Viva la revolución!

Richard Croasdale finds out how the Coronavirus lockdown has accelerated a shift in Dark Revolution's business from cask to can

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Salisbury’s Dark Revolution has been making great beer since 2011, without really receiving the recognition it deserves outside its local markets. But with the Coronavirus lockdown accelerating a shift in business from cask to can, the brewery could now be on course for wider acclaim.

Founder Greg Hughes clearly has a great deal of respect for cask ale. From its airfield home in south-west England, Dark Revolution has made its name with cask, brewing superb traditional ales with a crafty twist. This has meant slow and steady organic growth, with a focus on using the very best ingredients, and heavy investment in lab equipment and quality assurance. It’s also meant a keen eye on efficiency, as cask is a notoriously low-margin business. By being canny with its investments, spending in areas that will genuinely improve the beer, Dark Revolution has managed to be both excellent and accessible. 

The brewery has generally had a busy couple of years, most obviously with the move to its new production brewery, with a brand new brewkit, fermenters and a high-spec canning line. 

“The canning line was a steep learning curve, they’re complicated machines,” says Greg. “We brought our lab in house, which was great because it meant we were able to test every single tank and every single process. You really need that level of quality assurance when you’re doing small pack, because the last thing we want to do is send something out that has issues.”

Having been in its production brewery for around two years, there are no big investments on the horizon at Dark Revolution, and Greg is “comfortable to just grow up to the Small Breweries’ Relief threshold”. But that doesn’t mean he’s standing still. The next big push will be on the marketing front.

“We’ve concentrated, rightly, on making sure the product is everything that we want it to be, but now we’re confident that we’ve got the quality and the consistency, we want to push it a bit more. We’ve been very much a production-led brewery up to this point, rather than sales-led. We have no sales staff, so the growth we’ve had really has just been down to that focus on nailing the beer.

“Now it’s time to expand our appeal and push into some new markets with some more interesting beers. We started out as home brewers, so that’s really what excites me, rather than making the same stuff over and over again. So we’re going to start really pushing out non-core beers and our specials. We’ve got quite a few barrels of sour stuff that has just been a little bit neglected, to be honest, and I want to do a lot more clean barrel-ageing too.”

Greg’s excitement for this new chapter is clear, but the elephant in the Zoom is how Coronavirus is affecting his masterplan. After all, his core local cask business just got wiped out.

“I mean, basically what happened is overnight, our whole industry got put into a washing machine and tumbled about,” he says. “Do you close down and wait it out? Do you try to create enough new small revenue streams to keep going? Breweries are going to come out of this looking a lot different to when they went in, and I think it’s going to have a lasting effect on how we all sell beer.”

For Dark Revolution at least though, the pressure to adapt and create new markets might simply accelerate the very changes that Greg was keen to make anyway.

It presents an opportunity to really rethink your whole business plan and how you operate

“I’m starting to take the view that – as this is happening and we can’t change our circumstances – it presents an opportunity to kind of really rethink your whole business plan and how you operate. It’s certainly given us an opportunity to really get in front of a lot more direct customers. We’ve been lucky, in that we were already in a good position to do direct sales, with our own canning line and our own website already set up for ecommerce,” he says.

Even cask isn’t quite dead though. Dark Revolution is still doing local pickups, and every Friday Greg sells milk bottles of the brewery’s remaining stock to loyal customers to enjoy at the weekend. There are even a few local pubs now apparently doing the same: opening up a couple of pumps to provide a take-away service.

However, the crisis has also confirmed Greg’s instinct that the time was right to move into more adventurous, craft-friendly styles.

Every Friday Greg sells milk bottles of the brewery’s remaining stock to loyal customers

“The kind of beers we’re interesting in growing – big 9% barrel-aged stouts and DIPAs – just aren’t going to work in cask. We wouldn’t have gone near those normally, because they just wouldn’t sell; we’d just have ended up with a shit lot of cans, which would take a long time to get rid of. Whereas now because of the market change, with a bit more exposure and a lot of direct sales through the website, you make a 7% beer and it absolutely flies. So it’s a good opportunity for us to say, ‘well, you know, we can make those sort of beers now’.”


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