The Peak District’s finest, on life in Tier 3
Monday 18 January 2021
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In the heart of the Peak District, Thornbridge is one of the UK’s most treasured craft breweries, known for its flawless execution of modern styles and traditional cask brews alike, as well as its community-centric pubs and its annual Peakender festival. Although lockdown hit the brewery hard in on-trade sales, it has kept brewing and adapted its approach to every fresh twist and turn.
The brewery’s George Tims recalls the early stages of lockdown, in March and April, as a “fear period,” during which everyone knew things would slow down dramatically, but with very little idea what shape the restrictions would take. Thornbridge began skipping brews to avoid building up a stockpile of kegs, and shifted its focus to promoting small pack through its online store.
“There were a few weeks where I think everyone just held their breath, and then immediately after that came the online surge of people buying unholy amounts of beer; we went from 30 or 40 orders a day to maybe 300 or 400,” says George. “We’d obviously been quite on-trade driven, so we’d brewed a load of beers that we’d planned to keg. So we had to sort of gamble on putting those into cans, without really having a route to market apart from the online shop. I’m not saying it went swimmingly from day one, but we adapted, and everyone across the business did everything they could to keep things moving, constantly chopping and changing and reacting. With hindsight, I’m really proud of how flexible we were.”
In July and August, as lockdown eased,
on-trade began to return, first as a trickle, then as a surge in demand. George recalls “pallets flying in all directions” and real uncertainty as to what format the beer in-tank should be packaged into, in order to anticipate demand.
“And then, once the murmurs about the tier system started to come in, the on-trade side just drops off a cliff again. We’ve just started putting beer back into kegs, and suddenly the only demand for them is from the pubs that are doing takeout. Once again, we’ve been stung by decisions that are completely out of our control. So we pretty much had to pivot again and crack on with making it work – not easy when our local markets are all in long-term tier three.”
The second lockdown hasn’t seen the same flurry of online buying, but Thornbridge’s web shop is still significantly more busy than at the same time last year, and George sees it continuing to be an important sales channel for the brewery even as the vaccine rolls out and restrictions lift.
“We’ve put a lot of time into getting our e-commerce right, which is something we just didn’t specialise in before. So I think we’re geared up for a future of online retail alongside our other sales channels; it’s much a part of the future. For example, we’ve started a Thornbridge beer club in October; a subscription club for the biggest fans around,” says George.
The temporary shift away from on-trade has also opened up other opportunities for Thornbridge, providing an impetus to explore new directions on the brewing front.
“The extra space in the brewery from not brewing cask and keg beer has allowed us to try some new stuff. We probably wouldn’t have had the time, but also I’m not sure the market would have been there; the surge in online and bottle shops has enabled us to get new beers out that we wouldn’t have done this year. So we’ve done Jaipur X which is our kind of signature anniversary beer, a 10% version of Jaipur. Also DDH Jaipur, as well as a weiss doppelbock 8%, which is one of our favourite styles, and a California Common.
“I think previously, from a sales perspective, we would have been a bit hesitant to take on 10,000 440 ml cans without someone to sell them to. But through the beer club and all these other things, it means that we have channels to push all this new, exciting beer through. I mean, through December, we’ve been dropping three new releases a week.”
This momentum seems set to carry through into 2021, with four exciting collaborations planned for the first three months, all being released in 440ml cans. Rather than ease back into the high volume routine of Jaipur for the on-trade customers, Thornbridge seems determined to keep hold of the dynamism that lockdown forced upon it. As George says, “we’re just going to try and do everything at once. Everyone’s behind the idea that we should keep pushing on every channel we have, keep brewing interesting beers and getting them into people’s hands whether they’re in the pub, in a bottleshop or online. So yes, I think this has ultimately made us stronger.
“Hopefully, the UK is ready to bounce back when the vaccine and everything else comes out, and the pub industry and restaurants are in a position to do they were doing before Coronavirus. It won’t be easy, and obviously we’ve already seen some great places go to the wall. People’s health has to be the priority, so we’re waiting patiently, and I’ve no doubt that when things come back, it’ll be amazing. And hopefully we have some amazing weather in the summer and can all get together for a drink in the sunshine.”
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