Thornbridge started life as a tiny brewery in a barn, however now the company is in possession of a string of pubs, a range of award-winning beers, a £10m turnover and a growing reputation. Susanna Forbes meets founder Jim Harrison to talk tactics
I got some death threats. I got letters saying: “Unless you put John Smith Smoothflow back on, the locals won’t come back”,’ Jim Harrison tells me as we sit in the cosy front bar of one of his latest pubs, The Hallamshire House. ‘And I had to stop serving “that gravy you call beer”. Needless to say, John Smith Smoothflow has never made it to any of our pubs.’
Not the best start to your on-trade career, but then it was 2006: Harrison’s brewery, Thornbridge, was only a year old, and this, its first pub, was the Coach & Horses in Dronfield, the home of Sheffield FC.
THORNBRIDGE BREWING’S FIVE NEW 100HL TANKS ARE GOING TO BE PUT TO GOOD USE
Ironically, it was Harrison’s love of the beautiful game that propelled him to get involved with the Coach & Horses, an Enterprise Inn, in the first place. Convinced the Coach could provide the club with a much-needed income stream, he was instrumental in persuading Enterprise to sell it – on the understanding that Thornbridge would run it on the club’s behalf.
Following a shaky start, there is a happy ending: the Coach & Horses made its own transfer at the start of 2012 to become a freehold member of the small but growing Thornbridge pub estate – an estate which has just won the brewery its own highly coveted trophy, Best Pub Operating Microbrewer, at the 2012 Publican Awards.
In the last 18 months, the company’s wet-led arm, The Taps, has opened three pubs in Sheffield: the lively, musically inclined The Greystones, the friendly The Hallamshire House, and the radically arty Dada bar in the city centre.
‘One of my mantras is “Without me”. I am not a puppeteer. You’ve got to give people their head.’
‘Work with people who are better than you are. I work with Simon on marketing because he’s better than I am.’
‘Better to seek forgiveness than permission. Just get on and do it. And if it doesn’t work, apologise and try something else.’
‘People never remember
Since I caught up with Harrison, the food-led side of the business, BrewKitchen, has taken over the six-room Beauchief Hotel with its serious events potential – ‘it’s got 17 weddings this year. Brides are going bananas’. While Champs, the group’s 110-seater, sports-themed restaurant on Ecclesall Road, is in the midst of a six-figure transformation into a modern British eatery.
Add in the 15,000 thirsty revellers heading to the Bearded Theory Festival at Kedleston Hall in May – Thornbridge is doing all the bars – and you realise that the brewery’s five new 100hl tanks are going to be put to good use.
In the beginning…
So how did this set-up, with a combined turnover heading towards £10m, emerge from a brewkit in the dilapidated barn of a run-down country mansion?
Harrison met his business partner, Simon Webster through football – Sheffield Wednesday this time – soon after moving into Thornbridge Hall.
He and his wife Emma, a successful businesswoman in her own right, had bought this grand but dilapidated house for their growing family. At the time, Harrison was running SPG, a manufacturing company founded by his father, while Webster was in charge of Henderson’s, a Yorkshire relish company.
Harrison’s B2B expertise was a perfect match for Webster’s consumer credentials, and it wasn’t long before they went into business together. Food (specifically pickles) came first, but Harrison wasn’t satisfied. A home brewer at heart, he wanted to get into beer.
So the pair tried to buy in beer to brand under the Thornbridge name, but couldn’t find the quality they wanted. Faced with this dilemma, Harrison turned to friend, Dave Wickett, owner of the Fat Cat pub, Sheffield’s original craft beer pub.
Wickett proved an inspirational catalyst. Founder of the ground-breaking Kelham Island Brewery, he is credited by many with introducing New World hops into the UK. ‘Dave helped me out with the idea of what could be done and what would be suitable,’ says Harrison. ‘We set up with two youngsters to brew for us. I just said to them: “Brew us some great beer. I want a beer that’s gonna take the world by storm”.’
And these two eager youngsters? ‘An Italian, Stefano Cossi, who’d never brewed an English beer in his life, and Martin Dickie [who went on to found BrewDog].’
And they didn’t disappoint. Inspired by American brewing and using four different American hops, the third beer Cossi created was Jaipur. ‘I gave it to Wickett and he said: “This beer will win awards”,’ says Harrison. ‘So we stuck it into the Sheffield Beer Festival and it won. Since then, it’s won about 200 awards.’
‘From the outset Thornbridge was based on a blend of strong flavours, solid structure and high technical quality,’ says Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster and editor of the Oxford Companion to Beer, Garrett Oliver. ‘Jim hired young brewers and their youth made them less hidebound.’
Seven years on and a space-age £1.5m brewplant has been built nearby, former Meantime brewer Rob Lovatt has taken over from Cossi, and brewery turnover is north of £3m. Dozens of beers have been born, the brewery has moved into keg and bottle without losing character or flavour, and exports are reaching 10 countries.
Joining the on-trade
‘We were selling beer to the traditional wet marketplace so we thought the first thing we’d do is to open with a renowned restaurateur and sell great food with our beer,’ says Harrison about forming BrewKitchen in 2007 with one of Sheffield’s top chefs, Richard Smith. ‘He’s a great guy. And in truth it defended the price a bit. When people are buying food, the price of the pint tends to hide behind that.’
‘IF I HAD 20 PUBS IN SHEFFIELD IN A FEW YEARS’ TIME, I WOULDN’T BE UNHAPPY’ JIM HARRISON
The classically trained Smith believes: ‘If you make the case intelligently, on a monetary level, craft beer works.’ He has ‘beer champions’ in each of his outlets and sends all his chefs and front-of-house staff to the brewery as part of their training.
‘Thornbridge is quietly changing the face of British brewing,’ says Melissa Cole, author of Let Me Tell You About Beer. ‘Its Bracia is one of the most exciting beers I’ve tasted. The complexity blows you away.’
Just as Thornbridge is breaking the mould with its beers, so it is with its wet-led pub leases. But it’s not easy. ‘It took two years of chatting to Enterprise to get The Greystones lease sorted,’ says Harrison. ‘For them, it was a new way to let a certain number of pubs to [retail-savvy] brewers.’
The key aspect of the agreement is that The Greystones is not tied to buying cask ale from Enterprise. The result? Numerous Thornbridge beers plus many others, a four-fold increase in turnover in its first year, and 250 music and comedy events in its Backroom.
This partnership with Enterprise continues to good effect with The Hallamshire House. With its dark-panelled rooms and array of gleaming beer fonts – not to mention Sheffield’s only full-sized snooker table outside of the Crucible – I’m not surprised that Harrison and Webster stop here for the obligatory pint on the way to the footie.
True to form, I was offered samples of all beers on tap. The one I couldn’t resist was drawn direct from the cask, the dark and delicious Pollards Coffee Milk Stout, brewed with coffee from the eponymous Sheffield roaster.
‘Dada’s very, very different to here,’ Harrison warns me as we head across the city. ‘They’re all linked by beer. They’re all linked by their community. But the communities are different,’ he says.
‘This one is aimed at off-centre, arty music lovers,’ he explains. As its name suggests, it’s inspired by the Surrealist art movement. With tables adorned with moody black-and-white vintage music photos, a dozen beers on tap and keg, a gantry groaning with glasses for the 40 bottled world beers, and artwork created out of beer bottles and ration tins, it certainly is different. And fun.
So what next? ‘If I had 20 pubs in Sheffield in a few years’ time, I wouldn’t be unhappy,’ muses Harrison. ‘We’d really like a place in London too.’ They’ve already looked at a few sites, ‘but they’re just not right’. However something tells me it might not take too long.
THREE FROM THORNBRIDGE