IN OCTOBER 2010, a new management took over the ownership of brewing company Nethergate, based at Pentlow on the Essex-Suffolk border near Sudbury. Now, nearly two years on, and with the 2011 Good Pub Guide Brewery of the Year title under their belt, the new team has unveiled a makeover for the company’s branding which, they hope, will set it up for commercial, as will as critical, success. DUNCAN BRODIE spoke to managing director Rob Flanagan.

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IT WAS, Rob Flanagan admits, something of a “rollercoaster” first year for the new management team at Nethergate.

They grew the business by 30% but parted company with some staff members along the way – “sometimes our choice, sometimes their choice, sometimes both,” says Rob, “which, in hindsight, was quite a natural thing to happen.”

The new team brought with them extensive experience in the brewing sector, notably with Adnams. Until five months before the buy-in, Rob was commercial director at the Southwold-based company, and the team also included Mark Holmes, who previously worked on export and take-home sales at Adnams, and Mike Atkinson, who held a procurement role with the firm.

They were joined in the deal by Paul Knight, principal at Bury St Edmunds-based accountancy firm Knights Lowe, with a fifth investor, Rupert Thompson, the former chief executive of Refresh UK, previously owner of Wychwood Brewery, coming on board in August last year.

Former owner Dick Burge, from who they acquired the business, continued to offer “a helping hand”, says Rob, and the new team has also consulted Ian Hornsey, the original head brewer at Nethergate who co-founded the business with Mr Burge in 1986 before moving on.

Turnover was around £1.2million when they took over, last year it was £1.6m, and it is now running at around £1.7m on an annualised basis, with the workforce totalling 18.

The growth for Nethergate’s own brands evens bigger than the headline figures suggest, with the new team having dropped some lower margin contract brewing which was being carried out when they arrived and which was contributing around £300,000 to turnover.

Ahead of a planned rebranding, they also dropped some beers from the range. “We have changed how we do things,” says Rob. “We have reduced our range. Augustinian Ale and Suffolk County fell by the wayside; they were popular with some people but did not have the critical mass. We have also rebranded 3.9 as Growler Bitter, and is is now the company’s leading brand.”

The renaming of Growler Bitter provides a clue as to the direction chosen for the wider rebranding of the company and its beers which is now under way.

“We had never really set down what the business was all about,” says Rob. “Good beer that excites consumers, yes, but beyond that, no.

“We are setting out to be a business with its own style. We do not take ourselves overly seriously but we do have opinions.”

He says 25-year history of the Nethergate business, which was originally based in Clare but moved to Pentlow in 2005, means it is not old enough to play on its heritage, but it does have a reputation for quality and flavour which they aim to keep, together with a sense of provenance.

A key element within the company’s reputation is its porter-style ale Old Growler and this has provided the theme for the wider rebranding.

A brand hierarchy has been developed, consisting of “Growler Brewery, Nethergate, Essex”. Nethergate will remain the company’s trading name for now, but “Growler Brewery” will increasingly feature in its identity, notably on pump clips, while the inclusion of Essex fully embraces its move to the other side of the River Stour.

The bulldog from the Old Growler label has been retained in the new branding, and appears in some form on most of the new pump clip designs to underline the new Growler Brewery identity.

He is, however a “bit more laid back”, says Rob, compared with the slightly aggressive looking version, sporting a St George’s cross tag on his collar, which was launched just before the new team took over.

“Not many breweries have a traditional porter as their main brand. We are trying to build on that as a virtue,” says Rob.

“We were never entirely happy with the makeover Old Growler received just before we came in,” says Rob. “The new label brands Old Growler as a ‘robust superior dark beer’, with the dog sporting a bowler hat and looking a bit grumpy, perhaps, but not aggressive.”

A more playful version of the dog features on the new pump clip for Growler Bitter, where he is seen in silhouette, tossing his bowler hat in the air, with the initials GB figuring prominently.

The new design for Nethergate’s India Pale Ale or IPA features a pair of bowler hats carrying the initials of Ian Hornsey, who first came up with the recipe (Old Growler and Umbel Ale were also originally his work) and Paul Gower, the current head brewer – with IPA also, unofficially, standing for “Ian & Paul’s Ale”.

The new pump clip for Umbel Ale, which contains coriander and has had some sales success in Indian restaurants as well as with mainstream real ale drinkers, has an orange-coloured theme, while Lemon Head, which features lemon and ginger, has an appropriate yellow theme, with both again featuring the GB bowler hat.

The most discussed of the new-look pump clips is that chosen for Essex Border, which styles the beer as a “blonde ale” and features a woman in 1950s-style dress flashing her stockings (with the bulldog again present, this time with the bowler hat in his mouth).

Most views were initially negative, says Rob, but a change of colour scheme, introducing a red dress, swung opinion the other way. However, Rob concedes that it is “a bit racy”.

“I think it will be fine on draft but we will have to see how it goes on the bottle,” he says. “Some men say they are not sure what their wife would think if they took it home...”

Different though the treatment for Essex Border might be, there remains an unmistakeable “family likeness” to the new pump clips and labels which was a key element of the strategy to strengthen the Growler Brewery/Nethergate identity.

The strategy, says Rob is for Growler Brewery to be perceived as “different and bold, quality not premium”, and so far the approach appears to be working.

The increase in sales means the company is now brewing six times a week, rather than four when the new team took over, and this by no means represents full capacity.

Contract wins have included Lemon Head in bottled form in Sainsbury’s, Growler Bitter in Punch pubs and an own-label range of beers for the East of England Co-operative Society.

Future plans include establishing a small pub estate and building a wider portfolio of ales, with the possible addition of its own brands of lager and cider.

The company’s growth up do this point is the more impressive in that it has been achieved against the background of duty increases and rising costs which has weighed heavily on the wider pubs and brewing sector.

The latest Government proposal, to require the stamping of bottles for export so that they can be traced should they be brought back into the country, possibly illegally, would be cost-prohibitive for companies with relatively small export businesses, such as Nethergate, says Rob.

And he adds: “We are quietly confident but we would rather like the Government to leave us alone...”

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