Fyne Folk – Jamie Delap, Managing Director
Welcome to this week’s Fyne Folk, our blog introducing Fyne Ales team members and talking to them about their experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. We want to introduce you to the folk who make our brewery what it is, and share their stories from lockdown, how they’ve been coping with the new normal and what their hopes are for a post-pandemic brewery and world.
Over the past 22 weeks, we’ve caught up with members of the Fyne Ales team to hear their stories from 2020, the year in which Covid-19 changed all our professional and personal lives – now, we’ve come to the end, with our final Fyne Folk interview with Fyne Ales MD Jamie Delap.
As you can imagine, it’s been a tough year for Jamie, so we sat down to chat about the unique pressures he faced as head of the brewery, and how he faced the unique challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In quite a few of these interviews, we’ve started with a question about what the team remembers from the day that you asked us all to go home and effectively shut down the brewery, what’s your memories of that day?
That day is, and will forever be, etched in my brain. It was awful.
The news about the pandemic had been getting worse and worse and I think we knew there was potential that things would get really bad, so I’d spent a lot of days and long evenings staring and spreadsheets and trying to figure out what the worst case scenario would be for the brewery and how we could keep going as a business – and then that horrible day came.
We told everyone that we were going to do our best to look after the team, but at that point we didn’t know what support would be available from the government, if any, or have any idea about how long we’d be feeling the effects of the measures the government were proposing…
At the end of the day, I was alone in the Brewery Tap – I poured myself a beer and wondered “how has it come to this?” God, it was so sad.
You mention planning for a worst case scenario – were you genuinely worried about the brewery’s survival?
On balance, I was more worried about taking care of the team – we’ve been very fortunate that the brewery has always been structured in a way that means we could endure some hardship – but before the furlough support was announced my focus was on minimising the losses while keeping as much of our brilliant team together and supported as we could.
I’m the kind of person who always likes to have a plan A, but also a Plan B and Plan C for when things get really difficult, and that’s how I approached the pandemic. Fundamentally, we have a business that works and businesses that work will find support if they need it – so at the start I wasn’t hugely concerned that the brewery might not survive, but then again I wasn’t expecting the pandemic to last a full year.
We should touch on the support we’ve had from customers buying on the online shop this year – did it come as much as as a surprise to you as it did to the rest of the team, and just how valuable has it been to the brewery?
I know it’s something other members of the team have talked about but it’s important for me to say a massive thank you to everyone who’s supported us by buying our beer online.
A few days after we closed the brewery, the furlough announcement was made and I thought okay – we’ll be okay – it will be a case of biding our time and watching the bank balance slowly ticking down to nothing – riding it out the storm and hoping it didn’t last too long or hurt too much.
But then almost immediately the customer response was incredible – it was transformative for our brewery, a real game-changer in terms of not just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best, but actually being able to keep brewing, keep working and keep our team together.
So thank you to everyone who’s been online shopping on our website – we are so grateful for your support and we would be in a significantly worse position without your help this year.
How has the pandemic changed your personal life this year?
On the personal side, there was significantly less impact on life – obviously the glen is very isolated but I live in the countryside outside Edinburgh and that’s also pretty isolated as well. In some ways it was nice – in the Spring and early summer we had nice sunny days with both of our boys at home, so we had some good family time together – the lockdown measures weren’t really a hardship on home-life.
I think the biggest impact was on my mental wellbeing. Running a brewery presents mental health challenges at the best of times – and as I said, I’m a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C kind of person and this year – everything has been unknown, everything has been out of our control. As an industry, we’ve been buffeted around by events, rules and regulations that we can do nothing about and I found that very difficult to live with – it’s been a huge source of anxiety and the cause of quite a lot of sleepless nights.
There’s been quite a bit of activity at an industry-level this year, breweries coming together to make representations to the government and using SIBA to rally for better support or against arguably unfair restrictions – have you felt a sense of community among the beer industry this year?
The camaraderie among breweries has been one of the main things that’s kept me sane this year – we’re lucky to have a lot of friends in the industry and there’s been a real sense of supporting each other and finding ways through the issues together this year.
We were invited to be part of group of UK breweries working together in support of the NHS earlier in the year, and when that campaign came to an end we continued weekly catch-ups and it became a bit of an distance socialising and support network. I’ve always fundamentally believed beer is a social product – there’s nothing better than sitting down with a beer in the middle of the table and putting the world to rights and that’s what it became – a way to share a beer, stay connected and support each other through the lows of 2020.
Since the spring you’ve tried to instill in the team that even though this year is going to hurt, we need to find ways to come out the other side stronger than before – do you think we’ve achieved that?
I think we have actually achieved a surprising amount this year. There’s obviously areas where we’ve not been able to make progress, but I think there’s some success that should be celebrated.
I think we’re working better as a team – we’ve certainly tightened up the way we work and I think everyone’s coming out of this with new skills or new understandings about how to work effectively.
One of the biggest challenges was how to stay connected to our customers when we can’t be ‘the pint in the pub’ – we’ve done a lot of work to try to stay in our community’s minds and hopefully in their glasses this year, the way we use digital mediums to tell stories and stay in touch with them is further ahead than it’s ever been and I hope that continues even when we get back to some sort of normal.
On the brewery side, we’ve done a lot of work on our quality systems and processes, had more time to ensure all our kit is in top condition and the team have taken time to try new things and learn new things – if you look at the quality of the one-off beers we’ve been putting out as part of Mini-Cask Club you can already see the results of their hard work starting to pay off.
While there’s light at the end of the tunnel, the reality is that we’ve still got at least another four months ahead of us in this crisis, and we won’t waste that time either – we’ll keep making progress and working on our future because we hope it’ll be a lot brighter than where we are now.
That kind of leads us on to talking about 2021 – what are your hopes for next year for Fyne Ales?
There’s a lot of things still unknown – not just in terms of how drinkers perceive the ‘new normal’, but also commercially – what will the landscape be in terms of pubs and bars who make it through to next spring. This year has been incredibly hard for us as a brewery, and I know it’s been even harder for many of our trade customers. We’ve tried to be as supportive to them as we can, but we just don’t know what the market is going to look like in another three, four, or five months.
One thing we know is that things aren’t immediately going to go back to the way they were on 1st April 2021 – all we can do is take a lot of the lessons we’ve learned this year and the way we’ve responded to the challenges it’s presented and be better at engaging with our community. We need to be connected, and be agile to make the beers they want to drink and get them to them however they want to drink them – whether that’s pubs and restaurants, or at home. We took risks this year and tried lots of new things to reach people this year – Mini-Cask Club, Jarl in cans, FyneFest at Home – and next year we need more of the same.
Cancelling FyneFest for 2020, after putting in so much work planning to have it in June and then trying to find a way to do it later in the year, was a gut-wrenching decision, so I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival – I know FyneFest will be back and better than ever before in June 2021.
I’ll come back to what I said earlier – for me, beer is fundamentally a social thing that belongs in the middle of a table surrounded by friends, family and loved ones, accompanied by plenty of good conversation and laughter – and that’s been sorely missed this year. Next year we need much more of that, and whatever table people are sitting around and whoever they’re sitting around it with, I want them to have a Fyne Ales beer or two, or three, or six in the middle of it.