When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Estelle Theobalds, co-founder of the South London-based Canopy Beer Company, couldn’t see how her business would survive.
“Seventy percent of our beer goes into keg, the majority of which goes either to our taproom or out to pubs. We really thought that we might have to shut down,” she tells me on the phone, nine weeks into a nationwide UK lockdown that includes the closure of all pubs, bars, and restaurants, with the exception of those offering take-out.
Then something remarkable happened: “It was like someone turned a tap on and our customers quite happily went from coming to a taproom to buying online.”
When Theobalds, who looks after the branding and HR side of the business, and her husband Matthew, who’s in charge of production, realized that Canopy was going to get through the crisis intact, they got to thinking about what they could do to lighten other peoples’ load. As the media reported hospitals struggling to deal with the influx of COVID-19 patients, the Theobalds’ thoughts turned to the National Health Service (NHS) workers on the frontline.
“We really wanted to give directly into the hands of people who are doing something very selfless. It's part of their job that they put themselves in danger,” she recalls thinking. One of the regulars at their taproom is an ICU nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital, a short drive away in central London. “I got in touch and said, ‘Do you think your team would want some beer?’”
They didn’t have much to spare but managed to deliver 15 cases to the hospital. Since giving online customers the option to add an “NHS beer” to their order at cost price, Canopy has been able to deliver free beer to other hospitals in London and around the UK too. Theobalds hasn’t kept close track of the numbers—“we were kind of just doing it to make them happy rather than to talk about it”—but estimates that so far they’ve donated around 2,500 beers to hardworking healthcare professionals.
“In a way it's a really small amount but it's 2,500 people who have actually had a beer in their hand. So I guess that's all right.”
The impulse behind this act of generosity is very much in keeping with the principles that informed the setting up of the brewery in the first place.
“When we set up in 2014 there was no breweries within Herne Hill, in our part of South London,” Theobalds recalls. Craft brewing in the capital was heavily focused on the Bermondsey Beer Mile, a central London stretch of over a dozen taprooms and bottle shops. The Theobalds—self-described “naïve, enthusiastic home brewers” at that stage—saw that there was an appetite among consumers for a more local offering. The Canopy Beer Company was their response.
Occupying first one and now two railway arches beside a beautiful park in one of London’s most diverse boroughs, Canopy today employs seven full-time and two part-time staff. The brewery produces around 6,000 liters of beer a week across its four core brews and a changing range of specials. When asked to describe her beer, Theobalds hesitates.
“We're quite straightforward people, and I'm not saying all of our beers are straightforward, but…they are. For us, the experience of drinking beer is not necessarily overanalyzing the nuances of it. It's about the people that you're with and the experience that you're having.”
It’s not surprising to learn, therefore, that the brewery’s taproom has been a key part of the mix since the very start. “We wanted people to be able to come for the brewery and meet us and know us,” Theobalds explains. “I’ve always had a vision that our beers, branding, and taprooms should be inclusive and welcoming, whatever your gender, age, or circumstance.”
That welcoming attitude has certainly paid off when it comes to customer loyalty. With no drop in demand since the pandemic began, Theobalds and her team have been working flat out to ramp up the canning side of the business, which now accounts for 98 percent of volume (up from 30 percent). The remaining 2 percent goes into keg for the benefit of take-out customers at their taproom and nearby bottle shop, The Sympathetic Ear.
Deliveries, meanwhile, have increased from 60 drops a week before COVID-19 to 60 drops a day, with Theobalds and her husband doing the majority themselves in the brewery’s van and their family car. “It was a logistical nightmare but one that we're very grateful for,” she says. The response from customers, particularly those isolating by themselves, has been a great motivation.
“People were just so pleased to get their beer deliveries. I guess it was a tiny little bit of human interaction. People would be tweeting pictures of our van driving down their street.”
Taking on a couple of freelance delivery drivers has made things easier, though Theobalds is still missing having her business partner around. With three children at home (schools and day care facilities have been closed in the UK since the middle of March), the couple are having to tag team work and childcare. “We don't have each other to bounce things off in the same way,” she explains. “But actually, we're sort of getting into the swing of it now, I guess just in time for it all to change again.”
There’s still no timetable for when pubs will be allowed to reopen but whenever that happens, the Canopy taproom will remain take-out only for the foreseeable future.
“We're trying to keep our brewing team isolated and safe,” says Theobalds. “The brewery and the taproom, because they're so intertwined, I just don't know that we could safely implement social distancing.”
Readjusting their processes when pubs do reopen will be a challenge but one to which Theobalds is quietly confident she and the team will be able to rise. “I don't suppose the pubs will all open all at once, so hopefully we can work up to it,” she says.
In the meantime, Theobalds is pleased at what they’ve been able to achieve.
“That feeling when you crack the can and it's like the sound is the sound of the release of your pressures from the day. We felt that we've been able to put that in someone's hands.”