By Stephen McIlkenny

Like many, Dougal Sharp had a host of plans for his business in 2020 – but while some companies were stopped in their tracks, the founder and master brewer of Innis & Gunn used the lockdown period to take stock and transform elements of his craft beer business.

With pubs closed as hospitality adjusted to the new normal, the pause in one element of the industry saw Innis & Gunn reflect on its future aims as a business and build for the future.

Such a move has seen the craft beer maker enjoy a surge in online sales, develop a sustainability charter and increase investment in the overall brand.

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Founder and master brewer Dougal Sharp explained: “I think we responded quickly and effectively because our life depended on it.

“We made sweeping changes, our on-trade business shut down overnight, but we adapted. We saw it as both a huge challenge but also a huge opportunity to develop our thinking around how we want to run the business, now and in the future.

“It allowed us to focus on what was really important, because in a crisis you’ve got to look at what’s keeping the ship sailing forward and we focused on all of these things.

“We looked very carefully at the outset and we developed a great deal of modelling to ensure we could come through the pandemic with sufficient cash reserves and that the business would be impacted as least as possible.

“We’re stepping up our investment in the brand, we’ve doubled our marketing budget this year, and we are really pushing ahead in the anticipation that this feels like the end of the pandemic in Britain.”

The 48-year-old explained that the firm’s cash reserves and planning allowed it to refocus Innis & Gunn and led to an increase in their brand building efforts. He said: “We continued to invest in our bars by improving all the back-of-house systems when they were closed, redeveloping some of the menus, the food offers, we did a lot of staff training to develop their capabilities.

“We didn’t lose people from our retail business, we have retained almost everybody right through the crisis. We also looked at things such as our brand and what sort of business we wanted to be emerging from Covid.”

On the reflection and investment in the business, Mr Sharp commented: “Honestly it’s like we’ve fitted a three-year development plan into six months. The business is unrecognisable today versus this time six months ago. It’s a totally different business, and we have invested in every area.

“We’ve invested record sums in marketing but it’s paid off. We’ve had a good 2020 and we’ve obviously crowned that with a deal with C&C, which is really about enabling future growth right across Scotland and now beginning to focus on how we develop the brand south, in England which is a key next market for us.

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“The one thing I thought the pandemic taught us is [to] focus on what’s important because everyone can get distracted with all sorts of different things, but if we look at what really drives our business it’s our core products in our core markets.”

As well as expanding the brand and increasing sales of their craft beer, Mr Sharp said the company was committed to the creation of a sustainability charter this year that would set and track environmental targets.

He said: “The ultimate is when we build our brewery, we will look to deploy the absolutely latest carbon reducing technologies. We were looking at this in the development of our brewery project.

“There are technologies that would allow extraordinary reductions in carbon output but they’re just not quite there yet. We’re going to launch a sustainability charter this year to track where we are, what our ambitions are and how we are doing against those ambitions year to year.

“That is something we plan to do later this year.”