To hear Bruce Gray describe Left Handed Giant’s operations over the past year, you begin to feel like he’s not describing a brewery so much as a board game. Not a family game night kind of game. Not a light game. Not a particularly fun game. But one of those epic, dense, four-hour German ones with a big map and lots of bits to represent treasure, workers, equipment and goods. One where your best efforts to get your goods to market are thwarted at every turn. A game that comes with a rule book nobody understands and apparently one where the cards are all complete shit.
“It's been difficult all the way through this to make any sort of educated decisions around planning or strategy.” As Bruce speaks, he absentmindedly shifts the coasters and napkins that he’d been using as impromptu visual aids to help explain all the moving parts in his business model: the brewery, the taproom, the pub, the new three story brewpub centerpiece in the heart of Finzel’s Reach. “I mean we have no idea where the goalposts might be tomorrow, never mind where they're going to be in a month and a quarter and a year. How do you make good decisions when you have no idea how you are going to be allowed to trade in a month's time?”
Left Handed Giant entered 2020 in a good place. Their strategy was all coming together. At that stage, their flagship Finzel’s Reach brewpub had been open for only about nine months, a key piece of an overall strategy they’d been crafting as carefully as a new IPA. Their brewery in industrial St. Phillip’s was equipped to get beer into cans for retail sale, and the new brewpub was to focus on kegs, of which over half would be sold directly through their own in-house taps, the rest to other local pubs. Their overall strategy was not so much growth, but selling as much of their beer as possible through the most direct channels. Covid upended their hard-crafted plan, and the past year has been a matter of using whatever tools they had to reconfigure, stay afloat, adapt.
Their story illustrates the issues facing craft brewers over the past year, challenges that will ultimately see them emerging as changed organisations, with new strategies in place, and new outlooks on what it is they offer. When Covid first hit, Bruce’s first thought was that this was game over, he recalls.
“I just remember thinking: ‘We....are fucked!’ And I just remember repeating that to myself over and over. I just could not imagine at that stage how we could generate the income required to cover our fixed costs without having not only our pubs, but any pubs open.”
Not to mention the £130,000 they had outstanding to local pubs that were unable to trade. Their entire strategy had been built around the idea of selling beer as close as possible to the source, where it’s freshest and tastes the best, and at the highest margins possible. Now with Covid, not only was their ability to pour pints gone, but their shiny new state-of-the-art brewery was only able to put beer into kegs, which also relied on pubs being open for business. “It was like the stages of grief. I remember it was like the anger and the sadness, denial, you eventually work your way through them all. Until eventually you get to acceptance and the realisation that you either have to get off or you have to lean in and figure out how to get through this.”
For LHG, the most pressing immediate issue was staff. Before furlough was announced, in that period after the government advised the public to avoid the pub, but before they actually closed the pubs or announced any support. “We put 'em on bikes and they were all spinning around town delivering six packs to people's houses,” Bruce recalled. It wasn’t profitable, but it did keep staff on long enough for the furlough scheme to be announced, buying a bit of time while they started to plan their next moves.
“All of a sudden you go from being like, ‘we're fucked, this is it’, to more like, ‘actually there are things we can lean into here.’ ”During the first lockdown, demand for craft beer in cans soared. Bottle shops remained open as essential services, but in sticking with their general strategy of direct-to-consumer, Bruce looked to focus on online sales. Re-inventing themselves as an e-retailer would involve a major shift in thinking. For starters, it meant retooling their online shop. They upped their social marketing and in-house photo skills and refined the little touches, such as including a little note and a bag of crisps in each custom-designed box they shipped out, which would make it clear that “you were buying from an e-retailer, not someone who just decided to sell a thing through the post,” as Bruce puts it.
Last summer, between online sales and a newly built outdoor taproom in St. Phillips, demand was through the roof. But at the same time they were launching those initiatives, they had to solve their production issues. Their brewpub was shuttered, closed to punters and unable to package the beer. Meanwhile their main brewery was only able to brew or package on any particular day due to the necessary social distancing. That summer, they sped up existing plans for a new and larger brewery. They moved into an adjacent space and built out a new brewery which permitted simultaneous brewing and canning. And at the same time, they invested in a pair of massive storage tanks that would allow the beer brewed at Finzel’s Reach to be transported by lorry to the canning line. “By the time the second lockdown kicked off, we were able to go through winter brewing at full capacity at the brewpub and in St. Philips and all the beer from [the brewpub] was going to St. Philips and being canned out there,” Bruce explained, lining out pens as roads between two coasters to explain the operation, a la Settlers of Catan.
“So it was a huuuge project in the summer in preparation for the winter lockdown, and we were able to go through the second lockdown in a much more.....successful isn't the way of putting it....less painful, because there's no success in the way we're having to operate right now. It’s just survival. There's just minimising losses.”
Image: Left Handed Giant's Tap room in St.Phillip's
In the month leading up to lockdown, the Brighton Bierhaus was in full production mode. They knew it was bound to be a strange year ahead, largely due to uncertainties around their exports to Europe, which had been growing quickly (Fifteen percent of their draught sales were to Italy alone). Their lead brewer, Gary Sillence, was getting ready to go on holiday, so they were all hands on deck before he got on a plane to Colorado with his snowboard for a much needed break.
“We had just gone hell bent for leather to get as much beer into casks and kegs as we could before he left for his holiday, and that's when Covid hit,” remembers Stephen Whitehurst, co-owner of Brighton Bierhaus. The pubs in Italy were shut first, and shortly after that all trade stopped. Like all craft brewers, Stephen is hyper-aware of the time element of enjoying quality beer. He noted that before lockdown, they were getting beers from their brewery to the taps in Rome a week faster than taps in London.
But now, the concern was simply getting beer out the door before it went off. “Initially you think ‘Oh, shit!’ But there’s no time to worry about anything or plan too much. You have all this beer, and the clock is ticking. There's a shelf-life.”Even with all pubs closed, and none of their beer packaged for retail, they managed to scramble and find a way. Stephen was immediately on the phones, lining up containers and a plan to have pints delivered via rideshare drivers (who were also suddenly hurting for custom). He found what he needed from a local dairy, and bought the first batch of two thousand, two-pint glass bottles. “We were up and selling that first week. Gary and I were pulling pints by hand and selling it through the app.”
Image: Brighton Bierhaus took to using milk bottles to distribute their beer in the first lockdown
They branded the programme, Pour to Door, and promoted it heavily through their social channels. “We ended up selling it all,” said Stephen. He lost track of exactly how many thousands of bottles they used, or how many kegs they got through, aside from noting it was a whole cold storage unit worth, as if that was a standard unit of measure. The beer was moving and he could focus once again on making sure it was fresh: “The fastest we had it was seven minutes from the tap to a customer's door, but on average was about twenty minutes. So still a really fresh pint right to your house,” he noted with evident pride. Throughout the summer, Gary and Stephen were working the taps and greeting walkup customers.
And as with a lot of publicans over the last summer, the business and hard graft proved grounding after months of worry. In addition to their takeaway window, they also opened a taproom at their main brewery, and got back to packaging in bottles and cans, using an outside partner for the actual packaging. By September, they had partnered with a local zero-emissions courier called Zedify and were back to selling direct to local customers. “The cans and bottles are like liquid flyers,” says Stephen. “It's a business card. People who were living in Brighton and Hove that maybe didn't know we were here, that they could get this award-winning beer right from a local brewer, but now, because we were doing deliveries, they've heard of us.”
Image: Brighton Bierhaus sold bottles and cans out their pub when they were forced to close
Looking forward, Stephen is sure they will keep many of the changes they made in response to the pandemic. The Taproom and direct sales were things they might not have prioritised, but now that they have proven successful and are in place, they’re keepers. But what Stephen thinks the biggest win from the whole ordeal is the perspective he and Gary gained by having to re-examine what’s important. Stephen remembers the nights after the long shifts he and Gary would pull, just the two of them, wrangling casks around and pulling takeaway beers for walk-up customers, when the two of them would have the chance to sit and have a pint after closing. “That's where it gets exciting!” he says. “Rarely do you get that chance to step back and look at what it is you are doing, why it is you're doing it.”
As the staff come back and the pubs reopen, Gary and Stephen have been able to get away from the taps and back to running the business, but as things come back, they can both feel a renewed connection with the passion that got them into this business in the first place: brewing innovative and exciting beer.
It’s been a challenging year, to say the least, but one thing that has helped Bruce make it through has been the community of indie brewers, in the local Bristol indie brewing scene, but also in groups of brewery owners and managers from up and down the UK. People who knew each other through brewing events, who might catch a drink together a couple times a year, have found themselves talking several times a week via video chat and messaging apps. Bruce points out that it’s not practical advice they share.
“Everyone's business is so different to each other, we've all got different desires and different strategies and our businesses are in very different positions. It’d be difficult to give each other advice. But what we can do is give support. Just talk and say how fucking scary this is. Because you can’t really say that to the people working in the company. You're not able to express how scared you are, how insecure you are about the whole thing, how much you don't have a clue about what is happening and how screwed you think the business is at that point. You can't say those things at work. But the people in that group felt the same way. And we were able to say those things, and get some feedback as well, some support. Empathy.”
For Bruce, the large and airy brewpub has allowed them to reopen in a socially distanced way at a higher capacity than most Bristol pubs, and although things are nowhere near what he’d call ‘normal’, they are coming back around and he can breathe a small sigh of relief that all of the pivots and changes they’ve implemented have kept the ship afloat. The online sales, the taproom and the increased social presence are all here to stay. But even as he embraces some of the changes born of adapting to Covid, he’s most excited about getting back to basics.
“All of this hasn’t made me think that operating pubs is a bad idea. It’s made me think that what we’re doing is right, that the model and our plan works. People love this place, and they love our beer. And even when we’re hit with a once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) occurrence….”. Bruce trails off and makes a point of touching their very Instagram-friendly, raw-hewn wooden tabletop. “Even then we were able to cover costs. And when one day all of this cranks back up to what it should be, this place becomes the beating heart all over again.”
Bruce stops to look around the sunny, empty hall. Throughout our interview, Bruce’s Scottish brogue has waxed and waned, depending on his level of excitement. It’s worth pointing out that on this last little bit here, the roll on the R is completely unrestrained: “We showed we can survive in the dark times of a pandemic. I look at that and I know that in the light days ahead we can fucking thrive!”