Hardknott is just over 11 years old. We started with a two-and-a-bit barrel (3.5hl) plant brewing occasionally for the pub we then owned. We almost exclusively brewed for cask with only a tiny bit ending up in bottle and a couple of highly experimental kegs. It was a most useful trial period that culminated in us setting up as a separate stand-alone production brewery after selling the pub early 2010.
Meanwhile, during 2009 I started to discover some very interesting beers. Jaipur of course, and Punk IPA. Big imperial stouts and barley wines also hit me big-time that year. My view of beer, it turns out, was going through a humongous shift of perspective, initially started by a visit to Oregon late 2008. Massive hop-hits of American style IPAs. Beers with more body and interest due to higher ABVs.. and all manner of preconception-busting styles that shook my own perspective to the very core in a very good and exciting way.
Of course there was then, and still are some great brewers doing some fantastic things in the UK. Fullers remains a solid favourite of mine, and there might even be some more I'll have to say on that soon. But that seminal year, with the discovery or Thornbridge and BrewDog made me want to look further at how I could develop my own brewing passions. I wanted to be a craft brewer, because I believed that meant more than just being a "real ale micro-brewery" even though it seemed many commentators treated that concept of craft beer with a huge level of contempt.
When I set up my stand alone production brewery I wanted to follow the more contemporary style that was emerging and I believe I have a rightful claim to be Cumbria's first and best independent craft brewery.
Whatever your view of craft beer, one thing is certain, we remain very independent. There have been various take-overs of bigger entities. Meantime, Camden Town and now Hawkshead to name just three that are high above my event horizon.
Just this week we hear of BrewDog bullying tactics over brand names, applying similar corporate style pressure that they have previously fought against. Indeed, admittedly with some amusement to me, Martin and James changed their names to Elvis by deed poll after a law suit was filled by the late Mr Presley's estate.
Meanwhile we remain frustratingly small. We have produced about 1000hl every year for the past 4 years. We have also, due to the combination of the inefficiencies of our size, increasing costs and downward market pressures on brewery gate prices seen increasing losses that cannot be sustained. We cannot continue to do what we are doing the way we are doing it.
So, big choices to make. Huge choices to make. We have a buyer for our house, which will realise a chunk of hard cash. In a few weeks, hopefully, we will complete on the sale our house and pay down some scary loans that are partly to blame for our losses1. We will then be in a position to decide exactly what we are going to do next. We will have some hard cash left with which to consider investment in the business, but it will not be enough by itself to make it work, so we will have to take out some more scary loans, but a lot more carefully this time.
In reality, the most obvious thing to do would be just to wind up our operation. Ditch the dream of making a successful competitive, exciting and unique craft brewery as just a ridiculous idea that cannot work commercially from where we are. The market information does not make it look great; with the increasing competition, dropping wholesale pricing and increasing costs like no tomorrow. Stopping production that actually costs us money to keep doing, selling all our equipment and binning Hardknott often seems the only logical thing to do.
Is this what we will do? Not if I have my fucking way it isn't.
We have lived, breathed, dreamed and sweated Hardknott for 11 years. I'm damned if I'm giving up now. But we need to be bigger and better and different to how we have been.
So, how do we make it work? Well, I could tell you all my ideas, and my plans, show you all my blue-prints for success, but you'd have to get me very drunk before I did. They are all fairly exciting and progressive, and if I can find a way to fund them I'll make damn sure at least some of them happen.
Let's just say we have a bold plan. It's a plan that will be risky and will put everything we have on the line. We are quite probably mad. But what choice do we have? Lose Hardknott? Lose everything we have worked so hard to achieve over the last 11 years? Lose all that talent we have in the team, lose the inspiration that got us this far? Come on, that is worth fighting for surely?
We firmly believe we have a huge amount of potential. Our core beliefs, dreams and aspirations have not changed.
Besides, can we allow a few major craft pioneers to simply leave us for dust? With BrewDog becoming ever more corporate like, Meantime, Camden Town and Hawkshead selling out we feel there is a danger of the idea of craft beer becoming ever more threatened. With the likes of Marston's claiming part of the craft arena and many smaller traditional brewers taking up the cudgel, with some admirably good results, we have a battle on our hands and make no mistake about it.
As this all unfolds over the next few months I hope to start sharing a bit more detail. I hope you will all watch and support us and our tiny team. We may well be asking for particular practical support, much is as yet uncertain, but we hope you will trust us to do the right thing when we do call for that help.
1Many people have said to me... "don't!... DON'T sell your house to save your business!". I have a fairly simple reply; when the majority of the debt is either secured on the house anyway, or on personal credit cards, there are not many choices left. We simply do not have the financial headroom to close down the business neatly and safely without risking much more personally, losing our house and our business anyway and becoming personally bankrupt.
I am hopeful that suppliers, HMRC and our loyal fans will all see this as the right thing to do by everyone. Equally, a tidy solution to this will hopefully leave our credit rating in some sort of reasonable health.