Tales from the sea
Harbour Brewing Co: Kicking lockdown the Cornish way
Monday 18 January 2021
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Culturally, as well as geographically, Harbour Brewing is extremely Cornish. Unruffled by the vagaries of craft beer fad and fashion, it brews in its own time, in its own way. Fortunately for everyone concerned though, this means expertly crafted traditional styles, with just enough of a modern twist to appeal to the cool kids. And with 90% of its volume going straight out of Cornwall, it’s clear that the laid-back, coastal vibe hits a real chord with those perhaps craving a simpler life.
I get the feeling however that it’s been a little bit of a culture shock for Harbour’s new head of sales, Adam Clarke, who moved from Tiny Rebel back in the summer and – thanks to the wonderful tier system – is currently working from London. Things being run on “Cornwall Time” is a concept that comes up several times during our conversation. Nonetheless, Adam is clearly very excited about extending Harbour’s reach, promoting some of the interesting new projects it has on the go, and building on the work it has done during lockdown.
“Just from a sales perspective, I think the online presence of craft beer is huge compared to back in the day, where you’d need to go into bars to find anything good,” says Adam. “That shift was already well underway before 2020, but the pubs closing has really accelerated things. We’ve certainly seen unbelievable growth both online and in our off-trade accounts all over the country.”
It certainly won’t have hurt Harbour’s prospects that it’s been slightly ahead of the curve in terms of its packaging, having invested in mail order-friendly 440ml canning and four-pack boxes in 2019, coming online just in time to serve thirsty lockdown home drinkers.
“Again, I think that trend was already underway,” continues Adam. “It used to be that a 440ml craft can signified something really exclusive or expensive. But it’s also a format that works really well for supermarkets, so we’ve seen it quite quickly come down into breweries' core ranges. The fact that we’ve been able to offer those cans through our website has been really powerful.”
Interestingly though, Harbour’s masterplan doesn’t seem to have changed much under lockdown. Arguably, it hasn’t really needed to. Having always been more of a ‘heritage lifestyle’ brand than a hardcore craft outfit, Harbour’s main demographic is loyal and values consistently high quality over novelty. But that hasn’t led to complacency, and Harbour was already pushing in interesting new directions, most notably with the hiring of ex-Kernel and Beavertown mixed-and-spontaneous fermentation guru James Rylance.
“Part of the work we’ve been doing on the brand is differentiating it for the various categories,” says Adam. “So we have our Heritage range, our Black label series – which is more modern craft – and Hinterland, which is James’s domain of mixed ferm beers and exclusive sours. This allows us to really target different groups, whether it’s the big multiples, restaurants, bottleshops or direct to the craft beer crowd.
“It’s also useful to have that sub-brand for Hinterland, because it doesn’t necessarily tally with what people expect from Harbour. People know who James is, so that’s definitely a bit of a pull, and the project already has a proper following. People are excited when a new Hinterland beer comes out, and are suggesting other breweries we should collaborate with next. We suddenly seem to be brewing hype beers!”
It all seems very fortunate, like Harbour somehow just ended up in a position to thrive in the brave new world of lockdown craft beer, with its fancy canning line and buzzy new craft projects. Or, perhaps, what looks like typical Cornish nonchalance is actually the careful work of a damn fine brewery with its finger firmly on the pulse.
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