Any other business

How a beekeeping course helped Hiver Beers founder buzz to craft beer success

7 min read

30 November 2015

Many hard-working small business owners looking to relax this weekend might easily find themselves enjoying a beer in the process – and it’s increasingly likely that what they’ll be drinking will be a craft beer from a small brewery.

According to Euromonitor, sales of craft beer have grown by between 14 per cent and 17 per cent every year for the past five years.

A prime example of these new craft or micro-breweries is Hiver Beers. Founder Hannah Rhodes had worked for various major beer producers before she set up her own small brewery, driven by the fascination she has for the drink. Hiver’s beers contain honey to give them a distinctive taste – a blend which has a long tradition in Britain. Hiver blond beer, for instance, is made with a lager yeast for a crisp clean base and fans of the company include chef Tom Kerridge and Stuart Rose of Ocado – who made Hiver Britain’s Next Top Supplier.

“It was during Urban Food Fortnight in London that I first tasted London Honey, which is very light in colour and citrusy in aroma – so different to other honeys that I had tried,” said Rhodes. Shortly afterwards she signed up to an urban beekeeping course in Bermondsey and soon became hooked on beekeeping.

“After that a friend bought me a honey beer as a bit of a joke – the two things I was passionate about in one bottle – but it was terribly sweet and I started to research the origins of that beer style. The idea started to form that if you were to ferment it with honey rather than adding it for sweetening and flavouring, then you could create a really great beer that expressed this fantastic British product as well as being dry and refreshing.”

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Although it’s thriving, the craft beer market is competitive and it took six trial brews before Rhodes had something that she believed would stand a chance. “Hiver isn’t sweet but it’s not a bitter beer and we can talk to different audiences – craft beer lovers who are keen to try a different style, foodies who are interested in the honey angle and enjoy the food matching possibilities, and drinkers who aren’t a big fan of the hoppier styles,” she said. 

Initial funding came from her savings and she put the first production run on a couple of credit cards – something that she described as “terrifying.” She had been working for Frobishers Juices and they let her go part-time in the run up to the Hiver Beers launch. She also started working in a pub during the evenings so that she could give the business her full attention by day. Six months later, with listings at Selfridges among other outlets and sales of 30,000 beers to help impress investors, she had raised £100,000.

“It was an incredible experience and you really do need to shop around for the right investors,” she said. “Venture Capitalists wanted a massive amount of equity for very little cash because it was all based on turnover, which as a startup was minimal. Private individuals are much keener to get involved and value the business more on its potential opportunity. Obviously you still need a strong business plan and to be able to show them what exit you’re planning for them but as the business owner, that was the right option for me.”

Food festivals, markets and pop-up shops are a prime means of promoting the product, as are collaborations with other small businesses in sectors as varied as charcuterie to jewellery. Hiver has taken a major step forward thanks to an arrangement with a larger brewery, Hepworth & Co, based in Horsham.

“Hepworth are essentially the Hiver brewing team,” said Rhodes. “They brew the beer and also package it on their production line – as much as I can develop beers and enjoy jumping in a tank from time to time, their knowledge of the brewing equipment far exceeds mine and so we speak regularly about how the beer is developing in the tank and, of course, we liaise about the packaging and supplies coming in to make sure we’re on track. It’s a close working relationship and the honey brown ale, which launched earlier this year, was fully developed there. I love the development stage and I hope there’ll be more beers to come in the future.”

Cash flow at this early stage is still a challenge, although, true to its principles, Hiver donates ten per cent of its profits to pollinator charities. “Growth sucks in cash and there has been more than one occasion when I’ve not known if the business would survive another week,” said Rhodes.

That said she has ambitious plans. “I’d love to launch Hiver on draught next year and I’ve been having some exciting conversations with a couple of export markets,” she said. “I think Hiver has the opportunity to grow into a strong national craft beer brand both at home and abroad but the dream was really to start something that I was proud of, that gave back in some way.”