It’s been a scorching few weeks. With the sun beating down and thirst tickling across your tongue you might be tempted to reach for a can of Coke of a craft beer. Or you might be one of the growing numbers of people turning to so-called ‘adult soft drinks’ – alcohol free libations for those with a palate too discerning for Tango and Doctor Pepper.
As Brits moderate their drinking habits over health (and budgetary) reasons, drinks companies are keen to wean them onto interesting, flavoursome concoctions with bigger price tags than a can of fizzy pop. You’ve probably seen the bottles of Bottlegreen that grace most supermarkets’ shelves these days, and then there’s Diageo-backed Seedlip, which claims to produce the world’s first non-alcoholic spirits (at £27.99 per bottle!).
One of the market’s earliest movers was Fentimans, which can trace its origins back to 1905. ‘We used to make ginger beer in half gallon stone jars, which were known as botanically brewed beverages,’ says Eldon Robson (below), the company’s owner, whose mother was a Fentiman. ‘They had five factories in the north of England at one time, selling all of their stuff door-to-door off the backs of lorries in the mining and shipyard areas of the north-east.’
The original company folded in 1970, but Robson decided to revive it 20 years later, while running a pub. ‘Somebody said to me as a throwaway remark, "you ought to make your grandfather's ginger beer again - it was the best around." I found a piece of paper with a couple of old recipes on that was in the possession of an old uncle who used to work for the business many moons ago. Everything was in pounds and ounces; it had things on like burnt sugar, molasses, horehound, Irish moss and all of these wonderful herby things.’
With the help of some funding from the Coal Board and British Steel, Robson opened a factory in County Durham. The recipe needed a bit of an update to keep up with food regulations (today’s drinks are pasteurised instead of being ‘live’ like real ale) but Fentimans still uses elements of the original botanical brewing techniques, which Robson says give the drinks a better ‘mouthfeel’ and depth of flavour than other drinks.
‘When I first started off my products were perceived as being very expensive...there weren't many adult soft drinks around then and we battled our way through it,’ says Robson. But now the business is well placed to take advantage of the changing market. ‘People are a lot more particular about what they put in their mouths now. Discerning consumers don't mind paying a higher price for a decent quality soft drink, and I think a lot of smaller players have come up and raised the bar - compared to some of the big corporates.’
The company has come a long way – it now employs 56 people and turned over £24m last year. As well as ginger beer it does other fizzy drinks like ‘Curiosity Cola’ and dandelion and burdock, mixers and most recently launched a range of syrups for use in cocktails. It’s one year into a five-year plan to treble revenues to £70m+.
A good chunk of that growth will come from overseas sales. The company started exporting 10 years ago, initially in the US where it has a small franchise manufacturing drinks in Pennsylvania, and it now sells to 70 countries. ‘England has a reputation for very high quality adult soft drinks, we do over 200 trade shows per year to spread the word, we do a huge amount now through social media and that sort of thing, it just amazes me how word has got around.’ Brexit could prove to be a bit of a hiccough – Robson will consider manufacturing in Europe if tariffs are imposed. ‘I'd like to think that tariffs won't be imposed, I can't understand what benefit that's going to be to anybody.’
As with many similar brands these days, manufacturing is outsourced but Fentimans develops its products in-house to maintain control of the process. At the moment it’s working out how to reformulate its drinks to comply with the forthcoming sugar tax while preserving the flavour (Robson refuses to be drawn on whether the tax is a good idea).
The 66 year-old Robson has a less hands-on role than he used to – ‘I walk around and rally the troops, answer emails, telephone calls, that sort of thing’ – but says that’s a useful position to be in. ‘When you do step back and you're not involved on a day to day basis some things stand out very clearly that need to be done. Somebody said to me years ago that eventually you'll find yourself almost redundant in your own business. I'd never admit to that, I'm still a key figure directing it, but if I was involved on a day to day basis I wouldn’t see things as clearly as I do.’
Fentiman’s could probably attract a pretty tasty valuation if it was bought out, but Robson says he has no plans to sell up anytime soon. ‘I want to see the fruition of these plans we’ve put in place and want to see the figures go to greater success and greater growth,’ he says. ‘If somebody told me [we’d get to this stage] when we kicked the business off I would have told them to go away and jump in a river. It’s very satisfying but I want to see through this plan we have in place.’
Portrait: Craig Stennett