Saturday, 25 June 2011

Natural Selection has intelligent designs on the beer market

Natural Selection Brewing is the name being used by a group of students at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh for an innovative practical project that involves them designing a new beer and bringing it to market in the real world. In a few weeks’ time the beer will be launched in selected Edinburgh outlets. I spoke to marketing manager Steven Kersley about the project.


Who are you and what is the project about?
We are a team of four: me, Steven from Oban, Scotland (sales and marketing); Damon Scott from Colorado, USA (brewer); Kevin Emms from Vancouver, Canada (team manager); and Colin Lymer from Texas, USA (brand designer/builder). We are four students completing our one year MSc projects at Heriot-Watt Uni.

This project is the first of its kind from the University: never before have students released a beer to the public. The idea came from Dr David Quain (ICBD professor) and Steve Stewart (Stewart Brewing). Both are ICBD graduates and were looking to give the students a new opportunity, and came up with the idea of giving the students first-hand experience in the industry.

Everything we are doing is off our own intuition.  Recipe, branding, marketing and launching: we have totally been given the reins on this one and we’re loving the experience and learning all the time.  From concept to launch we have had about three months, so if we pull it off and it’s successful it will be a great achievement.

Is this programme run every year? Is it the first time? Will it be happening again?
The project is the first of its kind, a completely new concept that hasn’t been done before.  The view is to make this an annual event for MSc students if we are successful, so there is a bit of pressure on us to nail this.

It’ll be easier for the guys who come after you, won’t it, because it’ll be a familiar idea – ah, it’s time for the student beer again ...
Yeah definitely, I think the view is that this year was a trial run so to speak. The originators will measure our success and have strongly hinted that our team is laying the foundations for the coming years. They’ll learn from this year and have a better idea of where things can be improved in the future. It’s a learning experience for Quain and Stewart too, but we believe that this will be a successful project, and so long may it continue. 

The programme seems to be focussed on giving you experience of running an entire business rather than just the brewing side. I take it that’s intentional?
You’re spot on here, of course the brewing part is the maker or breaker. We need a solid product to launch to the public.  However, as I said, everything we do is on us, from brand design to marketing our beer and then finally getting the sales out the door.

It should also be noted that many of us are inexperienced with regard to the non brewing side of things, so we have been thrown in at the deep end, and are being forced to think fast and learn quickly so that we can achieve our goals. I speak personally here as the marketing and sales guy: I love chatting to folk and building rapport with folk but translating that to sales and marketing has been challenging, I’m Scottish but this is my first year in Edinburgh. I’ve come to know a few good bars but we’re trying to sell 15 casks and 3000 bottles – this is a big challenge and I have very few contacts, so a big part of my job has been hitting the streets and building relationships with bar staff and off-licence owners.  This is the opposite of Damon, who is tweaking his recipe and concentrating on the beer.
Colin, our brand god, is completely focused on labels for our bottles and also flyers and posters. We all help out in the brewery when we put on a test batch (there have been three), which is great, but our jobs are completely different and cover all aspects of the business.  Kevin is team manager and he oversees our work and keeps us on target with regard to timelines and such.

So all the marketing is solely in your hands, no support from Stewart’s or Heriot-Watt? It’s not as easy as it looks on Morrissey Fox’s TV programme, is it, where the two guys make some homebrew in their shed and a week later Tesco have agreed to list it ...

The marketing is solely in my hands. I’ve had a few tips from Stewart with regard to how to plan ahead, getting everything on paper so you have a written outline and a clear structure, but as for marketing our beer and getting it known, that’s solely my job. It’s been tricky being new to the city and not having any contacts but on the plus side, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of people and the contacts I am making have been very receptive so far and are keen to hear about what we’re doing.  We do have a budget that we will make use of, but for now I’m trying to network by using Facebook, Twitter and by getting in direct contact with people.  Oh and it certainly isn’t as easy as Morrissey’s show! We’re having to work a bit harder to secure sales but cask sales are moving nicely and case sales will be on the way soon too.

Will the brewing be equally hands-on and left to your own devices? Is it a case of “here are the keys guys, let me know when you’re finished?”
The brewing will be also hands-on. At the pilot brewery at Heriot-Watt we have had almost free reign; we’ve been able to operate in the brewery as we like but under a little supervision. At Stewart’s we will be brewing with head brewer Ian, simply because we don’t know their brewery that well and obviously Steve can’t take the risk of something going wrong and neither can we. It’s a one-off brew so has to be done right, and so Ian will be working with us to ensure everything runs smoothly.

Did you do any market research or just decide to brew a beer you liked?
We did a fair amount of research. We asked 200 people from all kinds of different bars in Edinburgh, asking males, females, young and old.  I tried to get a feel for what Edinburgh was drinking and what exactly the market was wanting.  We did have a fair idea of what results this would yield, simply because the American craft scene is buzzing at the minute and those styles of beer are really getting popular over here.  The research supported this, with a lot of folk interested in hopped beers whilst many still liked the traditional malty characters that have been traditional in Scotland.  We also wanted to do our own thing so we came up with a nice compromise.  Do what we want but just be sure the market won’t freak out.

What direction do you think the Scottish beer market is going?
The Scottish market is interesting at the minute, talking from experience of only really the Edinburgh market. From our market research, folk are really willing to try new beers.  Our market research showed that the majority of people are trying up to 7 different beers a month and with edgy brewers such as BrewDog, Tempest and even the more traditional breweries getting a little adventurous, it shows that the market is really opening up.  Hoppier beers are enjoying a big surge and becoming very popular.

Edinburgh seems to be the big focus for brewers, and I think if they can establish themselves in the Edinburgh market then you’ll find they’ll have enough revenue to push their product further afield, which would be great.  Of course Tennents, Carling, Fosters etc. are going to sit at the top of the tree, but I think what will happen as the smaller breweries build their brand e.g Stewart’s, Black Isle, Fyne Ales (when they move out of their barn) etc., they could really command a decent wedge of the market.  In the coming years people are going to become much more educated about beer in Scotland, and that will grow the craft industry nicely.

Bringing this back to our project I believe this is why our project can be a big success. Edinburgh folk are loving the amount of different beers that are available to them at the moment, and are keen to try new brands and styles. This plays into our hands and we can really push the boat and see how folk respond.


So what is the beer going to be like and what will it be called? I have deduced from the photos you’ve been posting on Facebook that it’s American-inspired, all those Chinook and Cascade and crystal malt ...
Our company name is Natural Selection Brewing and the beer will be called Finch.  The story behind this is that the team members have come from a diverse background, and when bringing this beer to life we had ideas from everyone, and so it really evolved into what we have now, which is a Red Ale, and we will market it as a ‘Robust Red Ale’ at 6.5%, which we know is strong, but we’ve tasted a couple of the test batches and it is very well balanced.

Our brewer, Damon Scott, is from Colorado; therefore, the beer is inspired by Odell’s Red Ale, Victory Hop Devil, Deschutes Green Lakes Organic Ale, SKA Decadent IPA and similar well-hopped, well-balanced beers. Finch is noticeably malty and deep red in colour. Amarillo hops make up the flavour, aroma and dry hop additions, providing a spicy, floral and citrus complement to the caramel/toffee-like flavour from the UK malts. Nottingham yeast adds a unique fruity character that suits this beer perfectly. We believe a strong beer (~ 6.5% ABV) can be well balanced, and Finch aims to prove just that.

What does Finch refer to?
Finch: this name came around after a bit of consideration from Colin, our brand designer.  He wanted to tie in the beer name to the company name. The Charles Darwin link to Edinburgh is well known when he studied here, and as I said, the beer style choice really evolved from all our brainstorming, again a play on natural selection. Also, as we only use natural ingredients, that also fits well.  Furthermore it was a bit cheeky calling our company natural selection but we wanted to get noticed. Finch is kind of short and punchy, it’s not a mouthful, and it ties in nicely with Natural Selection Brewing.
The graphic design has a kind of hippy/California feel to me, reminiscent of US microbrewers in the 1970s and 80s – intentional?
It’s kind of an art nouveau style that you don't really see anymore but it was a deliberate style choice.  I don't believe we had the 70s–80s style in mind when it was designed but I think the final design was chosen simply because there's not really anything like it on the market (in Scotland at least), and for a small one-off release we wanted to be a bit bold and stand out from the crowd. Drawing folk in with a unique label design was always part of the plan – it may not be to everyone's taste but you are going to notice it on a shelf.

And where will we be able to buy it? What’s it like trying to get it to market?
The beer will be launched around the 20th of July – at present I’m finalising cask sales, also off-licences in Edinburgh, [at this point Steven names a few off-licences but I’m not allowed to mention them until the deals are done]. Also we’re trying something very different: 80 cases have been assigned to internet sales. We’re going to try and reach the maximum amount of folk possible, and to do that we want it available online. We will have links to a separate sales page on Stewart’s website which will allow folk to purchase online. Our hope is also to get some folk in the states interested, we’ll be drawing on the yanks on our team for that!

The market has been very receptive so far. You find in this industry that folk are really sound and will love to help, so I’ve not been told to use the door on any occasion. And if a bar can’t help they’ll usually recommend me someone who would be interested. The market is very close knit and everyone knows everyone, so you can build up a nice network with a lot of people – it’s great.

Thanks for the interview and good luck!

5 comments:

  1. Interesting post, best of luck to them.

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  2. I'd certainly like to have a try of it.

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  3. I'm glad you covered this because I wanted to know more! Sounds like a cool project. I'd also love to know what they all plan on doing after their degree finishes.

    The beer sounds good and the branding is excellent!

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  4. Great interview & sounds like a great project. Move out of our barn though - that's not going to happen. We want to invest in great brewing kit, not bland industrial sheds, and you will be amazed how much we can get out of our barn ...

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