Having exhausted all the options at the bar, we follow Duncan down into the brewery itself, situated in two large units a stone’s throw from the River Thames. Sambrooks currently produces around 50,000 pints of beer a week, making them the fourth largest brewery in London after Fullers, Meantime and Camden Town. It is astonishing what they have achieved when you compare their original investment to other brewers, and talking to Duncan, it is easy to see why this is. Every step in Sambrooks’ development seems to have been planned and thought through meticulously, and Duncan obviously keeps a close eye on the competition. Of another London brewer who invested substantially more for the same output, he laments: “What they did was just ludicrous. I dream of what we could have done with £2.5m”. Of a certain anarchic brewer who have recently gone on a share sale drive, he notes: “they raised £2m only two years ago, and they’ve spent it all, with no return. They’re not making any money. They’ve invested all this capital expenditure but it’s not generating. They’re practically giving their beer away. That’s the accountant in me. I was really shocked.” By comparison, his ambitions have been more realistic: “The first year was a tricky year for us. It was all about cash-flow management. We had plans to market the brewery and employ more people earlier, but we couldn’t. The first year was very much about damage limitation.” This cautious approach seems to have paid off. Their next investment, Duncan says, will be to install silos so that the malt can be delivered straight from the truck, saving time unloading nearly a ton at a time in individual sacks.
Sambrooks is obviously proud to stand a little apart from the trendy east London beer boom, with its traditional pump clips and sensibly sub-5% ales. Its only arguably ‘bridge’ product between real ale and craft is the kegged unfiltered and unpasteurised Pale Ale, launched last year. “When we first started, the marketplace was entirely different to where it is now,” he says. “East London is a real hotbed of interest, with so much happening over there, but London is massive. Do we put resource into trying to get our products into that hip, happening crowd? I said to my head of sales – to be honest, let’s just focus on the entire tranche of all the way down the river Wandle,” says Duncan. “Our target market is your local juicer where they have two or three hand pumps, where you have a pint of Wandle with a roast. We still want to produce the likes of Battersea Rye so that we’ve got something to sell into the craft pubs, but for us that’s not where we do most of our business.”
So where does this leave women, ICIP wonders, given that the craft scene is usually seen as being more women-friendly? Don’t breweries, especially those which seem to be as business-savvy as Sambrooks, see women as an untapped market?
“A lot of breweries are looking at whether there is a golden bullet to try and attract women,” Duncan admits, “but my opinion is that there is not. The only way that we as an industry are going to attract more women is to make trying beer easier.” We ask about his experiences of female visitors to the brewery. He thinks that if you exclude the not-particularly-representative stag parties, women make up 30-40% of the tour members – but often because they are dragged along by their boyfriends and husbands. “If we run a brewery tour, all the women stand around on their iPhones at the back, thinking ‘why am I here?!’. But if we can get them engaged and sampling, you end up with a circle of women at the front going “I never realised that tasted like that, and I looked at the pump clip and I wouldn’t have drunk it.”. The example is Junction – they see a dark red pump clip, a dark beer, and it’s ‘no’. And they see the Pumphouse Pale Ale – yellow and lighter – and they go ‘yes’, whereas I would say it is much more bitter and most women are not drinking this sort of beer.”
Does he think the traditional image Sambrooks has strived for alienates women drinkers put off by the CAMRA old-boys’ club image? “I don’t actively target women, but I don’t discourage women. I hope the branding is relatively general and neutral. It’s about the beer, trying to make it approachable for people so they say it looks nice, care has been taken with the pump clips, you recognise the brand.” ICIP asks what he thinks of the suggestion that the good old-fashioned pint glass puts women off. “There’s a lot of evidence that shows it changes how you drink. A glass with a big open end will be good for a beer majoring on aroma whereas a flute will be better for flavour. So actually it does change your perception of the beer. “ But Duncan demonstrates an in-depth understanding of the relationship between brewer, consumer and publican, and the issues this raises: “The challenge you’ve got with glassware is pubs. There’s a perception of a full pint. And the problem with that is it limits your glassware.” It seems that there is only so much a brewer can do to attract women to its product.
As we wrap up our afternoon at Sambrooks so that Duncan can get home after what was no doubt a typically-busy week at the brewery, he reflects on what inspired him, and ultimately what makes Sambrooks tick. “I have definitely come at brewing from a consumer perspective. I’ve never done any home brewing. I’ve never even had any aspirations to do that. I’m purely a drinker,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I love trying different beers. But ultimately my favourite beer will always be Wandle. What I love most is going to the rugby at Rosslyn Park, I’ll drink circa ten pints… and I walk home, and I have a fantastic day, and I drink a beer which I love.”
It’s this honest simplicity which we loved about Sambrooks, and we have a great deal of respect for what they have achieved in just five years. A traditional brewer with a modern twist, very aware of the market in which it resides and committed to producing excellent products. And who knows – if things don’t go too well in Tesco, (which seems unlikely), it sounds like they could have a pretty good following in Denmark already.