From apprentice to the board room, chairman looks back on 40 years with Adnams

PUBLISHED: 09:50 31 December 2015 | UPDATED: 09:50 31 December 2015

Adnams' award-winning Longshore vodka being made at the Copper House Distillery in Southwold.
Jonathan Adnams with a bottle of the Longshore vodka.

Picture: James Bass

Adnams' award-winning Longshore vodka being made at the Copper House Distillery in Southwold. Jonathan Adnams with a bottle of the Longshore vodka. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2014

Chairman Jonathan Adnams started work with the family firm the day after his 19th birthday. DUNCAN BRODIE visited him in Southwold as he celebrates 40 years with the business.

Key dates

1345: Johanna de Corby and 17 other ‘ale wives’ of Southwold were charged by the manorial court with breaking the assize of ale. This is the earliest record of beer being brewed on the Adnams site.

1872: George and Ernest Adnams bought the Sole Bay Brewery with the help of their father.

1880: George departed for South Africa, where he was eaten by a crocodile.

1890: Ernest Adnams and head brewer Thomas Sargeant signed the Memorandum of Association establishing Adnams & Company Limited.

1902: Jack and Pierse Loftus acquired a stake in the brewery.

1943: The arrival of Adnams’ unique two-stand yeast.

1954: Adnams won the Challenge Cup for the best beer at the Brewers’ Exhibition beating 755 other companies.

1963: Death of Nico Loftus led to the third generation of the Adnams and Loftus families joining the business.

1970s: The brewery was substantially enlarged and modernised.

1987: Adnams’ first Cellar and Kitchen Store opened at the back of The Crown Hotel.

2006: On the retirement of Simon Loftus, Jonathan Adnams becomes chairman.

2010: The Adnams Copper House Distillery is built and opened.

2014: Adnams Vodka wins the Vodka Trophy at the International Wine & Spirits Competition.

Jonathan Adnams has seen many changes during his 40 years with the famous Southwold-based firm.

He joined the company as an engineering apprentice in November 1975 after flirtations with fishing and estate agency.

The family business at that time also included the H A Adnams estate agents business. Jonathan’s father, himself a chartered surveyor, saw this as a potential career for his son.

But while he passed his first-year exams, the subject did not capture his imagination and so he returned to Southwold and, the day after his 19th birthday, started work as an apprentice engineer in the brewery.

Having studied mechanical engineering, Jonathan went to work at a new distribution centre then being built in the middle of Southwold. It has since relocated to Reydon.

In 1986, he moved over to the pubs and property side of the business, following the retirement of his father, and joined the main board as pubs and estates director in 1988.

In 1997 he became joint managing director, alongside Hugh Roberts who was overseeing a change in company structure, and then sole MD a year later. He remained in this role until 2006 when he succeeded Simon Loftus as executive chairman and then in 2009 took on his current role as chairman, with Andy Wood becoming chief executive.

During all this time, Adnams has undergone a remarkable transformation, from a locally-based brewer into a nationally-recognised brand.

He recalls that, during his early years with the business, the brewing operation largely involved second-hand equipment, typically 70 or 80 years old, and was prone to yeast infections, especially in the summer.

This had an effect on beer quality and, in two severe cases, a significant impact on production, representing a setback at a time when volumes were growing amid the CAMRA-led revival of interest in cask-conditioned ale.

Jonathan says that this created in him a determination to invest in new, cutting-edge, brewing equipment, although when an opportunity might come about was not clear.

The process eventually began in 2001 with the start of work to renew the fermentation capacity, with further additions in 2003 and 2005 as beer volumes grew. A refit of the brewhouse followed in 2007, involving renewal of the vessels and the addition of a high level of automation and computerised control.

The flexibility of the new brewery, combined with Adnams’ highly innovative head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald who took over the role shortly after its completion, has resulted in a vastly increased range of Adnams beers, with about 40 being brewed each year..

The addition of a micro-distillery to the business was, he says, very much a natural progression for Adnams although, at the outset, there was the small matter of an old law which, it was thought, made it illegal for a brewer to also be a distiller.

The former brewery copper house, made redundant following the brewery refit, was an obvious home for a distillery but it was the arrival on the scene of the English Whisky Comp-any in Norfolk which, says Jonathan, “really started me thinking”.

Extensive research convinced him that the burgeoning craft distilling market in the United States could be replicated here and the company board agreed to support the preparation of engineering drawings by John McCarthy from the brewery team, now head distiller.

There remained the question of the law but, while offering no guarantees, HM Revenue & Customs indicated that if an application were made it would be considered.

Approval, if it came at all, was not expected quickly but it was received within months, in March 2010, and the facility went live the following October. Adnams gins and vodkas soon began to pick up awards and in 2013 they were joined by the distillery’s first whiskies.

The five-year plan for the business has been far exceeded and, with the distillery having been operating flat-out, seven days a week for the past six months, a £500,000 investment to treble output is due to go online in January.

He said: “I have worked with some wonderful people right through at all levels. I still retain my enthusiasm and hopefully have a few more years to give to the company yet.”

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