Even the most hardened City hack might consider turning down the offer of a drink at 11am. But for you, City A.M. readers, this reporter went the extra mile. The Bermondsey Beer Mile, that is.
I’m here to meet Hannah Rhodes, founder of Hiver beers. Following a decade in the drinks industry, including a spell at Meantime Brewery, she set up her firm selling honey-brewed beer three years ago. Today, Hiver sells to some of the biggest names on the high street, from Marks and Spencer, to Selfridges and Harvey Nichols.
Under the brick railway arches running from London Bridge sits Hiver’s newly refurbished taphouse, a space laden with honey bee iconography, reminiscent of Manchester streets.
There are no live insects buzzing around, but the cushions, walls, and even a pendant hanging from Rhodes’ neck have some relation to bees. The striped bugs are central to what Hiver does – but the honey is more than a gimmick.
“So many breweries do the same styles over and over – and they do a wonderful job with them. But this is an amazing beer style, it’s very underrepresented, and there’s a lovely history and tradition to it. From a brewing perspective, honey is an exciting raw ingredient to be playing with.”
While I sip on Hiver’s blond beer (very good), Rhodes is loquacious, explaining the tastes and flavours developed through its unique brewing process. Rather than adding the honey at the end of the process as a sweetener, it is added at the beginning, whereby it the sugar in the honey is converted into alcohol, giving it a depth of flavour with a dry finish.
Rhodes’ love for bees runs deeper than a penchant for honey, though. Her interest in sustainability and urban beekeeping is at the heart of everything the firm does. Even her biodegradable business card is laced with seeds, and she implores me to plant it. Hiver is expecting to be profitable this year, and when it is, 10 per cent of its profits will go to bee charities. But there’s more:
“All our raw honey is sourced from independent British beekeepers. We sponsor beehives as part of a community project, we organise planting days, working with local beekeeping associations. So yeah, quite a lot – but there’s certainly a lot more we can do.”
The UK has a real thirst for craft beer, and while its market share is relatively slim – around three or four per cent – the amount of new breweries popping up shows no sign of abating. It’s a global trend – from South Africa to Japan, consumers are moving away from mass-produced lagers to quality, locally made tipples. But what’s driving the trend?
“In London we don’t tend to see the very young or the very old, but through our trade customers we can see there’s an older ‘foodie’ audience who like it instead of a glass of wine.
“Then the young professionals, mid twenties upwards, interested in artisanal beers, and the stories – there’s the ‘aspirational starting a business’ side of it that crowd seem to latch onto. But then also the more traditional craft beer drinker. The brilliant thing is, because of that consumer demand, that’s really given me the opportunity to specialise in something.”
Much of the UK craft scene revolves around London – from half a dozen breweries a decade ago, the capital now boasts some 80, mostly tucked away in alleys and industrial estates, hidden among oily garages and miscellaneous wholesalers. I ask Rhodes if Bermondsey has a community feel?
“Oh my god definitely. I think the fact that everyone’s got taphouses, we all have to link together to get people down en masse. There is a bit of natural competition, but it’s an amazing community. Brewing especially is very friendly – you can always pick up the phone to another brewery and they will have time for you.”
Hiver is going gangbusters, producing between 10,000 to 15,000 litres per month. But maintaining growth without a cash injection is easier said than done. Earlier this year the firm started a Crowdcube campaign to raise £350,000, but cancelled it after smashing the halfway mark. Deciding to take a new approach is positive though, Rhodes says.
“If we’re being very honest, it was quite a different experience from what we were expecting. We were blown away by the response from the raise – it was very humbling that so many people wanted to be part of our journey. It was fantastic, and we’re so grateful, but we didn’t feel that we were reaching out to more serious investors through it.”
Rhodes says that they are working on honouring all of the pledges made, but that the decision to step back from the crowdfunding campaign was prompted by an “exciting conversation we’re having with a future partner”. The business’ focus going forward revolves around its ethos – it’s known for being an environmentally friendly, and while it has an array of distribution partners and international off-trade customers, its focus is domestic.
“I feel that now we’re in a place in the UK, we can really measure the impact that the brand is having. It doesn’t make sense to be shipping beer around the world, especially when 95 per cent of it is water. That seems quite unethical to me, I’d rather find a brewery in Australia that we can produce Hiver with, using all Australian ingredients.”
The firm’s expansion in such a short time frame is impressive. Rhodes says her success, which she attributes to her “amazing team”, hasn’t quite set in though.
“When you see somebody in a restaurant or a pub and they’re socialising with a Hiver in their hand, there’s something really special about that interaction. I just want to go over and give them a hug!”
Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M