The denizens of Penryn, in southwest Cornwall, have a bit of a complex about the neighbouring town of Falmouth.
“Penryn was a flourishing town when Falmouth was a furzy down,” goes the local saying.
Before the expansion of Britain’s empire and navy during the 18th century, Falmouth was indeed little more than a Tudor castle and a moor. Since then, its harbour—the third-deepest natural harbour in the world—has supported its steady growth and development. It is now the most populous town in Cornwall, a busy yachting centre and the home of the only National Maritime Museum site outside London.
Penryn, by contrast, remains a single modest street flanked by unremarkable suburbs.
This summer, I visited two breweries in one afternoon. The first, the Rebel Brewing Company, sits in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Penryn. The second, Verdant Brewing Company, nestles in the deepest corner of another industrial estate outside Falmouth. A 40-minute walk through fields, over the hill of Kergilliack, with a break to shelter in a hedge row from a heavy passing shower, was enough to take me from one to the other.
Comparing these two breweries is a bit like comparing the two towns.
Rebel was established in 2011. Verdant started in 2014, but arguably did not hit its stride until it upgraded to its current, 16-hectolitre brewery in October 2016. Rebel is barely known outside of Cornwall. Verdant is now one of the UK’s most visible craft breweries, a producer of sought-after beers that receive enthusiastic reviews across social media.
Things went well during Rebel’s early years. The name and the range of beers it produced marked it out as one of the new wave of young-punk local craft breweries popping up around the UK. Founder Rob Lowe was growing the business and had hired an exciting young brewer named Guillermo Alvarez, an alumnus of both Heriot-Watt University and the St Austell Brewery who now works in London with Hop Stuff. By 2015, Rebel was ready to invest heavily in the kit required to make it a 4,000-5,000 hectolitre brewery.
And then it all seemed to go wrong. By the end of 2016, Rebel was in administration. Its big investment coincided with an even newer wave of craft brewing, international in outlook and native to the social-media age, which included the likes of Verdant. More competition meant fewer sales and a lack of the free cash flow required to stay ahead of the game. It also looks as though the company spent too much time experimenting with diverse beer styles—everything from standard Bitters through an Eighty Shillings to spiced pumpkin ales, Belgian Witbiers, even a Dunkelweizen—rather than producing enough of its core range to secure a loyal, dedicated following.
“Our sales slipped due to increased competition and a lack of available funds to invest in bringing new products to market,” he said. “If everyone who wanted to start a brewery spent six months working in one they would see that the work is hard and dirty, margins are tight and competition is fierce. It is no longer OK to produce mediocre beer. It has to be better than all the local competition yet too many new brewers are making boring, bland beer and wondering why it doesn’t make money.”
By the time I turned up at Rebel’s door, it had been a year and a half since the business was rescued by husband-and-wife team Stephen Trezona and Shirley Cormack-Trezona. Matt Pascoe, who had joined from Truro stalwart Skinner’s back in 2014, stayed on as Head Brewer.
At the beginning, Stephen went on record to insist that his aim was to “put the Rebel back in Rebel by producing some weird and wonderful stuff”. At the same time, he added, “we want to get it right first time and not run before we can walk”.
Stephen is the founder of Clear Brew, a beer-line cleaning service that has franchises nationwide, so he knows how to run a successful business and is familiar with the less glamorous aspects of the beer world. Shirley, who was on hand when I visited for a friendly chat, confirmed a carefully-does-it, conservative approach to rebuilding the Rebel business.
A fairly tight core range of five inherited beers has been augmented with Rebel Red, but otherwise experimentation has been kept in check. New recipes are trialled on cask before cash is risked on label art and bottling, and it seems anything that does not catch on locally is knocked swiftly on the head.
When I mentioned that we would be moving on to visit Verdant, Shirley acknowledged the success her neighbours had enjoyed from selling on-trend, hazy New England IPAs into urban craft-beer markets nationwide, and contrasted that with Rebel’s own struggle to drum up interest in its similarly cloudy wheat beer, which was recently trialled and dropped. Bright beer is the only beer that sells consistently here in Cornwall, she suggested.
Rebel appears to be caught in a very awkward place. There is certainly an appetite to take the brand nationwide, using the reach and connections that Trezona has built with Clear Brew. The beers are good. While I was in Cornwall I tried Surf Bum, a 3.5% ABV Session IPA that delivered on bright, fresh tropical fruit aromas; the authentically toasty, malty and smoky Eighty Shillings, which combined a light body and dry finish with a pleasingly sweet malt loaf flavour on the palate; and Penryn Pale, an upfront hoppy IPA combining earthy cane sugar, stone fruit, orange and grapefruit aromas. The branding, focused on Vichy-style Weissbier bottles with specially commissioned, high-quality artwork, strikes a nice balance between the traditional and the funky.
And yet Rebel Brewing Company does not feel like a business on the cusp of going national. The beers are the sort to win CAMRA awards, but not the sort that grabs the attention of the urban Millennial on the look out for the latest craft-beer sensation. Locally, the competition includes respected traditional breweries such as St Austell and well-established first-wave craft breweries such as Skinner’s, as well as the eye-catching new-wave breweries like Verdant. Nationally, pubs no longer feel like an effective distribution route.
To succeed in today’s market, it feels as though a business like Rebel needs to go for broke with something distinctive, take some big risks, distribute more smartly, and build a social media profile to let us all know about it.
It can be done: Thornbridge and Wylam are examples of breweries that have successfully navigated very different routes from one craft-beer wave to the next. One can see why it might be a terrifying prospect, however.
Verdant has done all of these things, with remarkable success.
From the beginning, James Heffron, Adam Robertson and Richard White dedicated Verdant to hop-forward, highly aromatic New England IPAs. They were also exporting most of their output to the UK’s cities at an early stage. A good online presence and social media has been an important part of its profile-raising, along with a string of collaborations with other highly-respected brewers, from the UK and beyond.
A sizeable capital raise from friends and family two years ago helped pay for the premises and kit at their current location, including, at a later stage, the canning line that is so critical for distributing its hoppy beers quickly, widely and in perfect condition. More recently, it has invested alongside London’s Pressure Drop Brewery in The Experiment, a taproom and distribution hub in Hackney. It is now turning its attention to the local market by opening its own beer-and-seafood joint in Falmouth.
With brewing capacity at a similar level to Rebel’s over the hill, Verdant struggles to keep up with demand.
Is it possible for a brewery like Verdant to be caught in the same sort of trap that put Rebel on life support? It is conceivable, for sure. Craft beer is such a fast-changing industry that it is all too easy for a growing business to find itself on the wrong side of the latest fashion, competing with the latest newcomers and their higher-powered business models. Things can turn in just months.
Rebel still seems to be figuring out who constitutes the core market for its beers, eight years and two owners since it was established. Verdant, by contrast, is intimately engaged with the customers it sells to. That is what has helped it avoid a confusion of multiple rotating beer styles in favour of its keen focus on hazy hop bombs, maintaining interest through an almost constant stream of new hops, new recipes, new collaborations and new artwork.
This is a tried-and-tested model for young breweries, and Verdant’s beers are better-made and more balanced than some of the less thoughtful output in this style. But would a brewery applying that model be able or even willing to adapt its products to a sudden change in consumer taste, rising hop prices, or a general tightening of purse strings?
With the current business cycle maturing rapidly, interest rates beginning to climb and the UK soon to depart from the European Union, every business in the craft-beer industry faces considerable risk. Many have never experienced a recession or high rates. Some have chosen to prepare for the turn in the cycle by heading for the safer harbours of a multi-national brewing partner, either to cash-out at high valuations or to finance the next stage of their growth—Beavertown and Fourpure are among the latest big names in craft beer to do so. Verdant, along with many of its peers, rules this option out on principle. So far, it has grown with a blend of traditional financing and crowdfunding.
But can margins really be sustained as the cycle turns? As recession starts to bite and consumers turn to quality beer at lower price points, will it be the macro-owned, bulked-up craft beer brands that present a threat to the likes of Verdant, similar to the threat that Verdant and its peers posed to the earlier wave of craft brewers? Or might these dynamics open up a new opportunity for brewers like Rebel, who continue to turn out more accessible beer styles that use far fewer expensive ingredients, and operate with more modest financial leverage?
If it were down to beer quality, both these breweries would deserve to flourish. But in the short-term, facing cyclical pressures, quality is not the only determinant of success or survival. Clearly much depends on how a business is capitalised and structured, how well it knows its market, and how adaptable it is to changes in that market. While the first wave of UK craft breweries could establish themselves during an era of muted competition and real-ale certainties, when trends emerged gradually and novelty was rare, no-one enjoys that luxury today.
Penryn and Falmouth both overlook the same picturesque estuary. Only one has the third-deepest natural harbour in the world. But perhaps some other furzy down, benefitting from some as yet unappreciated endowment, is even now awaiting the turn in the tide that will usher in its own era of growth and good fortune.