What goes around comes around
Born and bred in troubling times, Full Circle is forging ahead with eyes on silver linings
Saturday 26 August 2023
This article is from
Angels of the North
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Considering the prevalence of its brand, it’s hard to believe Full Circle is just three years old, and harder still to process how such a young brewery could already be brewing in such a beautiful space on a state-of-the-art kit. Full Circle’s backstory is bizarre and brilliant, often proving so serendipitous as to be uniquely heartwarming, and a foil to the challenges it has faced, being a brewery that released its first beers on the day lockdown first began.
We’re still not living in normal times, and the day-to-day is still fraught with challenges that affect breweries of all sizes and ages. In comparison to times gone by though, Full Circle is experiencing today as a quiet time, and so is doing its best to make the most of relative stability. Ben Cleary, Full Circle’s founder and head of sales, tells me all this from a meeting room on the mezzanine that overlooks the working brewery. The space is bright, with a distinctly modern finish, much like the taproom we’d later enjoy a pint in.
Before moving into beer, Ben worked in the wine world for ten years, and it was actually from a sales position at an independent, family-owned wine business that Ben began to toy with the idea of selling beer. The wine company he worked for liked his thinking, and offered to support the venture.
Ben worked with head brewer Alex Redpath to prototype a selection of recipes on a 100L recipe kit, but wasn’t quite prepared for his investors to suggest they start out with a 3000L brewhouse. “So we bizarrely ended up with this huge kit overnight, without any prior sales”, he says, at once appreciative but equally and very obviously remembering a time that was distinctly challenging.
Enter COVID and ‘challenging’ took on new meanings, but as always, Ben sees the silver linings in retrospect; when lockdown hit, the brewery was still only packaging into cans, so wasn’t hit by the loss of pub trade in the same way as many of its peers.
Of course, lockdown still made it more difficult to connect with drinkers and get Full Circle’s name out, but when its beers finally did find their way to people’s fridges, rave Untappd ratings earned interest from international markets. The brewery’s flagship beer, Looper, would go on to win best IPA at the SIBA Business Awards in 2022, and was further crowned best IPA at the Asia Beer Awards this year.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, “after a very strange and difficult year one, Brexit happened in year two, and it just felt like ‘come on, give us a chance’,” says Ben. “Export just dropped off for six months.From there, came the Russia situation, which obviously has been difficult.”
But ever the optimist, Ben continues, saying that in a weird way, having such a rocky start had an unexpectedly positive effect on the brewery. “We don’t get stressed about things like we used to,” Ben tells me. “Now, we run into problems – something breaks, someone runs into the back of the van – and we’re just like ‘don’t worry about it, we’ll fix it, let’s figure it out’. There’s no point stressing about the small stuff anymore, we just keep going.”
Similarly, he used to keep himself up at night agonising over the constant need to come up with beer names, graphics, and how all that would contribute to the overall brand. “We used to just deliberate for weeks about names, and now we’re just like ‘nope, we don't need to worry about that. It's sold and gone before you know it, let's just have a bit of fun with it’.” And with that newfound space for fun and creativity, Full Circle has begun a new chapter in its journey; one with big plans and lots of pals.
For one, the brewery has plans to double its capacity this year, and has already begun diversifying its commercial portfolio to include supermarkets. Ben says this was something he was reluctant to do when Full Circle first started out, and even turned down a huge contract with a major UK supermarket in its first year, telling me that as conflicted as he was, three years ago supermarkets just didn’t feel like the right place to sell craft beer.
Now, with the experience of the past three years under his belt, Ben says that “ultimately, we’re out here to build a strong brand, and that takes time, in the same way it takes time to get out of the mindset that craft can only be sold in one kind of place”. For Full Circle, that brand is proving to be all about collaboration, community and sustainability.
Over the last two years, the brewery has twice won the national community engagement award at the SIBA BeerX Awards, a nice acknowledgement of Full Circle’s efforts to grow its community and connect with more people in a wider variety of ways. In addition to starting a run club, with miles run equating with a discount on beer, Full Circle is focusing heavily on sustainability this year and has partnered with decarbonisation software company Zevero to help reach its ambitious target of having net zero emissions by 2030.
I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that Full Circle’s brewery team was more or less new to commercial brewing when the brewery opened. Full Circle offered Alex Redpath the role of development brewer just after he’d finished an eight week course with Brewlab, followed by a six-month stint of unpaid internships with various breweries.
“They took a big risk on me because I'd not worked in a big brewery before,” says Alex. “But we came up with the recipes, sorted out the branding, and got it done. We got a lot of help from [brewing equipment manufacturer] SSV when it came to commissioning the brewhouse, and working out how to scale up recipes we knew how to brew really well, but that we’d also designed to easily translate on a bigger kit. But there’s no question that Ben put a lot of trust in me – including me in plans for the brewery’s design, the branding, brewing – and I’ve really enjoyed all of it.”
Today, Full Circle balances brewing the beer it knows and is known for, with the constant learning and development that comes with contract brewing for industry peers. Ben tells me the team is always excited by the opportunity to brew different styles, using different methods and ingredients from what they’re used to. It keeps things interesting, but is equally a great way to stay connected to the wider craft industry, a community that Full Circle feels strongly connected to, and a part of.
For example, Ben credits Cloudwater for the craft cask series that, he feels, began to disrupt our acceptance and insistence that cask costs less than keg. With space having been created for breweries to charge a better price for cask, Full Circle felt like it could dip its toe into the category, in December of last year. In doing so, Ben discovered that modern craft cask beer could get taps in bars where the prevalence of big beer would never allow craft keg to feature. That’s another silver lining, in Ben’s book.
“Beer is a hard industry to be in, but it's wonderful,” says Ben. “It’s so creative, it’s so collaborative, and generally speaking, everyone's very nice and always willing to help”. With plans in the pipeline for expansion, the installation of sustainable technology, a brewery running club, and further use of the brewery and taproom to host events, Full Circle is fast beating out a path to a future everyone’s invited to.
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