It has been a difficult year for UK craft brewers. As an industry which relies heavily on imports, the weakening pound has had a huge impact on the sector.
Despite this, the increasing popularity of craft beer has, at the same time, led to more breweries being launched in the UK over the past couple of years than ever before.
More than 200 new breweries opened in 2015 alone, taking the total to its highest level since the 1930s, according to CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale.
Although this makes good reading for craft beer lovers, the fact that there are now more ales to choose from than ever before has spelled warning signs for some brewers.
This isn’t the case for entrepreneur Luke Raven however, who acquired the £2m turnover Ilkley Brewery back in July 2015.
Despite the economic headwinds facing the sector, Luke is confident he and his team can continue growing the business and make Ilkley an established brand among the global craft beer scene.
His career in beer started in 2002 when he helped set up a bar in Leeds named Sandinista, where he worked as a director for eight years until he left in 2010.
He then emigrated down under to Australia where he would go on to learn more about the trade before returning home to Yorkshire a year later.
“Sandinista itself closed its doors for the final time just last week, but in its 14 years was rated in the world’s top 5 bars among other accolades, and I grew the company to open further bars,” Luke said.
“The estate went on to include Sandinista in Manchester, and Smokestack, Blind Tyger and Black Swan all in Leeds.
“I left to move to Australia, where I pursued my interest in brewing, learning the trade at The Monk Brewery in Western Australia.
“My return to the UK led to a job at the fledgling Ilkley Brewery, which at the time only served a few local pubs, and was extremely traditional. I was brought in to look after sales and marketing.”
When Luke first joined the brewery, the vast majority of its business was based on the delivery of its real ale casks to pubs within a 50 mile radius of Ilkley.
It was his job overseeing sales and marketing to promote the brewery to more buyers and increase the amount of stockists supplying its award-winning ales.
Through his hard work, the brewery went on to land deals with some of the UK’s largest supermarkets including Asda and Morrisons as well as selling its ales overseas.
In April 2015 however, Luke decided to leave the brewery and go on to launch his own business with the opening of Half Full Beer Co in Leeds.
“Half Full Beer Co was formed with a general view to create a fully integrated beer business: brewing, distribution, import/export,” Luke added.
“Brewers are a creative bunch, but we’re all so focused on making and selling our own beer, that a lot of the supply chain is out-sourced.
“For example so many brewers use contract packagers from outside their region. This seemed madness, so we set up Half Full as a vehicle to facilitate growth of the industry as a whole – could we provide a business for others (and perhaps breweries we could start or invest in) to help them grow?
“The initial aim was to found a new, progressive brewery, but as we developed the business plan, we explored the idea of investing in an existing brewery alongside this.”
As Luke and his business partners set about searching for the perfect brewery to invest in to help continue growing Half Full, they stumbled across a Yorkshire brewer looking to sell up and it turned out to be a match made in heaven.
Luke added: “I’m a big believer in serendipity, and the stars certainly aligned. Having been a part of Ilkley Brewery’s growth since 2011, it was hard to leave having invested a lot of myself in the business.
“The opportunity then came up to purchase the majority shareholding in Ilkley Brewery, and it’s one we jumped at!
“First of all, apart from being extremely proud of the brand it had already become, I’m also an Ilkley resident, and so the business’ part in the community was important.
“For the other investors and shareholders, the appeal certainly lay in the untapped potential of the brand.
“Already listed in many supermarkets regionally, and with a loyal fanbase of drinkers, we saw the opportunity, against a backdrop of growth in the independent beer market, to grow significantly.
“We identified areas that hadn’t been invested in prior to our takeover, and knew that by focusing on quality, Ilkley Brewery could stand out above its competitors.”
The deal was completed in July 2015, just three months after Luke had left the company, and he took the reins of the brewery following the departure of his previous boss and founder Chris Ives.
“We were supported by Natwest, but looked to private investors, who perhaps had a better grasp of the potential for beer industry growth, drawing on the experience of the American beer market,” he added.
“It’s been invaluable, as we set out from the start to invest not only in terms of capital expenditure, but also by laying groundworks for future success, which inevitably meant increasing overhead.”
By bringing in investors who knew the industry like the back of their hand, Luke and his team were able to continue growing the brewery both in terms of capacity and output.
Creating not only a brewery which would complement Half Moon, but also one which could stand on its own two feet and grow on its own.
He said: “We have continued to grow output year-on-year, and this despite challenging trading times regionally. It’s not so much that the interest and desire for craft beer is poor, quite the opposite – but we face more competition than ever before, and it’s really good competition on the whole, meaning that the consumer wins, but the producer often settles for a smaller part of the pie!
“This has meant a thorough evaluation of how we approach our various markets, and has seen us invest and grow into new areas and markets.
“We overhauled our product range, so that we suited these markets better, and the launch of our canned range in January this year further demonstrates our commitment to the growth areas of the beer market.
“We now employ 19 people, and are proud to pay the real Living Wage. We turned over just shy of £2m last year. Looking forward, we intend to grow the business tenfold over the next five years.
“We have already taken on two new units in the past 18 months, upgraded a lot of our equipment and completed a complete rebrand. 2017 will see us build on these improvements and start some exciting new projects.
“We’ve got some finishing touches to make on our shop, and hope to add a taproom before summer. We’ll be building on our strong regional presence to be a nationally recognised brand, helped by some key strategic partnerships that start this year.
“We are committed to continued expansion of our current site, which has room for a further 30% production, but above and beyond that will require investment in a new, state-of-the-art facility.
“Ilkley may be well known for its idyllic setting, but soon it will be even more well-known for its beer!”
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