Heart to Hart
Rob Hart’s not really into gimmicky beers. “Old Badger’s Arse and that sort of thing?” he half asks and half laments, shaking his head. The credo of his Harts Family Brewers is to produce good beer, present it well and turn a profit, without being married to a style, whether it’s old-fashioned chestnut bitters aimed at 60-somethings in the golf club or Belgian-style saisons to be sipped by hip young readers of The Chap in Shoreditch craft beer bars.
“We produce a broad range of styles, including traditional English beers, historic recipes, and more contemporary ones, but it turns out they’re the same customer,” he says.
“Too many brewers think it’s a choice between being a brewer of hand-crafted traditional ales or just playing rock music and being anti-corporate, which is quite tedious in itself really. It’s a false choice – if people love beer, they’ll try everything.”
It would have been tempting for Hart to take the anti-corporate stance he decries in others. After all, when he and wife Sarah founded the brewery in the summer of 2012 he turned his back on a career which had included head office spells at Oddbins, Unwins and Booker.
He was with the last of these as wine category manager for more than five years.
“The first few years it was fantastic,” he recalls. “Booker was in full turnaround mode and there was a real sense of entrepreneurial spirit – it was great fun. But as the turnaround completed the culture changed with it. It became increasingly corporate and I don’t think anyone who knows me would describe me as corporate, so it was clearly time to move on and do something else.”
The couple briefly toyed with the idea of opening an independent wine merchant, but it didn’t seem to chime with bringing up a young family. “It’s a buoyant part of the market and one where we could bring a lot of experience to bear but inevitably there are expectations in terms of opening hours. It didn’t feel like a great fit to move to 105 establishment hours a week.”
As a self-taught home brewer – “I started off with dodgy kits from Boots but progressed to proper ingredients in a succession of garden sheds” – they decided to join the emerging microbrewing boom.
They rejected decamping to the rural idylls in Norfolk or Devon on the grounds of local market saturation and ended up in a boutique retail park in an abandoned gas lamp factory on the edge of Wellingborough, the Northamptonshire home of Booker.
“We realised we were on the edge of a town of 75,000 people, with a thriving free-trade market but no brewery. Frankly, there aren’t many places like that left.”
He may have left the corporate life behind but Hart has taken plenty from it to shape his own company’s direction – that image is important, not just taste (see box); that it pays to look after your customers; and that Rome wasn’t built in a day. “It helps if you take a long-term view,” he says. “When we started we were thinking of where we might be three or four years out, not just saying ‘let’s make some beer and see what happens’.”
The initial focus was the local pub free- trade but the off-trade has come on to the agenda.
“With pubs, I’m not interested in the guest beer route where you spend Monday morning ringing 100 pubs to get an order from 20 of them and the rest of the week dropping a barrel off to each. It’s much better to be concentrating on a smaller number and delivering five, six, seven barrels week in, week out.”
Take-home now accounts for 20% of sales and Hart is expecting it to double its contribution over the next year.
That includes sales to personal callers at the brewery, where tastings are held every Saturday and bands occasionally play. It’s a part of the business which could grow considerably, with space already earmarked for a £50,000 expansion to double brewing capacity, add on-site bottling, experiment with ageing beer in Bordeaux barrels and, perhaps, eventually add a wine shop.
Hart says: “We started off selling direct to the key independent retailers in the closest towns on all the compass points from here, places such as Duncan Murray Wines in Market Harborough – a fantastic shop with a great range of wines – or the Rugby Tap. We’d rather develop a good working and profitable relationship with those guys than take a scattergun approach and hope something sticks.
“We will not supply the multiples. We’re an independent business and we’ll only supply independents. You could say it limits our growth but it maximises our commercial potential. I don’t want to make huge amounts of beer and make very slender margins. It sounds like really hard work. If you supply the multiples you get a big lump of volume and you annoy all the independent customers you’ve supplied until that point.”
It’s that spirit of independence that lay behind the decision to use the name Harts Family Brewers, rather than an invented name such as, say, Gas Lamp Brewing.
“There’s a joke in the industry that random adjective plus noun equals brewery name. That’s all well and good but what’s unique about us is us. If you order some beer it’s going to be me who comes down in the van to deliver it.
“If you come to the brewery on a Saturday then it’s going to be Sarah or myself tasting you through the range.”
And if you do, definitely don’t expect to see Old Badger’s Arse in the line-up.