Face to Face: Steve Skinner

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Steve Skinner must be one of the most envied businessmen in Cornwall. Surely it cannot get much better than owning and running your own brewery?

And it is not just any old brewery. Since starting up in 1997, Skinner’s has grown to become one of Cornwall’s great success stories. It has won countless awards for its beer, in an industry where awards actually do mean something. Since gaining a national listing with Waitrose, Skinner’s beer is enjoyed the length and breadth of the UK, and this year expects to exceed the £4 million sales mark.

In this exclusive interview, we reveal some of the secrets behind Skinner’s success, and discover why it pays to make yourself heard if you spot him at the bar of your local.

Business Cornwall: So how did you come to start Skinner’s Brewery?

Steve Skinner: We over came from Jersey, where we ran brew pubs – pubs with breweries in them. We came over originally to design them here. But in the end, it didn’t come off. However a friend of mine in the trade in Plymouth asked had I ever thought of starting up a brewery in Truro.

BC: What was there brewery wise in Cornwall at the time?

SS: There was St Austell obviously, while Sharp’s had been going for about 18 months. There was also Blue Anchor which has been around forever and is a fantastic little place. But as a commercial enterprise selling beer all over the place, there was really only St Austell.

And in those days their reputation wasn’t very good, although they have done wonders with what they’ve got now. So really there was room to do it down here, which Sharp’s had obviously realised as well. Our aim is we wanted to be Truro’s brewery.

BC: Has it been a steady growth? How many beers did you start with?

SS: There were only three of us here when we started. We had two beers – Cornish Knocker and Best Bitter. And a third was a blend of the two – Betty Stogs.

We did it that way because there is only a short shelf life on your real ale, your cask beer. You can’t produce a load of beer and still have it in two months time. So to have three products we needed two beers, and blended the third, and still the beer would be nice and fresh which is, of course, vital.

BC: In those days I guess you were very hands on in the actual brewing process?

SS: Yes. I did all the recipes with the help of a great brewing consultant, a Yorkshireman called Dave Smith. But I know what I want, what I like to drink, so the recipes are based on my pallet.

The first beer we produced was a golden ale, which has been part of our success, because people weren’t really brewing golden ales then. We looked at a couple of nice beers across the country which I love – Hop Back’s Summer Lightning and Danish Dynamite.

And that’s how we came up with Cornish Knocker, our first beer to be produced.

BC: And Betty Stogs was a marriage between the two?

SS: A good way of putting it. And it’s still our best selling beer.

BC: So the beer is a very personal for you?

SS: Even today. My title is chief executive and head taster. I’ve always head ‘head taster’ on any business card I have ever had.

BC: Is there a danger that as the business grows, your time is taken away from this side?

SS: Every businessman or entrepreneur, as you get bigger, has got to let go of it and that’s the hardest thing for all of us. I used to brew it, deliver it and sell it.

BC: Where does your particular strength lie? The brewing side? Management of the company?

SS: I still head the company. Simon Bray was our finance director, and I promoted him to managing director to run the business day-to-day and keep a closer eye on the finances and for me as chief executive to have more of a free rein. I do all the marketing still and work very closely with our sales manager. That’s what we had to do in the end because the business became just too big to run by myself.

BC: What sort of turnover are you on?

SS: We’re projecting it to be over £4 million this year. Since practically day one, we’ve had year on year growth of 15%-20%.

BC: How big can you grow?

SS: We’re getting a lot of access to market now in the cities. Betty Stogs is becoming a national brand, which is amazing how well it’s done. But I think it can grow a lot more. We have a national listing with Waitrose, and we go national with Wetherspoons quite a few times a year, doing monthly promotions. We’re national with Molson Coors as well.

BC: Where is most beer sold?

SS: About 70% is still sold through casks locally in Devon and Cornwall. We also sell nationally to the wholesalers and to people like Wetherspoons, Molson Coors and Waverley.

The other 30% is our bottles, which is growing very fast. Once you go national, the potential is unbelievable. For instance, in the last couple of weeks Waitrose has ordered 6000 cases, which is fantastic business. The products are being very well received, and it’s just great selling Cornish products outside of Cornwall.

BC: So demand is growing?

SS: It is, but you have got to create that demand in the first place and we’ve done that through consistency of brewing. The awards we’ve won have also helped and we have a lot of credibility out there in the brewing world. Without blowing our own trumpet, we are one of the best brewers in the country and we are very proud of that. We’re also very keen on our marketing.

We go to the Great British Beer Festival every year and take a 30-strong choir with us up there – Skinner’s Sinners Singers. We go up with our dark glasses on, the shirts and the real live Betty Stogs character Fred. There’s thousands of people up there on the trade day, all the buyers, and we’re a helluva spectacle! When I go to visit the bigger boys, the likes of Molson Coors, they say ‘we saw your choir at the Great British Beer Festival’ and that too gives us a lot of credibility.

BC: Marketing has been a key ingredient to your success then?

SS: When we first started, we constructed it so we had our Skinner’s logo, so when people saw the logo they would recognise it and think ‘good quality beer’. And after that we decided to go tongue in cheek with everything we did.

We needed a theme obviously. We thought of the Cornish Knocker and actually thought of calling the company The Cornish Knocker Brewing Company to begin with. We could see a lot of stories, a lot of names, and a lot of fun in Cornish folklore. And Cornwall being Cornwall, the Cornish people don’t treat themselves too seriously and that’s what we wanted to grasp.

So we came in very tongue in cheek and close to the bone. There was someone called Betty Stogs, but we created our own story around her, and the Knockers were tin mine fairies. I’ve actually got a Cornish Knocker tattooed on my shoulder. That’s commitment! (laughs)

BC: So no demographic, ABC type studies for you?

SS: I just don’t believe in it. It limits who you are selling it to. Some products warrant it, but I don’t think beer does. I think we have been one of the trailblazers, in that we are selling and appealing to all drinking ages. This year we’re doing the bar for the Surfers Against Sewage Ball, we’re at Boardmasters for the first time, which is amazing – 15,000 people for two days. And that’s a big young audience.

BC: Are drinking tastes changing? Real ale used to be an old man’s drink didn’t it?

SS: When we first started that was the impression, but I don’t think it is today. If you went down to Tremough and talked to the students there, I think half of them would be drinking real ale.

BC: It used to be lager, lager, lager with younger drinkers.

SS: And cider, too, of course. Cider has done amazingly well and is still doing well, but real ale is the only side in the drinks trade that is increasing. A lot of breweries our size have grown, but we brew different ales; we don’t brew the dark sweet stuff, although there is a place for them as well. The appeal at the moment is for a lager type.

When we first started we produced a golden ale, which is a lager colour using lager hops, which in the old days would have been unheard of. They call us new world breweries, there are no rules to what we do, and we can produce some beautiful flavours.

BC: There are also a lot of micro breweries cropping up now in Cornwall. Where has this come from?

SS: There is more interest and as I said, it is the only market that is growing. The big brewers, the nationals, have been talking down cask beer and real ale for years.

They don’t want it. They want it so that the beer you drink in Scotland is the same beer you drink down in Lands End, they don’t want any change. Mass produced and easy to transport. The Campaign for Real Ale has done an amazing job. If you look at the big brewers now, they look like us. They look like Cornish Knocker because it’s the only way they’re going to sell. Nobody wants big brands. There is a localism thing and the fact people like us are producing beer with our own barley from our own area is just amazing. And people appreciate that. The supermarkets have started to find that as well.

Ten years ago people would have laughed at you had you said we’d be national with Waitrose. It would have been impossible to think about.

BC: Are you in with other supermarkets locally?

SS: Very much so. Tesco’s are very supportive, and we sell across the south of England with them. Asda are very good and we’re talking to Sainsbury’s at the moment. Co-op and Spar also take us.

BC: You’ve going 13 years now, is that a long time for a brewery? It seems to me that you have established yourselves and a strong brand quite quickly.

SS: We’re a very young brewery, but we’re not pretentious thinking we’re bigger than we are. And know where we’ve come from.

BC: I know it’s early days, but do you have any succession plans? Can you seen Skinner’s being passed down and down through the family like St Austell Brewery has and still being around in the next century?

SS: I would love to think so. My children, they’ve all worked for us at some stage. One of my daughters is in sales, and my son Ben delivered beer with us when he left school and now has an amazing surfing career. They all know the trade and I would love them to come in, but they’ve all got their own paths really.

BC: Have you ever considered having a chain of pubs as well as the brewery?

SS: We did that in the early days and I wish we hadn’t! It depends who you’ve got running them in the pub trade if you make any money or not. We got up to two pubs, one in Newquay and one in Summercourt, but got out quickly after that! And I’m glad we didn’t continue down that route. We were initially looking for up to ten pubs to put managers in.

BC: Why is the pub trade struggling?

SS: We’ve had the drink driving, but we’ve gone past that now. But I think the smoking ban has been massive. If you haven’t got good outside areas, you might as well shut the doors really.

BC: And with the recession, are more people choosing to drink at home?

SS: They are, and I think the big brands are guilty of selling below cost which I think is horrendous and unforgivable. I don’t understand how they’ve been allowed to do it.

BC: Do you think then there should be a minimum price for alcohol as has been suggested in some quarters?

SS: Certainly at that end of the market, yes. The people who drink our sort of beer are not the people they’re talking about. But it costs less to buy cheap white cider or whatever than it does to buy water and it’s appalling how they can get away with it. And I think we’re suffering from it as an industry. Nobody wants anyone to be too drunk and everyone is aware of drinking responsibly. A good publican doesn’t want a drunk in his house, but the trouble comes when these people have been drinking cheap booze before they get there.

BC: You also produce a lager. What’s the difference between the sort of lager you produce and bigger producers?

SS: The large producers will be looking to get the best prices they can get for grain. They’ll use hop pellets whereas we use whole hops. Our lager would have a little more flavour, which to be fair some people don’t like, but a lot do.

A lot of it is down to the ingredients. They also tend to put a foaming agent in to keep a head, while smaller brewers like us would keep it natural. We have our own draught Cornish lager which we’ve had for quite a long time, but it’s a very difficult market. We are actually rebranding it after my son Ben, it’s going to be called Skindog Surf Beer!

BC: How many beers do you do in total?

SS: We do eight standard ones and a lot of guest beers. The Jingle Knocker, for example, is only produced at Christmas, 5.5% ABV. It’s a beautiful beer, people wait for it every year. We have some lovely beers throughout the year. One of my favourites is Green Hop, which comes out at the time of the hop harvest. We normally use dry hops for our beer, but you can use wet hops, green hops. But it doesn’t exist at other times of the year, you’ve only got three or four weeks to brew it. And you get the first glimpse how good that year’s harvest will be. Some years the green hop is unbelievable, other years less so.

BC: So a bit like grapes with wine, good years and bad years?

SS: Without a doubt. Every year is different. I am still very keen testing the hops every year to see which one we’ll buy.

BC: What makes a good beer?

SS: A good question! As you’ve probably gathered, I’m really into my hops so I love light-tasting and coloured beers. I don’t use too much dark malt.

BC: So is each beer you produce a reflection of your own personal taste?

SS: Probably. A nice clean, clear beer. Not too strong. A nice, easy drinking beer.

BC: That must be one of the best parts of your job, producing all these beers you like.

SS: It is very gratifying and the novelty never goes away. I still get a thrill of going into a pub and drinking my own beer. And if I’m at the bar and I hear somebody ordering one of my beers, I tend to turn to the barman and say “I’ll get those”.

BC: (laughs) Really? If I ever see you out, I’ll remember that and follow you just in case you’re off to the pub!

SS: When we first started, about six of us would go into pubs we knew didn’t sell our beer, we’d ask for it, knowing they would say no, and then walk out again. We used to do that quite a bit!

BC: And go back half an hour later with a false beard on…

SS: (laughs) and do it again! But we’ve always focused on the customer, the drinker. It’s important there is a demand. When a customer goes into a pub and there isn’t any Skinner’s on the bar, they want to know why. That’s the way we’ve always promoted ourselves. When we first started it was a lot of hard work, but a couple of publicans were fantastic with us and supported us from day one.

BC: Is that one of the reasons you sell beers from small Cornish breweries in your shop?

SS: I totally understand, because we’ve been there ourselves. I remember the people who supported me, and as I said, we’ve never forgotten where we’ve come from.

BC: So when you go out in the evening, do you always drink your own beer?

SS: Yes.

BC: You never resent having to spend money on it thinking I can have this for free back home!

SS: (laughs) Never! I think I’m infamous for it. Obviously I try other beers at beer festivals and so on, but people always go “you’re drinking your own beer”! But if I’m not drinking my own beer, it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t! But as I say to them, why would I have my own brewery and drink other people’s beers? And it’s also about I want to make sure where I buy it, it’s good. It’s a terrible job!