery, breaking into the ale business takes a leap of (blind) faith and a touch of lunacy to weather the occasional storm - and avoid a painful flop.

Powers of divination, wherever possible come in rather handy too.

“You always have to predict what the next best thing is going to be; sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong and you have to move on to the next thing,” shrugs Kevin Newbould, the Flying Monk Brewery’s no-nonsense managing director. “That’s how the industry works.”

When the Flying Monk’s directors Tony Kemp, Iain Morrison and Anthony Hibbard took a fancy to launching an independent brewery just a stone’s throw from Malmesbury three years ago, they knew a strong local identity was crucial. And so they borrowed from home-grown lore and used the fabled winged monk Elmer as their emblem.

Legend has it that, inspired by jackdaws, in 1010 a young monk by the name of Eilmer, or Elmer as he is sometimes known, fastened wings to his arms and feet, and launched himself from the top of Malmesbury Abbey. He managed to cover a distance of around 200 metres. Taking a peek at the streets below mid-flight, the story goes, he panicked and came down with a bump, breaking both his legs.

Undeterred the barmy clergyman made plans for a second flight but was halted in his tracks by his abbot, who placed an embargo on any further attempts, and that was that. For more than half a century it is said the limping Elmer was a familiar sight around the community of Malmesbury, where he became a distinguished scholar.

More than an amusing – if a tad barmy - association, turning to Elmer as their mascot was a deliberate move to anchor the fledgling Flying Monk in, and reclaim, Britain’s time-honoured brewing tradition. And this dyed-in-the-wool approach percolates through every level of the operation. When Kevin was brought in two years ago to introduce bottling and expand the business, the directors no doubt found a kindred spirit in the old-school MD.

Although keen to cater to punters’ discerning palates and evolving drinking habits, plain-speaking Kevin was never one for posturing or “pulling wool over customers’ eyes.”

While growing swathes of new independents branded themselves as ‘artisan’ or ‘craft’ producers, he was determined not to hide behind what he saw as meaningless, new-fangled labels.

“Craft and artisan are the big words,” he says dismissively. “What they actually mean by it is that it’s handmade. We’ve not changed what we’re doing in the industry, we’ve just changed how we label it. It’s not automated like the big commercial breweries. Everywhere you go it’s always the same four ingredients, nobody does it any differently. No-one is reinventing anything.”

Shunning popular labels may seem inconsequential, but in an industry of fleeting trends, going against the grain was a bold step. After 20 years as sales director for the likes of Box Steam and Wickwar Breweries, Kevin has learned to stand his ground.

“There are over 1,200 breweries in the UK, it’s a very competitive business and it’s difficult to stand out,” he concedes. “Fortunately between Tony and me, we’ve got a lot of experience and we’ve got that edge in that we know what we need to be doing. A lot of new brewers come in with stars in their eyes and big ideas. It’s all right brewing a very good beer but you need to sell it, know how to do it, and have a strong identity.”

Needless to say when Kevin joined the fledgling brewery in Hullavington, he had his work cut out. At the time, the team only produced one ale: Elmers.

In less than two years, the brewery’s range has grown exponentially and now counts four beers, each a nod to the flying monk’s rumoured exploits: Elmers, Habit, Birdman and Jackdaw. But Kevin won’t rest until the brewery stocks a solid core selection of six beers.

For all his talk of tradition, the managing director is no purist and when time came to create a range to stand up to clients’ scrutiny and rival neighbouring breweries, he came out of left-field.

To tap into a new market, the father-of-two took it upon himself to produce the world’s only (as far as he is aware) black cider, Skorpion Black– no mean feat for a man notorious for his dislike of the stuff.

“Because I don’t like cider, it doesn’t mean our customers don’t want to drink it,” he points out, sneakily dodging a question about the ingredients behind Skorpion’s charcoal hue. “It’s not about me. It’s about getting the balance of popularity and sustainability right. I was out in the Far East on a sales mission and they said you need to come up with something radical, that no-one else is doing, so we did. It doesn’t have spices, it’s just a cider with a natural colorant,” he finally relents.

For purists, the brewery also produces Saxon Gold cider.

The Flying Monk’s gamble in an already saturated market seems to have paid off. Last year Birdman won first place at the Swindon CAMRA Beer Festival while Elmers picked up the Highly Commended gong in the fiercely-contested beer category of the Taste of the West Product Awards.

“We’ve exceeded the average industry growth three times over but we started from zero,” he adds cautiously. “We’ve done well but the difficulty is growing further . We don’t want to plateau.”

Production is still limited, with an average of 15,000 pint a week. Like many independent brewers though, Kevin and the team face the eternal dilemma: to stay small, homemade or expand, thrive and step into the dark side of mass-production at the cost of their bespoke identity.

As a stalwart of the Society of Independent Brewers, the 60-year-old is loath to compromise his principles and stray from his roots. That being said, were a supermarket to bulk order one of his brews, he has a contingency plan.

“I would withdraw that product from garden centres and farm shops because they wouldn’t want to sell a beer that’s available in the big supermarkets down the road,” he says firmly. “My goal is to get the products listed nationally and to export. You always want to grow and get your name out but that way it would keep our small brewery identity. The compromise would work for everybody.”

Though Elmer will likely soar over Malmesbury again before he breaks bread with big chains.

“I hate supermarkets myself,” he bellows. “I think they’re the devil incarnate. But business is business and you have to dance with the devil in some respects,” he adds glumly.

For now though he is focusing on fine-tuning the Flying Monk’s next seasonal brew and rounding up the core range to an even six. And that’s more than enough.

“Anywhere I’ve been, I’ve never reached that stage where I’ve thought, ‘We’re there now. We don’t need any more.’ That never happens.”

The brewery runs tours and recently launched a membership card. To find out more, go to