I have always been interested in real ale, which I guess comes from my first real job: The Bridge Inn in Topsham. I worked there from when I was about 17. They always had six or eight cask beers from local breweries, so I got to learn a bit about beer.
I went to university in Exeter – a geography degree and continued to work there [The Bridge Inn], then went to work in wine mostly from the sales side, but learned how different wines were made and how that influenced flavour.
I was lucky enough to go to Champagne and meet some winemakers. Their job seemed a lot more interesting than mine. With brewing on the up as an industry I thought I would move back to Devon and I got a job working for Otter Brewery – a renowned regional brewer. I worked there for a couple of years across the entirety of production and then decided I wanted to know more. I enrolled in the Masters course in Brewing Science & Practice at Nottingham University, did an MSc for a year, which was fantastic.
Salcombe, which launched in 2016, had just put in a new brewhouse. They had had a new brewhouse for about 12 months, so I emailed them on the off-chance they might be looking for somebody and I was lucky enough to get a job in September 2017. I took over temporarily from the head brewer, who was on sick leave. He didn’t return, so I made the step up to head brewer.
In terms of sales and volumes we have been going up at about 50% a year for the last four years, so the team has transformed from just the two of us – myself and my senior brewer Chris Lang to being, shortly, six or seven.
Chris was here when I arrived. He went to Exeter University. He’s three years older than me and did a maths degree. He was a sales rep coming from a pub management background, ended up in the pub brewhouse to help out and he’s stuck at brewing ever since. He’s currently studying his IBD [Institute of Brewing & Distilling] Diploma in brewing. He was Salcombe’s third employee.
Adam Weatherley is the assistant brewer. He was a keen home brewer who joined as a delivery driver/brewery assistant. He passed his IBD general certificate last year. Being such a small team, everyone has to do a bit of everything.
The new Ivybridge site
The biggest challenge for me has been the addition of the new site on the A38 – at Lee Mill Industrial Estate, Ivybridge, between Plymouth and Exeter – about eight or nine miles from the existing site. The investment is going to be about £1m. The A38 is the big draw, because it’s the main arterial route out of South Hampshire, either to Plymouth and down to Cornwall or north towards Exeter, Bristol.
We can spend an hour getting to the A38, because the roads around here are either single roads or very narrow, so you get caravans and lorries. The traffic jams of delivery drivers to Exeter or Bristol build up. A journey that should take 50 minutes takes two and a half hours. From the new site we can get to Exeter in about half an hour. In terms of our distribution, the efficiencies are going to be a huge improvement.
The site will allow us to store 320 brewer’s barrels of beer – essentially additional tanks. It will increase our brewing capacity by three times. We have 160 barrels at our existing site. We’re due to be sending our first batch of beer down there this week. We took over the site in November. The kit has gone in over the past three to four weeks.
We hope to pack the first lot of beer in the second week of May and hope to have the site fully commissioned and running in June.
Out of my comfort zone
It’s been out of my comfort zone, which is why I have enjoyed it. It’s not just the brewing equipment, it was the drainage, the electrics – all those things, which you take for granted with a site that’s up and running. When you get to a new site, the list grows and grows of areas that need to be sorted.
We have always tried to do things in-house. A lot of brewers brew beer at the brewery and send it off to be kegged and packaged somewhere else, but we invested early on in some filtration. We outsourced bottling from the beginning, because we didn’t have the space to do that at the brewery, so we wanted to bring that in-house.
The new site gives us more flexibility so we can brew smaller batches of beer. Beer is best drunk fresh, so the smaller the batches, the quicker they sell, the fresher the beer the customers get. We would send three or four pallets all the way to Gloucester, seven or eight pallets back. It’s not the most sustainable of processes. It’s now only a short trip down the road and the beer will be distributed from where it’s packaged.
New canning, bottling and kegging machines
We have put in a canning machine capable of 2,100 cans an hour and a new cross-flow filter. It should be a lot more sustainable because it’s a regenerable filter, rather than cartridges, which are not reused. We have put in a bottling machine that will do 2,000 bottles an hour and a kegging machine, which will do 35-40 kegs an hour.
I looked at what our production was, what our goal was, built in some growth and then started to look at companies that offer that sort of equipment as a total package. We wanted to use a local company, because what was really important was the after-sales and product support, so we selected Devon-based Vigo.
All beer will be brewed at our Estuary View site. When they first put kit in, there were four fermentation vessels there. We now have eight, so have already doubled capacity. Last year, with the pandemic, we didn’t do anything there. We have run out of space there for more production, so Lee Mill is the relief.
We’ve done barrel-aged beer and introduced keg beer to the range. The first thing I bought here when I arrived was a 20-litre brew kit – a small test kit to allow us to push NPD.
Coming out of a pandemic is challenging for new products. There will be the launch of 5.4% pilsner in 330ml can. We also hope to launch a session lager in July.
On-trade has been the main part of our business – pubs, restaurants. The off-trade is more the growth for the future. We’re starting to get supermarket contracts now. The investment in Lee Mill is to support that.
Coming out of lockdown and the pandemic’s impact
The hardest thing has been not knowing how many people are going to open. It’s so weather dependent. These first weeks have been difficult. Fortunately, the weather’s been stunning in Devon, so people have been able to drink outside. We’ve been really busy – around 75% of what we would expect this time of year.
Easter is one of our busiest times of year anyway, but we usually spend several months preparing for it. Because of the pandemic we haven’t had that preparation time. I expect that’s why the big brewers have run out of beer, because nobody knew when we were going to open.
The pandemic had a significant impact, with sales down 90%+. It was difficult to react to such a change. One thing we have done is connect more with local customers. We started doing ‘fill up your container at the brewery’. It’s something we would like to continue. It’s quite a local following now on a Friday. People come to the brewery and fill up.
We did online orders and local deliveries, using our drivers and vans to drop beer all over the south west. People would order on the phone and we would drop the beer free of charge. Not all of that would be sustainable to continue, because we don’t currently have the drivers or the vans to do that as well as the pubs. We’re working on that.
By mid to end of May I expect the business to be at 2019 levels and hopefully beyond. We have tied in with new customers to be the sole supplier of beer and cider, so I suspect we will be beyond pre-pandemic levels this summer.