Pioneer craft brewer Sambrook’s looking backwards and forwards

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When Duncan Sambrook opened his eponymous brewery in London’s Battersea he was the first of the new wave of brewers to set up shop in the capital that would be collectively described as craft brewers.

Nobody was bandying that term around in August 2008 when he took on the site, nor in November when he released his first beer Wandle, with the key objective of focusing on locality – through sourcing and ingredients as well as supplying the local market of Wandsworth Borough. It was largely bereft of local beer following the closure of Young’s two years earlier.

To say a lot has happened in London – and UK brewing in general – since Sambrook set up would be an understatement of monumental proportions. “It has been a phenomenal rollercoaster ride. The industry is now unrecognisable. We saw an opportunity to target locality – not innovation – but this does not matter so much today. Provenance is no longer the key point. It is more about branding, style, and the reputation of the brewery,” says Sambrook when Beer Insider sat him down on the morning of the first day of GBBF when he traditionally holds a brunch for friends and business associates in brewing.

With around 130 breweries now operating in the capital it has become more competitive for sure, which has ultimately led to an increased difficulty in securing channels to market and a “lack of certainty of these outlets”. But he does not believe these small brewers are the issue. Instead he says it is more about the larger players buying-out the likes of Camden, Beavertown and Meantime as well as Guinness with its craft range that are tying up the lines and closing the doors to other brewers.

“Heineken will tie-up the lines with Beavertown etc…What does this do for the rest of the industry? We cannot compete with the big guys. It’s decreasing the marketplace. It’s the large multi-nationals that have stolen market share. My friends are not particularly sophisticated drinkers and go for Camden and Meantime because they see them as independent,” he explains.

This has impacted Sambrook’s and its sales team is now significantly larger than previously – just to secure the same volume of sales. Back in 2008 Sambrook says he would set up 30 visits to pubs in order to generate one new customer. The beer would then likely be trialled for six months before he received feedback. “It was a very high hit rate [of success] with very little competition. We’d train the bar staff, tell them our story.”

“It’s the complete opposite now. You get 20 pubs who you phone up to sell to and then after they’ve tried your beer you do not get a call for six months. It’s now about constant rotation. We have to therefore be constantly phoning everybody,” says Sambrook.

With many other breweries going through the same process he says it has led to some unbalanced ranges in many pubs: “I feel the retailers [pubs and beer shops] are not making the right decisions. They receive calls from breweries on a Monday morning and say ‘yes’ to the first 20, which is different to before. Previously the publican choseĀ  the beers he wanted and then called the breweries. This enabled them to range the styles well but we don’t see this [range planning] anymore.”

Playing the rotation game is certainly not the strategy of Sambrook’s that had only three beers in its range during its first three years of production. Although more have since been added these three core beers – Wandle, Pumphouse and Junction – are still the best sellers, with Wandle alone representing 30% of total sales.

These three are also cask beers, unlike the keg-only output of many other brewers that followed in the wake of Sambrook’s. It took Sambrook until 2014 to produce his first keg beers – Battersea Rye and Battersea IPA – but the format has grown rapidly and now accounts for 50% of sales.

Across the range the output has been held at 15,000 hectolitres for the past three years – which is the maximum capacity at the Battersea site. This led Sambrook to look around for a larger unit and in August it was announced that the brewery would be relocating to the old Young’s Brewery (Ram Quarter) site in the heart of Wandsworth.

The company is working with the Brewery History Society to help it integrate its infrastructure into the remaining bits of Young’s on the site. It will also be retaining the services of John Hatch who has valiantly maintained (very low scale) brewing at the site since Young’s departed in 2011.

Duncan Sambrook on a roll

The new facility will open in 2020 and give Sambrook’s the potential to ultimately double its capacity with the brewhouse and conditioning taking place at the Ram Quarter while the logistics and storage will be handled at another – yet to be secured – location.

“We will look to grow at 5-6% per year including growing the tap room. I’m not being unambitious, it’s just that the market is very competitive. The prognosis is not necessarily good for the brewing industry. We are probably 10 years away from legalised cannabis. We’ll shape our business for a more competitive environment,” he explains.

Having been at the forefront of the rollercoaster craft brewing revolution in London, it might well be advisable for other brewers to at least consider these wise words from the experienced Sambrook.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider