There’s no such thing as a perfect time to take the plunge with starting a business, but it is hard to imagine a more challenging one than during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s exactly how it worked out for Nick, owner of Steel Brew Co in Plymouth, UK. Within a day of getting the power switched on at his brand new taproom, located in the stunning Grade 1* listed Melville building in the historic Royal William yard, the government ordered the shutdown of businesses.
Like many participants in the recent craft beer boom across the UK, Nick started as a home brewer. His background is in management and IT, and he is still working his day job alongside running the business. After spending last summer out and about in the community doing pop-up events, he decided to commit to opening his taproom and brewery premises.
Nick told me that the whole experience has been a huge learning curve, particularly because he’d never used a six barrel system before. By the time the first brew day for Steel in their new premises arrived, the supply chain had almost collapsed. “I had this moment where I thought, I can either go for it or not, and if I don’t, I don’t know when I will” Nick said. “It seemed a very fitting sentiment to give whatever we produced to key workers.”
Giving away free beer may sound simple, but Nick explained that the logistics of getting the beer to some businesses has presented challenges. “Getting into the NHS has been really difficult” he noted.
The beer to be donated gets packaged for distribution using cardboard milk containers. It takes Nick about 40 mins to pour 100 units. Then, he and his wife and dog hop in the car to make the deliveries. Nick explained that they have deliberately kept their team small to limit risk. On one delivery run, Nick and team arrived at a local Parcel Force depot, and the guy who came out thought it was a joke. “It felt like a really positive thing to do” Nick smiled.
As Nick tells me of the taproom, which uses recycled pallet furniture and an open-plan layout, with no screen between the seating area and brewing equipment, I’m eager to visit. The space he has selected perfectly lends itself to this open concept, which for me is reminiscent of the breweries of Portland, Oregon. “If someone was sat at bar space next to the brewing equipment and I’m cleaning, we’ll have to put a sign up saying ‘please don’t wear a nice shirt’” Nick joked.
Nick is optimistic about the future, despite the strange beginnings for his venture, and thinks that the southwest of the UK is ripe for expansion of the craft beer industry. He talks of bringing in a head brewer once he is ready to grow the operation, but is clear that it won’t quite be ‘business as usual’ in the way that he initially imagined it for quite some time. “We keep talking about when the lockdown is lifted, as if that’s going to be a single thing. It isn’t.”
Luckily, Nick has plenty of ideas about how to adapt to the new reality, like click-and-collect style orders, and setting specific timeslots for beer pick-ups to assist with social distancing. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.”