BQ editor Mike Hughes goes to a brewery - and has a coffee - with Allan Rice of Atom Beers.
When Malmo Park, the £4m Food Innovation and Technology cluster was opened in Hull, Lord Haskins, the former Chairman of Northern Foods, said: “The start of this project marks the region’s commitment to supporting those Yorkshire & Humber food and drink producers that want to strengthen and expand. Food and drinks businesses are extremely important to the local economy.”
Eight years later the park is a thriving and busy corner of the county, with constant ‘imports’ of supplies to the small units matched only by the constant ‘exporting’ of products out of the gates.
Allan Rice only set up Atom Beers in 2013, and the first beer didn’t come out until 2014, but unlike the rest of us, I reckon he is about 95% hops and water.
The timescale for the previous few years is quite a tale: with a degree in physiology from Glasgow, he and partner Sarah were living in Edinburgh in 2005 while Sarah studied for a PhD. Allan got a part-time job selling mini kegs for a new brewery in the city and soon became sales manager.
Having travelled the world before all this, he was already familiar with beer although didn’t share Sarah’s passion for it, but this job helped move that to another level and further developed his personality. He admits to being a quiet young man, but the travelling changed that.
“When my dad passed away in 2008 I decided to move on and earn a bit more money, so got into renewable energy selling building-mounted wind turbines. That helped me learn about franchising, managing teams and working internationally.
“Then Sarah got an offer to do post-doctorate work in Canada, so we decided to move out in 2010. While we were out there I decided to set up a porridge pots business. But setting up a company there was really difficult, with lots of hurdles, and Sarah wasn’t enjoying her
This is a rich history which has clearly shaped the two of them and gives us a peek inside the brain of an entrepreneur. If it sounds right – do it. It may be a very different direction, but this is where transferrable skills kick in.
If you are a manager, a designer, a manufacturer, a teacher or any one of a hundred other passions, you can take your core skills and remove the context. Manage anyone, anywhere. Design anything you want and manufacture it. Teach anyone anything.
Allan also shows that entrepreneurialism itself can also be a profession. You can make a living and a reputation out of setting up the right business in the right place – and then moving on to the next one when the first one is established.
“Back in our home town of Beverley, Sarah trained to be a chemistry teacher, which she had always wanted to do, and I took on the general manager role at Tempest Brewery in Kelso, commuting back and forwards every weekend. They were basically just selling at their own bar, so my brief was to get it out to other places and we went from one bar to 200 in six months.
“After a while, there came the realisation that we could do our own thing and that Tempest possibly wasn’t going in the direction we would like to be going. When we went out down here we thought the beers were a bit bland. We thought ‘we could do this – so why don’t we’.
“Then we were walking along a beach in Scotland and Sarah said ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have a business called Atom’. “
With a ‘brew’ of financing, from their own savings, a £15,000 bank loan, some RGF money and help from Sarah’s dad, the business was born.
For Allan, the entrepreneurial gene that makes that multi-directional journey acceptable and even desirable grew from his upbringing in Greenock, a few miles from Glasgow. “My parents never had a lot of money, so they worked two or three jobs to make ends meet. We bought a house when I was five. But my mum lost her job, so we couldn’t afford to keep it. But they continuously worked and worked and worked.
“My dad had countless jobs at a time, but had the capability to do lots of other exciting and different things. Then he retired at 65 and three years later died of cancer, so he never really got the opportunityto do anything.
“I have always been in a better position than my parents were, but it was always instilled into me that if you put in the hard work, then something will come of it. When you grow up without much money you realise you don’t actually need that much money to live.
“Now we know that we put down a business plan – or business guess – and have exceeded it. But conservatively and not by overstretching ourselves. But when we are in a position to pare our life savings back from the company we’re not going to head off on exotic holidays, we’re going to pay off our mortgage.”
Like any growing business, it needs staff who need their mortgages paying as well. There are six now, including head brewer Marko Karjalainen and assistant brewer Jack Walker, who also does the beer tasting for you in his Bear Beer reviews on YouTube. Lessons again for any entrepreneur – don’t be afraid to get very good people working for you. If they believe in what you are doing and you respect and involve them, they won’t want to take over, they’ll want to take part.
“For the first three months, I was paying Marko out of my savings. But we wouldn’t be here doing this without him – and I hope he might take some equity at some stage.”
Atom began at Malmo Park with four brews, with recipes tested at North Riding Brewpub in Scarborough and released in some of the bars to see what reaction there would be.
“You don’t really know what recipes you have created until you have your brewkit installed,” says Allan. “In essence, 19 months in we are still learning with this brewkit, so our beer is improving as we understand the kit more. You can only do that with regular brewing and experimenting and trying to push forwards.“
The company is happy to share that learning process with its eight-week beer schools, led by Jack, where the whole process is laid out. They also do regular brewery tours and have plans for a laboratory and teaching facilities. The science behind it all is key and it is a clearly stated priority for Allan and Sarah to use the business to promote interest in the subject.
“One of our primary KPIs for Atom is how many people have we influenced in science. For now that means how many brewery tours have we had and how many people have left after a tour and been excited to learn more.”
Depending on what is being created, a new brew can be talked about on the Monday, brewed on the Tuesday and ready for drinking four weeks later, which allows a remarkable range of tastes and styles to be offered. The naming process is almost as much fun as the brewing, with labels like Schrodinger’s Cat (“..a beer that utilises different mashing mechanisms to create a full bodied, low abv hop bomb”); Uncertainty Principle (“always evolving”); Phobos & Deimos (“Hoppy, hoppy, HOPPY!!!”) and Sea Of Tranquillity (“Very light, fruity and slightly floral with a slight mead-like character”) all seeing off the lager boys.
“Our brief is that we want to brew interesting complex beers – but they have to be very drinkable. We want people to have one of our beers, get to the end of the glass and think ‘I really enjoyed that’. We want to have complexity in an enjoyable beer. Which is partly down to our creativity, which Jack is great at, and one of the things Marko has a brilliance for is that he can take an idea and make it drinkable.
“We have four fermenters, so effectively we can ferment four times in a week and we can condition four times, but because brews take different times they are not always in sync. Last week we brewed three times, but two of those won’t appear for six weeks and one will appear in two weeks.
“The hard part is managing it and making sure you have the correct amount of the right beers available.”
It is no surprise that Atom should soon be expanding into the adjacent unit. With more fermenters already delivered, it is a science in itself to fit all the gear into this one small space. And with a new brewery setting up somewhere every five days this is no time to delay expansion.
“You have to build up a reputation so that bars will wait for your brew to come through. So I need to manage those expectations.
“And on the other side of the coin, we will check who is selling our beer to make sure it is being kept well. Which is why we don’t do too many festivals, because you can lose control of the brew. If we nip into a bar selling Atom and it isn’t right, we will stop supplying them, but we will offer to work with them in the future and discuss how best to keep it.”
That pride and attention to detail is the lifeblood of any small business, and starts with your suppliers. Who do you choose to give you the basic building blocks for your product? Atom’s needs are very particular and come from a wide variety of trusted sources, as Allan explains.
“Our malts come from all across the UK, all from key suppliers. We also source malts from places like Germany, because some of our beers have 17 different malts in them, to give them that complexity. We get hops from Australia, America, New Zealand – but our water is straight out of the tap!
“The rise of craft beers means there is a great demand for hops, so you have to order well in advance. We have hops contracts running right through to the end of next year. So we have to plan our hops bills for where we want to be in 18 months’ time. That’s one reason we like to experiment with non-hops beer like camomile, coriander and jasmine.”
For the future, as well as the teaching aspect of the trade, there is talk of a franchise brewery in Australia to be set up and monitored with Marko’s guidance. The expansion into next door should be in place and a Twitter storm of support has encouraged the team to look at their first bar. Add to that an idea for a cloud-based brewery management programme, a plan for a gluten-free beer and the growth of Atom Distribution it is clear that the Rice family work ethic is still thriving.
The sector is settled, but the potential to be entrepreneurial within it has great appeal. “My advice is just to take the leap. The standard comment is that an entrepreneur is someone who is willing to take a chance. But I think that’s not entirely true. Everyone takes a chance, but for entrepreneurs it is a bigger leap.
“Do your sums and be pessimistic. And then do it.”
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