Nicci Peet catches up with the breweries setting up shop during Covid’s lost year
Saturday 03 July 2021
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As we make our way out of the pandemic, still rocky under foot, and venture back into pubs, bars and taprooms, the tap lists might look a little different. You may see some names missing but some new ones appear. The last year has been a tough ride for everyone. Many took the time to re-evaluate, both personally and professionally, and some took leaps towards change, while others were forced to. This didn’t fall short of the beer industry.
I spoke to four breweries that were founded either just prior to or during the pandemic, to see how their courses were altered by this strangest year: Newbarns which opened just before, Moonwake which secured a premises in January 2020, Newtown Park and Lakes Brew Co.
In March 2020, Newbarns in Leith was waiting on gas works to start in its brewery on 1 April, so they could fire up the brew kit for the first time. Covid swiftly put a stop to that. With restrictions taking hold, the gas company had no way of knowing when works could begin and Newbarns was left in the dark. In the end, works weren’t completed until August. “It was a fairly uncomfortable time for us as we were already in a position where we had outgoings like rent and bills etc,” co-founder Emma says. With the need to cover costs, they reached out to friends at Burnt Mill and The Kernel to help with brewing, so they could release some beer and get their name out there. “Those guys saved our butts, big time, we’ll be forever grateful to them,” Emma says.
In the pandemic supporting local has been heightened massively
Originally Newbarns had intended to only produce draught beer, inspired by founders Emma and Gordon’s favourite pastime of sitting in the pub with friends sipping away at lagers and pale ales. “We just want to make beers that are delicious and fairly straightforward... Traditional in style but a refreshing take on it.” says Emma.
Cans or bottles weren’t in their original vision, but in a world going in and out of lockdown, this quickly became inevitable. They sourced funds for a canning line which arrived just in time to package their first beers in August and, like countless other breweries, opened an online shop and eventually a shop every Saturday at the brewery. This may not have been how they had planned to launch Newbarns, but Emma sees it as a positive. “Maybe we were a bit naive thinking we could survive on just selling kegs... who knows, maybe we would have been fine. But having cans has meant that we’ve reached a much larger audience, much faster than we possibly could have if we’d only been available on tap.”
Emma also felt a shift in consumers’ attitudes towards food and drink over the past year, with people looking closer to home and shopping at smaller independent retailers. “I understand not everyone is in the position to spend a little more than they usually would on their shopping essentials. But it really makes such a huge difference to your community if you are able to.” This feeling was unanimous across all four breweries.
Bristol is a city known for its support of independents, so when Lara Light-McKelvaney and Michael McKelvaney decided to open a brewery in the first lockdown, they knew they’d have local support. Lara reflects that “in the pandemic supporting local has been heightened massively. Everyone suddenly realised you don’t need to go to Tesco, go to your local place because they’re still open, they still need the support.”
Michael interjects “A lot of people were already there, but there’s been a lot of people who understand there are people behind these companies and these brands and they’re struggling”. Lara adds: “…and I don’t know if that support would have been the same had we not been in a pandemic”.
Unlike Newbarns, Newtown Park was founded during the pandemic. Lara and Michael hadn’t been looking to open a brewery, although they’d spoken often about opening a food truck or a bricks and mortar place. When Left Handed Giant put its old space on the market at the end of May 2020, with brew kit included, it took them five minutes to decide to put in a bid.
Starting a brewery in a pandemic might seem like an impossible task, but for Newtown Park it was an advantage. They could design everything around the market at the time; not just how they were going to sell and package their beer, but also staff levels and operations to ensure they weren’t over-committed. A canning line was a must, but not just for survival. “We wanted to build a direct-to-consumer brand, no matter what we did” says Michael, so having a canning line was important to them long term. “It was challenging being a brewery in small pack from the start. It’s a very tricky thing to do. Building a market direct-to-consumer is also tricky, so we’ve done it the hard way” he adds.
Lakes Brew Co. in Kendal was also founded during the first lockdown, but under drastically different circumstances. Founders Michelle Gay, Matt Clarke and Steve Ricketts were made redundant by Hawkeshead brewery at the beginning of the pandemic. All three had worked in the beer industry for years and couldn’t see themselves doing anything else. Despite being contacted for roles at other breweries, they wanted to stay in the place they loved, the Lake District. “It was a case of assessing everything and realising if we don’t try this now we’re going to regret it. It’s the perfect time to hit restart and really go into it” says Michelle. Like Newtown they were in the position to build a brewery around the pandemic and ensure they would be able to trade through potential future lockdowns; understanding the importance of a canning line and a webshop.
The pandemic and Brexit resulted in the ports being completely blocked
The shift in local support of small businesses is another aspect that has been noted by Michelle and Matt: “The locality, the whole provenance thing has really pulled back in and everyone has really appreciated what they have around themselves” says Matt. When beer does start to roll out local trade will be high on their list. “You can get caught up in reaching out everywhere and you take your eye off your local and you don’t support them as much in those earlier days and in your future your local is always going to be there on your doorstep” says Michelle. Being in the Lakes, cask is important to them: “You come off the Fells, walk into a pub and it’s almost expected” says Matt, so focus will be on creating solid cask beers as well as kegs and cans.
Despite Michelle founding the company in March, and bringing Matt and Steve in later, they didn’t secure a premises or brew kit until December 2020. With a build and waits on imports this has meant that they’re set to start releasing beer in June, right in time for when pubs are fully reopened.
In January 2020, almost a year before Lakes Brew Co. found its premises, Moonwake Beer, in Leith, secured theirs. Founders Fin and Vinny, who have both been in hospitality and brewing respectively for years, had always dreamed of opening a brewery. Wanting to do it right, they’d planned an intensive build. “Opening a brewery in the UK in 2021 is a different, more competitive scenario than doing it in 2011 and they wanted to do it with high precision” says Sarah Sinclair, the brewery’s marketing and events manager. The initial lockdown halted construction and a timeline of releasing beer in February/March 2021 was put in place. “Domino effects from the pandemic and Brexit resulted in the ports being completely blocked, so our kit hasn’t been able to be delivered from the manufacturer in China” says Sarah, which has meant this timeline has moved slightly to May/June. “The silver lining of being delayed is that we should be releasing our first beers as we come out of the pandemic into some state of normalcy.”
Although Moonwake will hopefully be opening up with lockdowns behind it, the need to build resilience into its business plan was not lost. The necessity of a canning line and webshop were at the forefront. “It has also affected how we are considering our taproom set up for when it, hopefully, opens in summer,” says Sarah.
With the shift in local support, taprooms have gained importance to these four new breweries, giving them the opportunity to meet the people who have backed them. Each has plans to open a taproom in the summer, with the exception of Newtown Park who has already opened theirs in collaboration with Verdant. Surviving the pandemic as a business is a feat in itself, let alone in the first year of business. If you see any of these breweries on tap or on the shelf I encourage you to try them. Not only to support new businesses but because they’ll be well worth tasting.
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