When James Eardley quit his career selling advertising to student property companies, he did it to follow his dream. Two years later, The Brew Foundation, his Peak District-based brewery, has an established customer base both sides of the Pennines and James is about to open his first pub. unLTD’s Phil Turner caught up with the ale entrepreneur to find out if making a career side step in his 30s had given him the sweet taste of success he’d hoped for.
It’s a midweek lunchtime in early autumn and The Riverside is in full swing. It’s been two years since True North Brew Co. (formerly The Forum Group and owners of popular Sheffield hostelries such as The Broadfield and The York) took over this Neepsend boozer, and like many of their other ventures, it’s been a resounding success.
James Eardley, founder/chief brewer/head salesman/delivery driver of The Brew Foundation exchanges pleasantries with the staff as we walk in. They are regular stockists of his beers, and they are happy to let us use the pub today, in part because of the success of The Brew Foundation sales.
“They fly out,” is the honest assessment of the bar manager, who happily pours James a pint as he poses for pictures.
“It must be good when you hear off the cuff comments like that?” I venture as we settle down for a chat.
“Yeah, it is,” James admits. “There are little things that really make it worthwhile because it’s genuine. I remember when the first set of casks came back with our logo embossed onto them, that was a good moment but yeah, hearing stuff like that or watching people just enjoy the beer, that’s a good feeling.”
But it wasn’t always like that. As someone who launched Exposed Magazine 14 years ago, I tell James about how uncomfortable I used to get when I found myself sitting next to someone reading a copy. I’d always try to work out what they were reading, or why they had skipped a particular article. It took a while before I could just let them get on with it without peering over their shoulder. It’s a feeling James can relate to.
“When I first started I used to go the pubs that had bought the beer with a few friends and keep an eye on the bar to see who was buying it,” he admits. “When someone ordered a pint you’d get this little feeling of anticipation, wondering what they would think of it. Then if they went back and ordered another, that felt really good.”
But seeing him here in his element and knowing James pretty well (he worked alongside me just before he set up The Brew Foundation), it’s clear James is the sort of person who was born to do this. Having run a sales and marketing business reasonably successfully for a number of years, as well as launching his own property comparison site, James was already filled with that entrepreneurial spirit. And having been a bit of a home brewer on the side, he already had half an idea about how to put a decent ale together.
I always thought that if it went well, I’d have loads of money I could buy beer with, and if it didn’t, I’d have a load of beer anyway!
he tells me, proudly.
But nonetheless, with the kind of responsibilities you’d expect from someone in their 30s and a successful business he was about to walk away from, he must have been anxious about abandoning that and doing something totally different?
“Not necessarily,” argues James. “I’d stumbled into the sales and marketing stuff really and especially the property side of things. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it but it wasn’t something I felt passionate about. Beer was different.”
So how did he get started, I wonder? Presumably going for an enthusiastic home brewer to producing beer that’s going to sell in decent quantities to an increasingly discerning drinking public isn’t easy?
“A brewery had come up for sale in Manchester, which was unusual at the time. It was sensibly priced and I had a few meetings so the original plan was to take that over with its existing client base. Unfortunately, that deal fell apart but it made me realise that the figures stacked up and it was something I really wanted to do.”
There was a hitch though. James couldn’t afford the set-up costs of buying all his own equipment and he wasn’t overly keen of getting into debt. Thankfully for him, there was another way.
“I already knew the guys from Wincle Beer Company in the Peak District and they suggested I cuckoo brew there, which essentially means going in and using another brewery’s equipment, rather than buying your own.
“It’s not actually that common, Five Clouds Brewery from Macclesfield do it, as do Steel City Brewing here in Sheffield, but I think a lot of people like the kudos of having their own brewery so would rather take on that initial investment. But the fact is it saves a lot of financial risk and most breweries have spare capacity, so personally I’m surprised more don’t.”
And according to James, he actually cracked those first few brews pretty well. His home brewing experience gave him just enough knowledge, and thankfully, the craft brewery scene is pretty giving.
“I was able to grasp the basics such as knowing what type of hops and malt give what type of strength and flavour pretty quickly,” he says. “And once you know that you can start to manipulate them to make different styles of beer. And if I don’t know, there are always people out there to help. For instance, I’m about to brew a Pilsner, which I haven’t done before. There’s a longer fermentation process and it’s more about the malt and yeast, hops don’t play such a leading role.
“So I’ve chatted with other breweries and brewing consultants to put together a decent recipe. Sure, beers can be tweaked after the first brew but if your making 2000 litres of beer to sell, you want to get it pretty much spot on first time.”
The actual brewing may have been a bit of a learning curve but selling it was second nature to James.
“I found getting the beer stocked relatively easy. I come from a sales background,” he explains. “So going into the pub and saying ‘Do you want to buy a cask of beer?’ was easier than selling advertising, that’s for sure.
Craft beer has seen an explosion in recent years, and The Brew Foundation probably came in at the right time. Setting up now would arguably be tougher, simply because there are so many other craft and micro-breweries making superb beer.
James is confident though that even if the boom is slowing, it is nonetheless still growing.
“There are still people who haven’t tried real ale or craft beer so there are new customers every day,” he says. “As a consumer you now expect to go into a pub and try a decent range of beer. If you went into a pub and they only had John Smiths and Fosters, most people would go somewhere else.
“But more breweries are looking for new revenue streams like opening their own outlets as your margins are better. You can waste a lot of time and money delivering beer. You’re putting it into £55 of metal, dropping the beer off, getting the money in 30 days’ time, then going back to pick up the £55 worth of metal.”
Which leads us to his latest venture, The Ale Club on Ecclesall Road
“I guess a lot of people would keep looking to expand sales and open their own brewery with the extra revenue streams that offers such as brewery tours, brew for a day and a tap house. But for me cuckoo brewing still works. I’m not at capacity or even close to it, so instead I’m opening a micro pub and bottle shop.
“You’ve got The Beer House at one end and Portland House at other so hopefully it will join the crawl up nicely. Plus, there isn’t a specialist bottle shop on Ecclesall Road, so that offer I think will work.”
Eventually James plans to open ore ‘ale clubs’, possibly in Sheffield, possibly in other areas he sells his beer into.
So two years on, after making that big leap from a safe career into the unknown, would he recommend it to others?
“100%,” he says. “But go in with your eyes open. I guess sometimes you can think it’s an easy thing to do, maybe you watch a TV programme or read a magazine article and think ‘Yes, I’ll do that… start a brewery or go into street food or whatever,’ but it’s hard graft. You won’t make as much money initially as you think you will and it will cost you a lot more. If you’ve got a big mortgage, kids and are struggling to make ends meet then you need to really assess if this is the right time, and how viable it is.
But for most people, following your passion and doing something you love has got to be the right way forward, hasn’t it?
“I mean even if you try it for 12 months and it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to getting a job again… and hopefully you’ll have had a fun 12 months doing it.”
The Ecclesall Ale Club is due to open in November.