Even as pubs start to reopen in the UK, and lockdown measures ease elsewhere, it seems the way in which people enjoy a beer may have changed permanently. A month after reopening, pub sales are still looking low with alcohol sales in supermarkets and online stores soaring by comparison.
With the move to online orders bringing fantastic beers into people’s homes, it looks like online retail for breweries may be a real game changer. And while this is brilliant news for smaller breweries who are getting beer directly into the hands (and mouths) of their biggest fans, it does bring the logistical challenge of smaller orders in far greater quantities.
This is a great problem to have – but it’s meant that getting kitted out with the right tools to streamline processes and manage products effectively is now the key to keeping operations as smooth as the finish on a finely crafted IPA.
Unleashed’s Alice Kennedy caught up with Andy Gibson from Vault City Brewing – a rapidly growing Dundee-based brewery specialising in modern sour beers – to talk about brewing, the impact of Covid-19 on business and what steps they took to stay at the top of their game – and come out stronger than ever.
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Tell me a bit about Vault City. How did you go from beer enthusiasts to Scotland’s authority on sour brews?
“The Vault City story started out as a love of homebrewing and experimenting with different yeast and bacteria alongside pretty out-there flavour combinations. The resulting style, which we’ve coined as ‘Modern Sour Beer’, hits a real gap in the market of beer flavours (of which there are countless combinations out there)! Without getting too geeky about the ins and outs of brewing processes we make what they call Mixed-Fermentation Sour Beer; in other words, we don’t cut corners, and make sour beer the hard way with a mixture of yeast, bacteria and time.
“However, these ‘mixed ferm’ beers are usually very acidic and very dry by the nature of the microbes that produce them. Our house mixed culture (a blend of yeast and bacteria which we’ve been cultivating for 2 years now) creates a super fruity flavour profile and leaves some residual sweetness in our beers which helps balance the acidity it produces. This is a very unique combination as most beers are heavily focused on one flavour; aggressively bitter, overly sweet, unbearably tart, etc. We prefer a balanced approach. Our focus on using fresh locally sourced fruit makes for a full-on fruit flavour in our beers which is presented beautifully by the sweet and tart base beer. So, it’s a unique flavour profile for beer, particularly in the UK.
“Using fresh locally sourced fruit makes for a full-on fruit flavour in our beers”
– Andy Gibson, Vault City Brewing
“The mixed fermentation nature of the beers we make is pretty darn nerdy (guilty) but we take the view that although it’s fun to geek out you shouldn’t need a degree in microbiology to enjoy sour beer. Does it taste good? Then great! Our customers hit two very different demographics when it comes to beer – the craft beer aficionados who love sour beer – and people who generally don’t like beer! Most beers have an element of bitterness, which is very important for the flavour profiles of 99% of beers; ours predominantly have zero bitterness. But they do have loads of fruit flavours and a touch of acidity which is why a lot of people who prefer wine or cider love Vault City Brewing.”
From home kitchen to full blown brewery must feel pretty surreal at times! What have been the top three Vault City moments since starting out in that kitchen?
“They’d have to be:
- Launching our first ever beer for sale – Elderflower Sour
- Moving out of the kitchen and into our current space at 71 Brewing in Dundee
- Last year’s events season touring the UK and Europe meeting other brewers and customers (while having a social sip or seven)”
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What is it about sours that you love so much?
“For us it’s that wonderful duality in how people enjoy them. There are customers who have earned their stripes in the craft beer world and are up to date with the latest and greatest beers out there, seeking out our new releases like golden eggs. There are also customers who are completely new to craft beer and have found they love our beers for what they are, fruited Modern Sour Beers.
“We are geeks. We love to chat fermentation. We pursue new and interesting flavours, often borrowing from the culinary world, there is always a new process for making beer to get stuck into and figure out if it benefits our beers. Then there’s the arguably more enjoyable side of just enjoying delicious flavours. We are also foodies and love combinations or raw expressions of unique flavours – this is what really gets us excited about a new beer and seeing people enjoy them with us is the best reward.
“Personally, it’s my favourite piece of feedback to receive when someone says, ‘I don’t like beer, but I really like this!’.
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2020 has been a rough and very weird year. What impact has the pandemic and subsequent lockdown had on the Vault City business?
“The impact has been huge on two fronts. The hospitality industry effectively shutting down overnight killed about 70% of our business in the UK and 100% internationally in one fell swoop. So, we reduced our production volume and didn’t keg a beer for nearly 5 months (I almost forgot how!). Shifting to only packaging bottles was a logistical nightmare as they take up a lot more space and there’s a lot more ‘ingredients’ to make a case of beer than a single keg.
“The flip side was that we rapidly built our webshop so that we could still get our beer into customers’ hands – just at their sofa rather than at the bar. The support we saw here was incredible and being able to have direct conversations and communication with the people drinking our beer in real time was fantastic!”
That sounds like a lot of change very quickly! What adjustments have you had to make to your business model to survive?
“The big change we had to make was shifting to an entirely eCommerce-based business when distribution stopped overnight.
“As I’ve mentioned we are very fortunate to have such supportive (and thirsty) customers. However, there was a second edge to that sword that we were not prepared for, the amount of demand the webshop would have.
“As we started to bring production back up to full strength after a period of minimal brewing the orders kept growing. These are both great things but for such a small team it meant a lot of things started falling through the cracks as we tried to keep up with both. It was obvious we needed to sort out our inventory and processes, so we closed the webshop to focus on getting our house in order and to improve our service.
“This included setting our business up on Unleashed, which has massively helped to offload a lot of the double handling of data we were juggling before. For such a small team it’s been invaluable. Now we have one dashboard for everything from raw materials and stock to issuing invoices and everything in between! The only thing we keep a little more loose and free is our creative brewing ideas which are everywhere from scraps of paper to the office whiteboard.”
Is there anything you’ve learnt over the last 3 months that you’d like to share as top tips for other small manufacturing businesses looking to scale?
“Remember that the customer holding your product is the person you need to be talking to the most and that you will always need a bigger warehouse – if you have the space, you’ll fill it!
“And invest in brewery software that helps you streamline your processes – for us, that’s been a combination of Unleashed and Xero. There’s only so far you can go with spreadsheets, paper and information that only exists in one guy’s head and I can’t overstate what a game-changer bringing in Unleashed and Xero has been in allowing us to take the next steps and grow as a business – even during lockdown.”
“Invest in brewery software that helps you streamline your processes – for us, that’s been a combination of Unleashed and Xero”
– Andy Gibson, Vault City Brewing
Looking to the future, what do you think is the biggest opportunity for craft producers?
“The ‘new normal’ is a whole new world (a new fantastic point of view) and there’s no telling what it will bring. I think that the amount of virtual events, tastings and web-based shopping will all continue as people have realised the benefits of this format – similar to people working from home at this time. Engaging more personally with customers and having that connection and direct feedback will be a game changer for those who embrace it.”
Finally – and perhaps most importantly – what’s the best beer you’ve ever tasted?
“The best thing about beer is the myriad of flavours out there to try from countless styles (75 + sub-categories if you’re counting). Anyone who doesn’t like beer can almost certainly find something they enjoy from bitter to sweet, sour to even salty!
“I love to pair beer with food; it’s a cut ahead of wine (IMO) with carbonation playing a crucial role in cutting fatty flavours and refreshing the palate with each sip. The interplay of flavours and discovering new pairings is a real rush. But for me the best beer is about an occasion.
“My controversial one (as a craft beer nut) – a 20cl pour of Estrella Damm after getting thoroughly lost in Barcelona (says a very ginger Scotsman). A few kilometres from the brewery, crisp lager, under a parasol in a historic square, in sweltering heat after a lot of walking – liquid gold and the most refreshing glass of beer I’ve ever had.
“Taste is so subjective and there are so many styles to try, there is a perfect beer for every time, place and occasion. Having said that, if I had to drink one beer for the rest of time it would be the quintessential Saison Dupont.”