A brewery in Southwark lost 90 per cent of its revenue after the pandemic hit last year.

But things are looking up for Orbit Beers, based in railway arches in Walworth, with plans for a new taproom as summer arrives and the country opens up.

Founder Robert Middleton told the local democracy service that he’d never been very interested in beer before a trip to his native Scotland after quitting his job in 2012.

News Shopper: Robert Middleton 

“I left work, a proper career if you like, and went travelling for two years – I wanted to do something completely and utterly different.

“A series of coincidences and meetings led me to take my old Dutch campervan up to Scotland on a trip, the main purpose of which was to enjoy a trip, do a bit of travelling, and write about my experiences.

“But just to make the journey interesting I thought I’d visit every brewery in Scotland.

“I did that and everything I had planned but accidentally fell in love with the whole brewing industry,” he said.

Robert came back, wrote a book, did some research, and set up his own brewery in 2014.

“We’re really small – that’s part of our ethos. We’re not about being big and making a ton of money. We’re more focused on the European styles of beer and their history, their providence and traditions,” Robert said.

The business was doing well until the pandemic hit, when it lost 90 per cent of revenues overnight.

“We currently operate out of two railway arches and we were about to take two more, buy a whole new brewing kit twice as big, and build a taproom.

“We were about to sign the lease when March came along and Boris said stop everything.

“At that point we were heavily selling kegs to pubs, and some bottles to restaurants and bottles shops.

“When all the restaurants and pubs closed we were just left with the bottle shop, which was about ten per cent of our revenue,” Robert said.

The Government’s furlough scheme helped the business stay afloat in the short term, while staff were paid 100 per cent of their wages.

The team also built a webshop capability to respond to the change in demand.

“There were some better months and some really bad months but we kept going.

“The brewing industry didn’t receive as much support as the hospitality industry that we serve, which is maybe understandable to an extent but it was quite a big gap.

“We had built up some reserves in our bank preparing for the expansion […] so that rainy day account helped us to get through the tougher times in the last year,” Robert said.

Despite the hospitality industry having business rates cancelled, Orbit Beers had to continue to pay in full and did not get a rent holiday.

In fact, the landlord “significantly increased” the rent on one of their properties.

The business was refused Government money at the start, but eventually got some from Southwark Council from a fund for businesses that didn’t qualify for grants.

In ways the business is stronger as a result of the pandemic– it has a webshop, improved its bottle distribution, and the team had time to make improvements to their processes.

But Robert said the hardest time over the last year was probably the winter months.

“Because it was bitterly cold, we were losing money hand over fist every month, and I couldn’t quite believe a year in we were still here.

“You begin to think, what if we get another variant, what if, what if, what if.

“You think we couldn’t do another winter of this, that would kill us off. Those were the thoughts in the darker days and long nights, waking up at 5am fretting,” he said.

There was also the loss of connection with team members, who are close and would normally see each other every day.

“There are only seven of us so we’re pretty close, people very rarely leave – we tend to keep people long term – and we get on well. We’re repairing that loss now.” Robert said.

As lockdown eases, Orbit Beers is going forward with its plans to open a taproom in late May or early June.

“We decided let’s put in the bar first because that can earn us money.

“If that goes well then let’s so the second phase, which is to invest in a whole new brewing kit.

“I can’t wait to have a pint of my own beer in the sunshine.”