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By Correspondence: Eddie Lofthouse, Harbour Brewing

Eddie driving the Harbour Brewing van.
SOURCE: @HarbourBrewing on Twitter.

We first became aware of Harbour Brewing not long after we’d moved to Cornwall in 2011.

New on the scene in 2011, they seemed to have more in common with BrewDog and Thornbridge than with Skinner’s or, say, Tintagel. OK, we’re being coy here: it was a Craft Brewery (definition 2), with aromatic IPA rather than best bitter front and fore  — not something Cornwall really had before Harbour came along.

The company’s boss Eddie Lofthouse dropped off pre-release samples of IPA a few months after the brewery was founded and, frankly, they weren’t that exciting — not grim or shoddy, just not thrilling. And he knew it.

We remained lukewarm and cautious but were slowly won over — most of the way, anyway — by an excellent Pilsner on Scilly, a Beer-of-the-Year contender kegged pale ale in Falmouth, and numerous pints of straw-pale 3.7% Light Ale — the Cornish answer to London brewer Redemption’s Trinity.

The original head brewer, Heriot Watt trained Rhys Powell, left in 2015.

We still tend to qualify our praise — it’s hard for a Cornish brewery to top St Austell Proper Job, for example — but Eddie, either because he’s a diplomat or a genuinely nice bloke, or both, doesn’t seem to hold that against us, and agreed to a sort-of-interview by email. What follows was stitched together from an exchange of multiple messages with a couple of boring bits removed and some small edits for clarity and sense.

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B&B: What’s your background and how did you come to be running a brewery?

I have a varied career history! From running youth work charities to managing bars and hotels. The latter lead me to gain a love of beer and the desire to work in the industry. A opportunity to start a little ‘hobby’ business arose while the hotel I was running was being refurbished and the idea went from there.

B&B: You’re called Harbour but the brewery is actually inland – what happened?

We initially looked at opening the brewery in Padstow but when we looked at the availability of suitable buildings in that area and the quality of the water we decided to widen our search. At the time I was living in Polzeath so searched for premises in that area. The agent we used to find us a facility alerted us to a site which had its own water springs with the water at the time being bottled as Cornish spring water. When we had the water analysed it was a perfect blank canvas to work with, and the building was perfect for us at that time. By the time we had finally decided to base ourselves in Kirland we had already settled on the name.

B&B: You don’t quite fit into the usual image of a Cornish brewery – were you consciously reacting against the idea of Traditional Cornish Ale and smugglers’ inns and all that?

What is stereotypically Cornish never came into it. We had a clear idea of what we wanted from our branding to represent. Modern, clean and precise. That’s the basis of our brewing ethos too. We aren’t weird and whacky, and I believe great branding should be a honest representation of the company and give the customer a clear indication of what to expect.

B&B: You’ve done a bit of experimenting though, haven’t you, with strong beers, barrel-ageing, and so on? What drives that — is it about marketing, or supplying the ‘craftier’ end of the market, or is it just that it’s fun?

We have done bits and pieces for two reasons; firstly we learn a lot from pushing boundaries about our kit, ingredients and processes. We can use some of the learned knowledge to influence what we do on a day to day basis. Secondly, it is fun to try new things. Making the same product day in day out gets pretty boring, so adding a bit of variety keeps it interesting. All of our brewers continually want to try new things, whenever you read an article you get inspired to try something and you can’t do that with core products when consistence is key.

Weirdly, we probably sell more Pilsner to the ‘crafty’ end of the market than anything else. Pilsner is probably about 40-45% of our production these days, and growing. I remember reading something you wrote about breaking the Cornish market with our Pils but I don’t think we have sold more than 30 kegs of it down here.

B&B: To what extent have other, better-established Cornish breweries welcomed you on to the scene?

Breweries are just business employing people. Like in all aspects of life we get on better with some people than others. At no point have we found any animosity from any of the large breweries down here.

B&B: No animosity from the large breweries? That’s carefully worded! A bit less cosy at the smaller end of the market where you’re competing for accounts, maybe?

Not at all, the smaller breweries generally try to help each other out as much as possible. We have sold and swapped ingredients, share transportation cost, and so on, with lots of our Cornish colleagues. I think because we don’t try to push the market down here that much we haven’t come into any sort of conflict with anyone really. Nothing juicy there — the industry really is a pretty friendly place.

Steve Skinner was amazingly supportive when we were setting up and still is. Roger Ryman [St Austell head brewer] is probably the most helpful man you could ever wish to meet. He is the first person we call when we want advice or guidance and anything beer related. And our Technical brewer, Sabrina, is the partner of Dave Haskell, the general manager at Sharps, so we obviously have a great relationship there too. The brewing industry is the best industry I have ever worked in as far as everyone working together to see the industry grow and develop as a whole.

B&B: How much of a challenge is the dominance of St Austell and their big brands like Tribute, Proper Job and Korev?

St Austell own and operate a large percentage of the pubs in Cornwall, and their pubs are a closed shop. Outside of their own houses, St Austell have a good following in the free trade, but so do Sharps and Skinners. Cornwall also seems to be extremely price sensitive, and we don’t have the buying power or economical distribution network of the larger breweries so when it comes to pricing we are often unable to compete on price.

B&B: As you know – we’ve always said this to you – we weren’t quite convinced by your beers early on. These days, though, we generally find them very solid and some of them are really excellent. What’s been the journey to get there?

It’s exactly that – a journey. When we started we thought we knew quite a lot about beer and brewing. We quickly learned we knew pretty much nothing. Making beer is pretty easy, making it the same every time without fault is far more difficult, and sometimes getting the raw material you want is even more difficult than that. We are continually looking to improve our beers and that often isn’t about changing the recipe. We haven’t really changed the recipe of our core range since we first brewed them, just a few tweeks here and there. It is the processes that we have changed. We have looked to improve our products through our processes, when we started we had little more than some cheap microscopes and some hydrometers. Now we have a pretty good lab set up and a full time technical brewery who continually strive for improvements in product and process. The more information you have the more variables you can control and the better the beer is. We have never set out to brew the most out there beers, but flavoursome modern beers you can drink and rely on.

B&B: Harbour has always seemed to be a well-funded project with the latest kit, expensive-looking graphic design, and so on. Is that perception fair?

We are relatively well funded depending on how you compare us to, but all investments have to add value to the business. It is possible to make great beer on a very simple kit, but making consistent beer means you have to control as many variables as you can. We loved our first brewery and it served us very well, but there were limitations with what we could achieve with it. With our new kit we have tried to address as many of those things as possible, giving us more control, more versatility and more volume. As for expensive design, it was surprisingly cheap and amazing in terms of value. I had worked with A-side [a design agency] before on another project and what I love about working with them is that they got what we were all about and trying to achieve really quickly, we knew roughly what we wanted from the start and they worked with us to put our ideas into a practice. We have worked with friends on lots of our branding, photography and films and so on, and usually get mates’ rates or sort them out with beer for their services. Its amazing what you can do with a tiny budget.

B&B: Who are your investors?

We have one investor, I have known him for many years and he is not really involved in the business as all. He simply looks at any investment as any business should, what is the return on investment?

B&B: Richard Rowse?

Yes, Rick is our investor. He was previously the owner of Rowse Honey. He is a pretty private kind of guy. It’s far from a secret though.

B&B: We rarely see your beer on sale in Cornwall outside specialist outlets like Hand Bar. It feels as if we see more of your beer in London or Bristol than we do here, in fact. How come?

Same answer as before on. Price and strength of Skinners, Sharps and St Austell. I hope you’ll see a lot more of our beer around Cornwall in 2016 and beyond. We have decided to get out of direct delivery. The company we are going to be working with can get beer out and about for less than we can, and they have a much bigger customer base than we currently have in Cornwall.

B&B: Would you ever consider relocating to, say, Bristol, like Moor Brewing did? Or to Exeter?

No! I love Cornwall. The way of life here is epic. I have children and can’t think of a better place to bring them up. It is really important to me and the business to have a work life balance, although at times it can sway more one way or the other. When Rhys was with us, we were really pushing that balance, working way too hard and not getting enough time off. It was too much out of balance for Rhys so he took off and went surfing in India for the winter and now lives in Sweden. I learned a lot during those times. Getting the balance of work and play right is tough at times. We have an amazing team now, and work hard but make it as fun as possible and make sure everyone gets enough down time.

B&B: Last time we saw you in person was at Hand Bar in Falmouth after a ‘Meet the Brewer’ event when you seemed, frankly, absolutely exhausted.

I’m quite often absolutely knackered to be honest, although I think that’s more to do with having three kids under the age of seven more than work!

B&B: You’ve frequently got us excited by mentioning on Twitter plans to open a bar or pub but, as yet, it hasn’t happened — why?

Its still very much on the cards, but having run bars in the past I know how important getting the right venue is. And so far we haven’t found one that is perfect. We have a couple of pub sites we are looking at at the moment, so hopefully one of those will be right.

B&B: What are your plans for the next year or two?

With the new kit we should have some capacity to experiment more. Last year we were brewing eight or more times per week, and the more commitments we took on for our core range, the less we got to experiment. So this year is about developing the core range further, and getting creative again. We hardly used our new canning line as we didn’t have capacity to brew beer to put through it. We brought a couple of new brewers in last year and they have some great ideas for beers so we look forward to trying out those. Some big and hoppy — our new kit can handle a much higher hopping rate — but actually it is the simple beers that I’m more excited about as it pushes our technical abilities.

We also have a fun event in April, where we are getting a bunch of our brewing friends down for a brew weekend. Double brew on the Saturday, with a party on Saturday night. We are going to be giving out about 50-60 free tickets for the party. Free beer, BBQ and live music — what more could you want?

B&B: Which other breweries have you looked to for inspiration? Are there some you regard as kindred spirits?

That’s an easy one. Thornbridge! I love their beer, the way every beer is a great example of style. They develop beers with thought and an eye for detail – not every brewery does. For them it’s not about revolution, it’s an evolution of the industry, and for me they are central to it. The technical knowledge and their lab facilities are fantastic. And they are awesomely nice people – what is not to be inspired by?

B&B: Did they give you some hands-on help with your QC and consistency issues, as we know they’ve done with some other breweries?

Not specifically, we have had that sort of hands-on help from Roger Ryman and his team. I know some of the guys up at Thornbridge and they have pointed us in the right direction on a number of occasions. I just love their beers and the set up they have up there is pretty special. They just get on without shouting about it, just making great beer.

B&B: OK, last question: if we want to ‘get’ what Harbour is all about these days, where should we start?

First, Pilsner. Tough beer to get right, but we are getting better and better. The last batch we brewed on the old kit was the best one we have ever made. Super crisp and clean Czech style Pils. Secondly, Pale, our American style pale. Really well balanced and sees to my hop craving. And finally Porter –- a great example of the style. Well, I think so anyway.

2 replies on “By Correspondence: Eddie Lofthouse, Harbour Brewing”

That was a thoroughly interesting read – thankyou!

I’ve always found Harbour to be solid and reliable, if not always hugely exciting. I agree with Eddie about their excellent Porter though.

The Harbour PA in bottle is one of my bankers – I did a group tasting of supermarket (I)PAs a couple of years back and ranked it first equal with Bengal Lancer and Shipyard (just ahead of Proper Job). Never seen their porter, though.

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