Business interview: Petra Wetzel

Petra Wetzel has set her sights on new brands and an internet venture
Petra Wetzel has set her sights on new brands and an internet venture
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FOR one who never fancied herself an entrepreneur, Petra Wetzel is developing a taste for brewing up new business ventures, writes Kristy Dorsey.

The head of the West beer business in Glasgow has plenty to be getting on with as groundwork begins on a new brewery – provisionally known as the Cooperage – which will lead to a 17-fold surge in production capacity.

The project at the site of Diageo’s former cask operations at Port Dundas will help West meet growing demand for its brews, including the signature St Mungo lager, named after the city’s patron saint.

However, Wetzel has more than beer on her mind. Following a late and rather hasty breakfast of scrambled egg and smoked salmon from the kitchens at West’s beer hall on Glasgow Green, the 37-year-old hints at plans for a completely different venture.

It is, she says, an idea she hit upon as a result of her “life situation” – meaning her role as a single mother to seven-year-old Noah. Her business plan is based around an internet model that she hopes to have up and running early in the new year. “Six months ago when I came across this idea, I ferociously Googled for any research on it, and I couldn’t believe nobody was doing it,” Wetzel says, untucking her denim-clad legs from a toehold on one of the hall’s hundreds of blonde pine chairs.

“It was very much like the beer idea. This idea just came along, and it seems like an obvious thing to do.”

German-born Wetzel and former husband Gordon Stewart opened West in 2006 with backing from Wetzel’s father, who sparked off the idea for the brewery while visiting his daughter in Scotland.

Out for a meal after Wetzel’s graduation from Glasgow University, dad Herbert asked for pint of local lager, but was clearly unimpressed with the brew. In that moment, Wetzel got the first inkling for what would become West.

However, she never intended getting involved in the running of the business, which started under her husband’s stewardship. It was only after the break-up of their marriage and subsequent financial problems at West – which eventually fell into administration – that Wetzel took charge.

Keen to prove to her father that the brewery project was viable, Wetzel set up Noah Beers – named after her son – to take over the operations of West in early 2008. Had circumstances been different, she concedes she might well have worked all of her life as an employee, rather than an employer.

“Sometimes in life we grow into a role,” she says with affable frankness.

Whatever demands the new internet business may bring, Wetzel remains passionate about running West.

She dismisses out of hand any suggestion that the award-winning operation is being groomed for sale, focusing instead upon the long-delayed project to expand brewing capacity.

West brews out of its eponymous beer hall, producing St Mungo, Munich Red, Hefeweizen and three other brands according to Germany’s strict Reinheitsgebot purity standards, which allow only the four core ingredients of water, malt, hops and yeast.

It’s a taste you’d be tempted to say that Wetzel grew up with, having been raised in Bavaria.

However, she was never a beer drinker before the advent of West, preferring instead a glass of wine or an occasional gin.

Even so, Wetzel was certain from the start that West’s success would hinge upon respect for a centuries-old craft.

“It sounds really corny, but it is about doing the right thing, and brewing beer the right way,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Why re-invent something that already works well?”

With sales set to surge this year, it would seem the Kaiser, as her team has affectionately dubbed her, is on to something.

The micro-brewery is currently working at full capacity to meet onsite demand as well as supplying bars, hotels, restaurants and clubs throughout the UK.

There is also increasing demand for West beers from abroad, with sales into markets such as Ireland, Italy, the US, Australia and Russia.

Anticipating capacity constraints, West began working more than 18 months ago on the creation of a purpose-built “centre of brewing excellence” that was initially expected to be located in the Maryhill area of Glasgow.

However, protracted negotiations with the owner of the proposed site never crystallised into an agreement, leaving Wetzel open to other options.

She eventually heard via the grapevine that the Port Dundas site was available for purchase. The increased size of the project has pushed projected costs up from £6.6 million to nearly £9m, though this will be partially offset by a £1.85m grant from the Scottish Government’s Food Processing, Marketing and Cooperation scheme.

Wetzel hopes to have the Port Dundas centre up and running by the autumn of next year. The new facility will boost capacity from 300,000 litres to five million litres annually, paving the way for future growth.

“The original idea was about brewing in the basement and serving it up here,” she says, gesturing around the expansive beer hall. “It was not about becoming a regional Scottish brewer, but that is what has happened.”

To accommodate the evolving operation, Wetzel and a group of private backers have launched Heidi Beers, a sister company to Noah named after the family’s 11-year-old Golden Retriever. It will encompass the new brewing operation and sales outside the bar and restaurant, with the latter continuing under Noah Beers.

Though each business has separate ownership structures and accounts, Wetzel says they remain allied by the West brand.

“What I would like to happen is that in two years’ time, when people come to Glasgow and want to see more of West beer, they will visit both here and the brewing centre,” she says.

“The two need to sing the same song in unison.”

Born: 28 October 1974, Bavaria.

Education: Schooled in Ebermannstadt, plus school exchange in Scotland at the age of 12; began studying politics, history of art and management at Glasgow University in 1994, and went on scholarship to a French business school before returning to Glasgow in 1998 to complete her degree.

First job: Glasgow Tourist Board (now the Glasgow City Marketing Board).

Kindle or book? “Not in a million years would I read from a Kindle.”

Can’t live without: “My friend Ishbel. She is the closest thing I have to family in Scotland.”

What makes you angry: “I hate hypocrites, and I hate liars – people who tell you one thing to your face and say another behind your back.”

Best thing about your job: “I can create something from scratch and put my own stamp on it. That is rewarding.”