I was introduced to Estelle via Lewin, the founder of 'Look Mum No Hands', the brilliant cycle cafe in Old Street (and beyond) who we interviewed a little while ago on Masters of Many. Estelle is part of the burgeoning growth of craft beer in the UK, a seemingly unstoppable industry that continues to unearth new and interesting brands, one of which is Estelle's baby, Canopy Beer. Yet, Estelle's background is design and events, and her husband's is consultancy, not a natural route into the field.
More than this, they have expanded the business to being a taproom where they serve drinks, and Estelle is somehow juggling two young children alongside this busy venture. One of which was fast asleep in a cot in the brewery when I arrived, despite it being bottling day, and her being surrounded by clattering noises, music, and a general buzz about the place.
I caught up with Estelle to find out more about her journey to date..
Tell us about what you’re doing now and how you got here...
I spent most of my 20's trying to work out what I wanted to do. I used to work in film as an assistant director, but being freelance in my mid 20's was difficult, particularly when the bottom fell out of the UK film industry. I ended up working in events, eventually working for a small graphic design company as their events producer.
Working in events is ultimately about having common sense (although not everyone seems to have that!) and making things happen - phoning people up and getting them to do things at a price you can afford.
I was working at Marmalade London (the agency) and I loved working for them. Then I got married and had a baby (I was 31) and I couldn't see how it would work having a baby and still working for the agency. It was a small company of 5 and we would work late hours as standard, and I couldn't see how I could do that full time and pick up the kids from nursery as well.
I started to have a think about what else I might like to do. You go through your different hobbies and how you can monetise them. I thought about beekeeping, as it's of the moment, hyper local, small scale production and already keep bees, but I decided that trying to do that with a baby in tow wasn't the smartest move.
We had thought about setting up a brewery a few years previously, when Matthew and I both had full time jobs. Matthew has been brewing at home since school. The thing that stops you is fear - you've got a job, you can pay the rent, so you don't rock the boat. We were also worried that we might have missed the boat in terms of microbreweries as there were so many. Even when we set this place up in 2014, there were about 50 other microbreweries in London and now there are probably 80 or 90 as the market share is actually growing.
In the end we decided to set it up on a small scale, to see if it worked. We thought about whether we could run it from our garden, but realised that for beer it's such a low unit cost you have to sell quite high volume to make a profit. We took on one of the arches in Herne Hill as our premises, putting lighting in, re-doing the electrics. It was a plasterer's previously, so it was covered in dust, which isn't great for beer, so we spent weeks scrubbing. We started small, and I remember when we'd finished our first batch and had 40 cases of beer sat in front of us we thought "who the hell is going to buy this?" Now when we make that volume, I look at it and think - we might just get through the week.
We started at a 2 1/2 barrel capacity, brewing once or twice a week and now we're now at 12 barrels, brewing 3 or 4 times a week. The volumes have snowballed because we're selling the beer and we have to make hay while the sun shines. That's what is determining our size at the moment, to fulfil what we can and see where it goes.
The place looked so rotten when we arrived, that we couldn't imagine people wanting to come here, and we had so much work to do to keep ourselves making beer. But then, people kept coming and asking if they could buy some beer from us, so we got a licence and tried to tidy the place up a bit. It's still pretty haphazard, but people seem to make their way back here. We're still trying to find our feet and find what works and do more of the things that do.
What made you take the leap to do things differently?
I think the final push was the thought that if we didn't do it now, we would never do it. There are still a lot of breweries out there doing old man beer (less so in London where there's a huge amount of cool brands and excellent beers) with bad taste and bad design. We wanted to build a brand that approached beer in a different way, selling the design side and building the brand as a stylish, good looking one. I think people trying to set up breweries in 5 years time will struggle a lot more than we did.
We were quite naive really. If I'd known half of what I know now we probably wouldn't have done it, but I'm glad we did! I've realised that you just have to jump in feet first.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in your new venture?
We started selling the beer in October 2014. There was a rush of interest before Christmas, it went quiet in January and February and then interest started building towards the summer. Every week we'd have new trade customers calling up who had heard of us. Even now the business feels quite young, and a lot of people who know about beer haven't heard of us, but equally we're quite established locally.
The business has two sides - hyper local, a brewery in Herne hill for Herne hill, and the brand beyond that.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
Quite a lot! On my due date for my daughter, Juno, I was in a fermenter, scrubbing it, and I just thought - what the hell am I doing? We had production issues at the time, and staffing issues, and I just thought, 'this whole thing could just fall down around our ears'. I had no idea how it was going to work with a second baby, it was enough of a juggle with one, but at the same time I wasn't ready to jack it in as it still had potential.
What do you find difficult about managing multiple elements of the business?
Since having Juno (my second), it's actually quite a lot easier to manage my time. Findlay goes to nursery 3 days a week, and Juno comes to the brewery. On the days I have both children, all I can do is emails, nothing Brewery related. It's been good in the sense of drawing that line. Sometimes it's difficult, and something will fall through and we have to go and do deliveries and it's hellish, but you just get on with it.
In terms of the business itself, employing people and managing staff is what is difficult. I'd never intended that it would be big enough that we'd be employing people, but we quickly had 3 full time employees, and 2 or 3 part time. Trying to get the best out of people, get them to do what you want them to do in the way that you want them to do it, and then all of the depths of licensing, and HMRC is tough. It's all of the stuff that anyone with a small business goes through, but with an added layer, as breweries have to pay bar duty.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
There isn't anything that makes me prouder than seeing a bottle of our beer and knowing that it's on a shelf somewhere. It doesn't look home made or cobbled together, it's a quality product.
What or who do you find intimidating?
There is quite a big community of beer critics and uber beer geeks, but neither Matthew nor myself are that, we just like good beer. It ties in with social media as well, it's so easy for people to comment about your product and even though we know we're a microbrewery they don't know it's me reading twitter and taking it personally.
I've come to terms with that though, and I'm happy and proud that we make really good beer, I don't need to make the coolest beer in the world, or the beer with the most obscure ingredients in the world. It is just good beer, that's how I deal with it.
What makes you feel good / powerful?
We did a market up in Spitalfield's a couple of weeks ago. The last time we'd been there we were really new and people hadn't heard of us. This time people came straight up to us and asked for a pint of Sunray. People know about our brand and that makes me proud. And coming here on a Friday night when the place is absolutely rammed, without any advertising, just an A board, and people are here enjoying themselves, having a good time.
Having the taproom means that you get direct feedback from people. We did a competition a couple of months ago with 4 different beers that people could taste and vote for their favourite. We're making the result into one of our beers. We can see what sells and test things out - we do experimental ranges that just go on the bar here. It's like two different businesses that happen to be in the same place.
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given?
People email and say that they have had the beer and liked it. The fact they even bother is nice.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
Probably the legacy. I've got a hunger for building the brand, and now have an idea of where it can go and how it can develop. I'd like to sit down in 10 years time and look at it and be happy. Originally it was supposed to be something to do part time and spend more time with the children, but as it's grown bigger I've realised you need to invest more time in it. You have a product and a brand that's on the loose and you have to manage it a little bit.
How do you define success now?
At the moment the brewery is surviving and making money, but it isn't really about the money. Success is honing the product and hearing beer experts being complimentary. Being part of the craft beer scene in London is nice as well. I feel like we're at the stage of becoming accepted by our peers - and it's a really friendly industry.
Where would you like the business to get to?
We're running out of space in these premises, so we're looking for another arch here so that we can keep the brewing operation. We've just expanded the brew kits so our capacity is a lot more. We'd like to expand the tap room and have a stand alone site, a beer and bottles shop somewhere close by, but not too close that we cannibalise our own sales. The taproom is the biggest customer of the brewery really, and it's nice to be able to sell your beer in a way and a place that you want.
How do you start your day?
I take Findlay to nursery, and bring Juno here. Now that Matthew is working at the brewery (he gave up his full time job two weeks ago), we cycle to work, which is nice. We're usually here for 8.30am. Ben and Charlie, our brewers get in about 9.
It's quite difficult to structure the day; there are always people coming in, or there's a delivery and so it's difficult to find time to focus sometimes. Generally I'm here for most of the day dealing with emails, invoices, accounting, and that sort of thing. Sometimes I deliver to our local customers by hand. We try and stay on top of what the boys are doing, and work out what beer we need to brew next. It does seem like an endless list, because we're trying to do new things and there are only a limited number of us and a limited amount of man-hours.
What was the driver for Matthew choosing to become a full-time member of the business?
Matthew had been working evenings and weekends on the brewery on the technical side, because he has the brewing knowledge. I've learnt a lot, but I don't have that experience in the same way. I was relying quite a lot on him for help with managing staff and making business decisions and we decided that it wasn't viable to continue how we were. Either he needed to come and work for the brewery and we'd make a go of it being a lot bigger than we'd originally planned, or we had to shut it down because it was too stressful. So now, he's here!
How is the transition to working together?
In terms of work life balance, it's a real win. He can drop Findlay off at nursery and help with Juniper when he's here. We each have one day a week with both of the children, and one day totally alone here, so I get an extra day to work, so it's great in that sense. I think we need to do some work on how we work together, but we'll get there.
How do you organise yourself?
I generally have two lists; one for the people that need paying and one for things that need doing. We also use 'izettle' for the till system for the bar, which is amazing. We use Xero for our accounting software. When our accountant told me about it I wasn't sure I'd like it, but we couldn't live without it now. I probably send out about 50-100 invoices a week, so trying to keep track of them in an old-fashioned way would be impossible.
What's the biggest thing that your new way of working has changed about your life?
I think it's changed everything about my life. In some ways I've realised (and always knew this) that when you are working for someone else, the real beauty is that you can turn your computer off and just go home. Working for yourself is all consuming, but equally I have a six months old baby and she's here at a brewery and I can do a days work, because it's my place. If more people were able to do this, they probably would.
How do you come up with new ideas?
We try and follow our own path rather than just looking at what everyone else is doing and the current trends. People come to us and suggest things and we'll just give it a go. We're going to do a Thai bbq pop up for example - why not?
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I never knew! I've been through so many things that I've thought I definitely wanted to do - architect, film editor, photographer. I think I always wanted to do something creative, and tried to do that through studying visual communications. However, the course wasn't at all vocational. I had a great 3 years creating things, but it wasn't clear how you turned it into a job.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
It's funny - there are so many different ways of working now and maybe we need to move away from this 9-5 office and progression up a career ladder approach. The valuable thing is gaining experience and learning from those experiences. That's what I've benefitted from, so I would want to encourage them to do what they want to do. However, it seems harder for our generation that it was for our parents, so are our kids going to be tied into working just to get by? I hope not. On balance, the advice I'd give is just to give it a go and try.
What's the single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
It was probably from Matthew's brother, who said that you've got to hand over responsibility to other people early on, or you'll never do it. It's true, there is such a temptation to try and do everything yourself and micro manage so you know exactly what is going on. The approach now is more that if I kick the ball, hopefully it will keep rolling for a while. You have to give people trust and responsibility. Sometimes it's difficult and kicks you in the face, but that's good!
To find out more about Canopy Beer, check out their website at www.canopybeer.com
Or visit them in person at their tap room at Arch 1127, Bath Factory Estate, 41 Norwood Rd, London SE24 9AJ