March was quite a month for the team at Swannay Brewery in Orkney.
They began it by celebrating gold medal wins at a national beer awards and advertising for new positions.
They ended it fearing for their future.
“We started to notice things changing, rather aptly, on Friday the 13th,” says Lewis Hill from the brewery. “By Monday morning our sales south were down but still ok. Then the Government advised against going to pubs and introduced social distancing. It just got worse from there.”
The Covid-19/Coronavirus pandemic has changed the way people across the world live, work and interact. It’s had a huge impact on businesses too. Those changes are keenly felt in a small community like Orkney, and for the Swannay Brewery, the timing couldn’t be worse.
“We’re around a year into a 15-month project to refurbish our brewery,” says Lewis. “We’re building a new brewing space, adding visitor facilities and a tasting hall. The plan was based around sales growth and welcoming visitors this summer, but without all that we need to address how we go forward from here.”
The brewery is also a cask-led brewery, with the bulk of its business aimed at pubs in Orkney and down south. Literally overnight on the 16th of March, 100% of its orders were cancelled. Pallets of beer were returned to Orkney, unopened and unused.
Brewing was stopped and attention immediately turned to the short-term future of the business. Lewis is quite candid about how he felt heading into work that week.
“I had that heavy feeling in my stomach, I just didn’t know what lay ahead for us,” he recalls.
“I decided that, because the situation was so serious, I’d just be honest about it. So, I started writing a blog.”
You can read it on the official website. Terms like ‘huge consequences’ and ‘crazy times’ stand out. In it, Lewis also launched an appeal for support from beer drinkers all over the country, adding a web discount offer and encouraging folk to buy from local shops, suppliers and producers where possible.
It’s safe to say, the response has been overwhelming. Website sales at the brewery were up an incredible 810% by the end of March, and more than 600 boxes of beer have been sent out across the UK.
“It has been amazing, and humbling,” smiles Lewis. “It’s not just the sheer volume of orders, it’s the kind messages folk have put on their orders, or the fact that some don’t use the discount code to help support us. It has just been incredible, really.”
Of course, the website is currently the brewery’s only source of revenue, and much of the income generated is going on overheads that mostly haven’t changed. Lewis has made the tough call to furlough his team and has been in the brewery by himself, processing and packing boxes to post out. But that extra time has also given him the chance to work out the next steps.
“The building project is one thing, and remaining a viable business is another,” says Lewis. “We don’t have the solution yet, but we will continue trying to grow the website side of things.
“In hindsight, we were probably too dependent on pub sales, so we’ll need to address that. Who knows if the pub scene will ever be the same after this?”
The increased web sales can be put down to a number of things, including the support for Swannay Brewery itself, but there also seems to be a wider sense of people turning their attention to local shops and products, and taking advantage of what’s on their doorsteps during a crisis like this.
South of the Swannay Brewery, the Orkney Brewery has been undergoing a similar fortnight of challenges – its five-star visitor centre at Quoyloo is closed for the time being - but again, public support has provided a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.
“We had a lot of visitor centre bookings for this year but now most have been cancelled,” says the brewery’s managing director, Norman Sinclair. “We’ve also lost our on-trade customers for cask and keg, given the very necessary pub and restaurant closures, and that represents a sizeable percentage of our business.”
Fortunately, the Orkney Brewery supplies its beers to major grocers and supermarket chains and that demand is continuing, albeit at a slightly reduced pace.
“Encouragingly, we’ve seen an increase in our online orders over the past two weeks, from all over the UK,” says Norman. “We’ve got a tanker of beer leaving Orkney this week for bottling on the mainland and will continue that process as long as it’s safe for everyone involved.”
The brewery, which is introducing a discount for NHS staff, has also managed to secure a quantity of the five-litre mini-casks it normally sells at Christmas, and these are proving particularly popular with cask ale enthusiasts.
Norman adds: “All of us at the Orkney Brewery would like to say a massive thanks to our customers for their support during this very difficult time. It’s hugely appreciated and we look forward to welcoming visitors back to Quoyloo when the time comes.
“In the meantime, we’ll do our very best to keep production going and keep supplies flowing, safely, as we all need a bit of cheer right now.”
Buy local beer and other delicious Orkney food & drink products via our new Shop Orkney Online page.
The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020