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Digging a Way Forward

With the hospitality industry reeling from recent events, we spoke with ShinDigger co-founder George Grant about how the brewing company has coped with these challenges.

With the hospitality industry reeling from recent events, we spoke with ShinDigger co-founder George Grant about how the brewing company has coped with these challenges.

I’m not sure how many people really think 19 July as 'freedom day'. Certainly not those whose immune system is compromised, or those who have lost relatives, or the NHS staff anxious about the significant increase in hospital admissions that has been forecast.

In recent times, businesses of every kind have been pushed into unfamiliar circumstances. Be it because of Brexit, COVID, or the government restrictions that have been put in place. One of these businesses is ShinDigger Brewing Co, purveyors of craft beer since 2013.

Founded by Paul Delamere and George Grant, the business has gone from home brew among student peers to nationwide commercial supply. They also provide same-day delivery within Greater Manchester, and next working day to the rest of the UK, a much welcomed service for those staying indoors during the pandemic.

Now Then spoke with George to learn how those at ShinDigger have coped with the many challenges of the past 18 months.

Students having an interest in beer is not an unusual thing, but how did the two of you get together to form ShinDigger?

We were living together as friends at university and bought a home brew kit with the initial idea of having a bit of fun whilst making cheap beer as skint students. This was way back in 2013 and coincided with American style craft beer just starting to enter the UK market, by which we mean draught pale ales/IPAs which combined the flavour and depth of real ale with the chilled, crisp and carbonated serving style of a lager. It was this style of beer that inspired us to take a hobby and found ShinDigger.

ShinDigger Pina beer pump clip art

The pump clip art for ShinDigger's Pina beer.

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As a result of Brexit, have you found that the prices for your raw materials are going up? Do you import them or are you able to source everything locally?

We're not too badly affected. First of all, we don't really export. We export very, very minimal amounts. In terms of ingredients, of the raw materials used in the recipes, the barley is all sourced from the UK, and the hops are all sourced from America. Obviously, America is outside Brexit. I think some of our packaging materials have had slight increases like cardboard and items like that, because a lot of it comes from European supply chains, and the aluminium cans as well. But to be honest, we haven't really been majorly impacted by Brexit.

George pointed out that there were issues with the supply of 440ml aluminium cans due to a nationwide shortage. Other breweries kindly lent the needed cans while ShinDigger featured guest breweries on their home delivery service.

How did COVID affect the staff in terms of infections or PPE?

PPE was provided to all staff by ShinDigger. A clear COVID policy was defined and put in place which involved a minimal number of people in the warehouse – for example, delivery drivers having their stock taken out to their vehicles on pallets to load outside. Plus all home deliveries are zero contact. As far as we are aware, no one contracted COVID whilst working for us.

How easy was it to recruit additional delivery drivers?

Pretty easy, to be honest, as lots of people had lost their jobs and there were not many jobs available on the market. For example, we had a pilot for a major airline apply for a driving role. Now is a completely different situation obviously, compared to when first lockdown hit almost 14 months ago.

Being able to help others; that was one of the most rewarding things, really. A lot of people at that time slipped through the cracks in terms of government support, specifically the freelancers working in creative industries such as musicians, actors, DJs, or anyone involved with live events. Those groups of people; there was no support available to them.

When we were at the peak of the (home delivery) service, which was May 2020, in terms of the amount of orders we were getting through, we probably had about 30 to 40 drivers on the books. Obviously, they were helping us out delivering beer, but it was also nice to help these people by providing income to them at a time when there weren't really many options for them.

That's great, again a sign of community coming together, where everybody's got the contact and then trying to support each other.

Yeah, exactly.

Which is a good thing. You've got a lovely successful model there. Do you ever worry about some of the bigger brewers coming in and taking you over or looking for opportunities to move into something else?

We have third party distribution agreements already in place with some large distributors. So we probably we did about 70% of our beer direct and about 30% through our distributors. But I guess in terms of the question, there is one thing we are concerned about, in terms of delivery services.

I don’t know if you have seen all the new popup delivery groups such as Gorillas, Weezy and Getir. We thought our 90 minutes [delivery service] is quite quick, but these guys are going one step further. They are doing deliveries in 15 minutes.

So I guess that kind of market will require an interest, in a 'watch this space' way. In general, I think we have got quite a strong, independent brand, and people like that and recognise that.

Fool Hardy Ales has just announced it’s closing down. The person who set it up, Martin Wood, stated “After three Iockdowns, two of which merged into one long one for us, I have lost my mojo and love for the pub.” Did any of you feel that way during the lockdowns? Or was it just a case of get through it and see what happens.

I guess we were quite lucky in a way. When the news first broke that the bars were closing our first thoughts were that, ‘We’re completely fucked’.

85% of our beer was keg whilst 15% was cans, and of that 15% half still went to pubs and bars. So we didn't really deal with that many bottle shops. We don't really deal with too many big retailers. The core of our business was predominately draught beer for independent bars.

So, initially it was a bit of a devastating blow. It was announced by the Prime Minister, on a Monday, that hospitality was going to be, basically, shut down indefinitely. We had our three-hour (now 90-minute) delivery service launched on the following Friday, five days later. We didn't really know what was going to happen, just taking every single day as it comes. Probably like everyone else in the nation.

We were asking questions like, ‘What’s going on? This is completely unprecedented.’ We did feel very worried and anxious about the future. It was super stressful. I had no idea what was going to go on. We had spent seven years building up this business and it was like getting the rug pulled out from underneath us.

But then the outdoor service which was originally designed as a way just to keep some revenue coming into the business, some cash flow, to try and keep team members on and just to keep us always in survival mode, actually exceeded our wildest expectations and did better that what we'd hoped for. And I think at that point we became a lot more confident and we were quite lucky and managed to get through the pandemic.

After the initial three to four weeks of massive anxiety and stress, we realised we weren’t in too precarious a position – even when there was a weird phase where everything was opening then closing, from last July to September where bars were open for a bit outside only. So obviously when that happened all our trade business came back and inevitably the home delivery service dipped. But then when the country went back into lockdown again, around October, November, bar trade dropped off completely again, so home delivery went up again.

Quite quickly, we realised that these are almost two separate businesses now, and they're almost inversely related. So that when one goes up, the other goes down. Thankfully, because of how well the 90 minute delivery service has been received, we've been able to get through the whole pandemic relatively unscathed. We didn't have to furlough anyone. We kept all members of staff on. That was really nice as well as taking on all the sort of freelance delivery drivers, which we touched on earlier.

We believed the rapid delivery was vital as beer is an impulsive product. For me personally, I don’t buy beers in advance for tomorrow or the weekend ahead. I buy beer there and then when I fancy one. The 90-minute service involved working evenings and weekends, when naturally demand for beer is highest. The hours of operation became – and are still – a lot more intense than what was previously a more nine-to-five style operation. Now the operation runs seven days a week and the first person can be in the warehouse at 8am, and last one out at 10pm.

So we managed to get through it quite well, but for some people, like the person you mentioned from Fool Hardy Ales [Martin Wood], they haven't been able to. Basically, they’ve had their rights to operate completely taken away from them.

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