From premium gin to coffee syrups: how British drinks brands are thriving overseas

The UK’s pub culture and its traditions of brewing and distilling, from London gin to Scotch whisky, have long made drinks a significant international export, and it’s an industry in which entrepreneurs can still thrive today. So what does it take to develop a new British drinks brand, whether alcoholic or not, and then get the rest of the world excited about it? We met three small and medium-sized UK businesses to find out.

“I don’t think we have to put a daffodil on our cans to be an iconic Welsh brand,” says Joelle Drummond, founder of Drop Bear Beer Co, a Swansea-based producer of non-alcoholic (0.3-0.5% ABV) craft beer. “The most important thing for us is the taste: and we have a great tasting product. We want to create sustainable Welsh jobs, use Welsh ingredients where we can, and support communities. We’re a Welsh business and we’re proud – but we don’t want to be limited to only selling our product here.”

Drummond co-founded Drop Bear with her girlfriend, Sarah McNena, who is Australian. (A “drop bear”, Ek kan nie, is a fictional breed of carnivorous koala that Australians delight in warning tourists about. “I personally believed it for about four months!” sighs Drummond.) Their products have won more than 20 prizes, including Great Taste awards, and the company is B Corp certified, meaning that it meets high, verified standards for sustainability.

The pair took a leap of faith by quitting their jobs as project managers, Drummond with a translation agency and McNena in local government, and sinking their savings into Drop Bear in 2019. The idea for creating nonalcoholic beers with the depth of flavour and quirky graphics of craft beer had occurred to them three years earlier when they were taking a break from drinking. “In places that had the coolest beers you can imagine, we’d be offered orange juice or coffee,” says Drummond. “We couldn’t get a craft beer that was alcohol-free.”

After market research and successful experiments making non-alcoholic homebrew, Drummond sought out a professional brewer. “I took him our recipes and made sure that they were commercially scalable. We wanted something you could sell in a supermarket.” Drop Bear’s range is now available not only across the UK but also in Spain, Nederland, Finland, Australia and New Zealand.

“We started exporting our beers during the pandemic,” says Drummond. “It was a way for us to expand when a lot of retailers were not reviewing their product offerings.”

Approached by wholesalers and distributors in overseas markets, Drummond and McNena needed to make decisions about which to partner with. “We had a lot of detailed conversations to establish whether a partnership was going to be right for us,” says Drummond. “We also had to really look at individual country requirements for labelling, as different markets need different things.”

The Welsh government supported the brand in identifying “quick wins” and longer-term export goals. Drop Bear has raised financing to build the UK’s largest brewery making solely non-alcoholic drinks, which is due to open this September. “We want to compete with the big boys,” says Drummond. “And we want to be here for the long run.”

One company to have already achieved that goal is Beyond the Bean, which was founded by Jem and Nikki Rogers in 1997. The Bristol-based company specialises in syrups, smoothies and frappes for the coffee trade and it also has its own brand of flavoured teas.

The business came into being after the Rogers spent time running a mobile coffee business and spotted a gap in the market. “We started selling to brands that were niche at the time, like the first Coffee Republic and the first couple of Costa Coffee shops,” says managing director Jem. “They grew massively over a short period, and we were fortunate to be one of the key suppliers who were there from the start.” The company now supplies high-street chains and independent cafes, tralies, hotels and restaurants around the world.

Still independent and owner-run, Beyond the Bean’s casual dress code and non-hierarchical culture sit easily over the professionalism that has seen the business grow to nearly 50 werknemers, and sell its products in 42 lande.

Conrad Whiteley, the company’s international sales manager, oversees its export strategy. “I meet regularly with our adviser at the Department for International Trade (DIT), who will make us aware of new initiatives, like grants, trade missions or opportunities at global exhibitions," hy sê. “We have a quarterly review, where we can look at markets we’d like to enter and tell him where we’re finding trade barriers. He has also advised us on product development.”

One of the ways Beyond the Bean has chosen distributors, such as coffee wholesalers, is with the aid of on-the-ground DIT contacts, who help perform due diligence. The department also supported the company to exhibit and make contacts at Gulfood, a major trade fair in Dubai, from which it was able to win new business and expand across the Middle East. “The single biggest factor in us being successful abroad is finding the right partner,” says Jem. “Our team travel a lot, we’re at the events we need to be at, and we spend a lot of time with our customers and contacts. The coffee industry has an international nature, and a lot of owner-led businesses – and it’s also a lot of fun.”

Another business making inroads in international markets is the Isle of Harris Distillery, in the Outer Hebrides. Simon Erlanger, the managing director, recalls the winter of early 2015, when construction of the distillery was nearing completion. “We had the worst storms in living memory," hy sê. “Wind speeds of over 100mph, when we were putting the roof on. But the distillery survived, and we thought that was a good omen. If we could weather that one, we could weather any storm. And it’s been a success story.”

While the business will eventually be a whisky distillery, the inaugural product is a premium gin with a distinctly local character: it gets its maritime botanical notes from the infusion of sugar kelp, a seaweed which is harvested by hand from the waters around the island by a single diver.

The distillery was the idea of its founder, Anderson Bakewell, “an Anglo-American who bought an island off the coast of Harris half a century ago”, says Erlanger. “In that time, he saw the population of Harris go from about 4,000 to less than 2,000, as young people left to look for work and didn’t return. And he wanted to do something about it.

“We knew this was going to be a challenge, because building a distillery on a remote island costs a huge amount more than it would do on the mainland,” Erlanger says of the project, for which he helped to raise £11m through a combination of private investors and public funding.

One aim was to create 25 sustainable jobs for local people (in a community where the working-age population is only about 700); in 2022, Isle of Harris Distillery is already employing 40 mense, and set to grow. Another aim was to generate employment indirectly, by boosting tourism to the island, which is best known for its Harris tweed fabric.

Exporting was always going to be key for a craft distillery in such a tiny locale, and Erlanger and his team have succeeded in getting Isle of Harris Gin into 23 international markets. For some of the most significant markets, Erlanger says, the distillery benefited from the assistance of DIT.

“In North America DIT was particularly helpful," hy sê. “They organised press events to promote us. They’ve been very good at championing us and have stayed in close contact. They can also advise on issues like paperwork.” Getting things right in that part of the world was crucial, says Erlanger. “The US is the world’s largest market for premium gin, and Canada is in the top five and growing fast.”

The brand’s sales have grown 40% in the last two years, and the Chinese market – “as yet under-developed [for gin], but growing quickly from a small base” – is next on the cards for the company.

“We absolutely don’t want to be in every supermarket,” says Erlanger. “But we wanted to capture something of this beautiful island in a bottle and send it out to the world.”

To find out more about getting started with exporting goods and services, and what resources are available for your business, besoek great.gov.uk

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