By Kristy Dorsey

A start-up behind a “healthier” lager alternative has seen sales more than double during the first six months of lockdown despite Covid restrictions that have gutted much of Scotland’s hospitality and craft brewing industries.

Jason Clarke and Charlie Craig, who launched Gen!us Brewing in 2018, said sales during the six months to the end of September rose to £41,000 as the company shifted all its focus to online outlets. That was up from £18,500 in the previous six months, when Gen!us was mainly reliant on off-trade sales through retailers such as shops and supermarkets.

The Glasgow-based company, which is in the midst of a second six-figure funding round, makes a light craft lager that is brewed under contract in Bedford by Marston’s. Pitched towards those favouring more responsible drinking, each 330ml can of Gen!us contains 79 calories and one unit of alcohol.

The company had to postpone plans to launch in draft this past summer, a move intended to expand its presence in the on-trade market. Though Gen!us has been available in smaller gastropubs, restaurants and hotels since its launch, the lack of a draft version limited the scope for sales into larger wet-driven venues.

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However, that turned out to favour the business, as its relatively small scale and lesser dependence on the hospitality sector shielded it from much of the fall-out from coronavirus restrictions. Many smaller craft brewers generate more than half their sales from local hotels, pubs and restaurants.

“In the last three to four months we have sold nothing to the on-trade – zero,” Mr Clarke said. With even those that are managing to trade struggling to turn a profit, brewers are faced with credit risk concerns over when and whether they will be paid.

“Do we want to be selling to the pub trade right now? That is the question we asked ourselves, and the answer was no,” Mr Clarke said.

But other potential outlets have also come under pressure, with the large brewers scrambling to make up for lost on-trade sales by buying up shelf space in the supermarkets, stocking their products high. This has squeezed out space for the smaller players.

Mr Clarke said that is exactly what happened to Gen!us early in the spring, when the company was on the cusp of listing in Scotland with Sainsbury’s before the deal was pulled at the last minute.

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“They were very upfront with us about what was going on,” he said. “The big players were pulling out their wallets, and the supermarkets responded by clearing out all of their shelves, so for us it really was all about online at that point.”

Previously the “runt of the litter” in terms of the Gen!us team’s focus and energy, direct to consumer sales via ecommerce has become vital to reaching customers. In addition to an existing partnership with Flavourly, the online craft beer firm based in Edinburgh, Gen!us went live on Amazon two weeks ago in a move that Mr Clarke said has been “going quite nicely” so far.

The company is also in the final stages of incorporating an ecommerce function onto its own website that will give it better visibility of buying trends among its customers. This will be supported by an email marketing campaign, plus promotion across social media platforms.

The company has raised about two-thirds of its current £450,000 funding round, which will be used to scale up operations and support the draft launch that is now scheduled to take place in May. The fundraising has been supported by a number of angel investors including Mark Hunter, the former chief executive of Molson Coors, and David Wither, founder of the Edinburgh-based Montpellier group of bar-restaurants.

Current circumstances make online sales a “matter of survival”, Mr Clarke said, and ecommerce will remain an important part of the mix beyond the pandemic. But with big ambitions for the brand, the founders of Gen!us say they are looking at the long-term future.

“We are not a hobby business,” Mr Clarke said. “We aren’t a couple of guys in a shed making beer simply because we love brewing.

“What we love is selling beer, and to do that we need to be across all channels.”