It’s All About The Beer @ Ignition Brewery

Podcast Episode 30. It is possible to create a viable business while employing people with additional needs and this week’s podcast guest proves that. Nick O’Shea is the founder of Ignition Brewery in London, a successful business employing people with additional needs. At Ignition Brewery it’s all about the beer because as Nick has found his customers don’t mind who’s making the beer as long as it tastes good!

Nick’s journey started whilst he was a regular volunteer at a UK charities event (Mencap’s Tuesday Club) – where people with additional needs meet to socialise. He noticed that most of the people he talked to there wanted 2 things a relationship and a job. Nick didn’t want to start a matchmaking service so he decided to find a way to employ people with additional needs. He looked for a business which was labour-intensive and had repetitive tasks which would suit the people he would eventually employ, but that would also lead to an economically viable business. Ignition Brewery was the result.

Nick explains it has not been without its challenges. It took six months to find a suitable place to brew. When they first started brewing they brewed about 20 batches of beer, some of it was good and some of it was bad! Currently they bottle around 1000 bottles a week. They plan to double that in the near future. They supply local pubs, restaurants and sell at local events as well.

One area Nick talked about was his suprise at the lack of support from other orgnisations involved in the care of people with addtional needs He believes there is more of a focus on providing palliative care and a lack of care based on developing people and allowing them to move on and achieve more with their life.

We also discuss the future plans which include a bar which will create more employment opportunities. As Nick points out technological advances, such as contactless payments, mean that more service jobs are now a reality for people with additional needs.

While Ignition might be based in London the model could be replicated, could be used in other communities and for other types of businesses. This is all about what people CAN do not whether they have additional needs or not.

Show Full Transcript
Podcast Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to episode 30 of the Journey Skills podcast. This episode focuses on the work part of independence. Obviously, I don’t need to remind anyone of the stats around the level of unemployment for young people with additional needs. It’s pretty rubbish and I don’t think it matters wherever you live in the world. It seems to be that employment rates are incredibly low.

So I’m talking to Nick O’Shea who’s founder of Ignition Brewery and he talks about how they started this business which is helping young people with additional needs, their plans for the future and how they plan to expand and how they plan to use technology and how it will help them diverse by the business and provide even more employment options.

So, this is a south London project. What’s great about it is it could be replicated and the ideas discussed could be used in other types of businesses. Importantly, it can be all done in an economically viable way. So, this is about a sustainable business providing long-term employment opportunities.

But actually, I think the main focus of what we talked about here is what work should really be for people with additional needs. There are some great organizations out there providing purpose but listening to Nick, make me start to wonder if purpose in fact the same things as work.

This project is really about running a sustainable business and the people here employed in the business might have additional needs but that seems to be less important than the quality of the product they produce and the fact is that people are buying beer and who makes the beer isn’t why they’re buying that beer.

I think quite worryingly in this experience are is that many of the government funded charities, though where the project have been less supportive of the project because they think it might be too risky for the people that they care for and actually I feel it’s way risky if my daughter were to do the same thing every day and never face being challenged or never fail. She needs to fail, to learn and she needs to try new things to finally find out what she’d like to do.

Nick suggests a real difference in the way the project is perceived by businesses as opposed to government and charity and social enterprises. The business is Look at the product not Who makes the product. And the government and charity groups seem to judge the project based on who’s making it. And it seems rather bizarre that his experiences are that some of these organizations is coming to contact with had much lower expectations of what kind of product that Ignition might produce.

It goes without saying that these government funded organizations, charities and social enterprises need to be driving the aspirations of young people with additional needs. Because it’s often these groups you’ll come into contact with our young people first when they start that search for work once they leave full-time education.

This podcast is all about aspirations and what the guys at Ignition Brewery are doing is proving that employing people with additional needs can be part of sustainable economically viable business.

DEBRA: This week, I’m talking to Nick from Ignition Brewery which is based in southeast London. Welcome, Nick.


DEBRA: Can you tell me a little bit about the brewery, how it got started, what you guys do?

NICK: I’m not an economist by profession. In my spare time every Tuesday, I go to the same Tuesday club which is a disco for people who have learning disabilities. About 300 people are members, about 250 a week. So, it’s busy. The big issue that you see in the last 20 years of volunteering is that people want a boyfriend or a girlfriend or they want a job. I’m not really apt with the dating aspect to it but I can help around the job. And so, we come in and encourage employers to take people on from our club. No, because the first question with everybody else was “Well how many people do you employ who’ve got learning disabilities?” And my answer was, “Zero”.

So if I was right, what we need to do is come up with something that is labor intensive, fairly repetitive because then once you train someone it’s easy enough to keep going and then you can make a good margin on, so that where the economic aspect comes comes in because we have to make enough money to be sustainable.

So, two options were beer or moisturizer and I decided that actually moisturizers are too complicated and so beer was gonna be the one. So, never brewed, didn’t drink much beer, don’t know any brewers. No idea. So, what I started doing was telling everyone that, that’s what we’re gonna do. So, I lifted to Tuesday Club, so I lifted 300 people and got 5 who said “Yep, I’ll come.” And what was interesting was they were all people who have some support from the council but they live independently with their parents, much more willing to take a risk and come and do some brewing than people in supported housing who’s the charity that look after them “No, no, that’s very risky, that’s very risky.”

So, we found the brewery who let us brew on their premise. That took about 6 months and we went and brewed some beer. And we did it about 20 times. And some of it was good, and some of it was bad. But eventually, what we brought out was actually it was a process that people could do. So therefore, knowing that they could actually do the brewing meant that we had the model in our hands that was gonna work.

So, one of them doing this was saying, “Okay, we’re brewing in the shed brewery, it’s a nightmare because the hygiene of a shared premises so let’s go and get our own premises.” And that’s why we’re here. So, you might hear the clinking of the bottles at the background at the moment. So, this is a former day center. We just took over a lease, we said, “Yes, we’ll pay you rent and hope for the best.” And we ripped out the ceiling, ripped out the floor, put in new drains and then luckily a pub chain called Brew Housing Kitchen who are lovely people said “We’d like to sell you our commercial kit which they did for £1 so we we’re given this amazing kit which enables us to produce a hundred bottles a day for £1, which is extraordinary, so every time someone wants to spend money on anything that costs more than £1 are reminders that actually we got our kit for that so it’s going to be less but anyway.

So, then we’ve been able to get brewers involved with us, we had 2 great brewers initially called Mikaela and Rory, now we brew with TASH and what they do is really is to facilitate all the aspects of the brewing process so that our guys can then do it. So, everyone does the first of the brewing, it’s the ingredients, it’s the mashing in, it’s the distillation, it’s the fermentation; they do everything. There are some bits which are more tricky but actually with supervision it’s all doable. And in bottling which is what’s going on now, it’s capping, the labeling, the cleaning, the filling, and the boxing. So, they do the whole thing from start to finish because we don’t outsource anything. It’s all done by our team. So that’s really what we’ve been doing.

So, from August to this year, we are a new business. We are not funded with loads of cash or anything like that but we have been lucky but we needed assistance standing starts in August. We’re now basically pumping up but it’s about a thousand box a week which was selling and our aim is to double that to two thousand a week and we are supplying pubs, restaurants, teleco centers and doing our own events as well. Which is then the final piece of the thing which is we want to get our own bar because at the moment we are a bit hidden in the back and what we want is to be upfront and saying “This is really amazing bar, you can come to it but it’s a bit of a twist”. Rather than, “Oh that’s cute, look what they’re doing”. The things is that we really want a really plush, nice bar, aspirational. And that’s what we’re planning to do next.

DEBRA: Have you had any problem or trouble selling the beer?

NICK: We’ve had no trouble selling the beer at all. We sell to trade and then we sell to these public events and all our money pays for the salaries of the guys and we pay a living wage to the team, our rent, and then for the brewer. And in terms of sales, there are three things: It’s the taste of the beer, that’s critical, if you make bad beer I’ll be out of business. We’ve had batches which had been difficult in our early days. ‘Been’ because we cannot afford to put anything out which is substandard. So that’s the first criteria.

Second criteria is it’s made in dilution, that is the second kind of seller. And then third is “Oh that’s interesting, you made your beer”. But in terms of actual sales, it’s the taste which is then led to local businesses are like “Give us your beer. Great!” The more commercial they are, the quicker it is because they just go “That tastes nice, that’s at the right price point and it looks good. We’ll have them.” Where we have struggles are other social enterprises and charities who do events or maybe run a bar, because they are just so reticence to try. I think that the beer is gonna be terrible. They literally agonize over coming to taste our beer.

So recently, I was at an event and it was half charitable sector, half hotels and it was hospitality kind of linking the two. So, they bought a beer for the event from us, so there were beers on every table. All the hoteliers straight in, desperate to try our setup really really unsure nuisance. And I just called them out and said, “You think it’s going to be terrible, don’t you?” And they were just “It’s bizarre.”

DEBRA: Why do you think they think it’s going to be terrible?

NICK: I think there’s an enormous lack of aspiration for people that receive care whether that’s because they got additional needs or they are older, or whatever. I think there is a real lack of aspiration and we provide palliative care when we should be providing care that develops people and enables them to move on and do stuff.

DEBRA: So when you say they think the beers are going to be horrible, do you think that’s because someone with additional needs has made them?

NICK: Yes, absolutely.

DEBRA: That sounds bizarre.

NICK: It is bizarre but I think the level of resistance that I face, certainly getting this brewery off the ground. Commercial breweries were like “Oh that sounds interesting. I see what you’re trying to do there. Let me know how it goes. Can I help?” Lots of other breweries have been really helpful but the chances have been very much “`Yeah, I think that could go badly wrong, that sounds really risky. So we’re not gonna ruin that” But when you’re up and running successful, “Can you get our guys jobs?” which has been a really strange thing so I think, you know, we’re just one team of people, but I think we have to do something about challenging aspirations because you can hear them buffing now, they are doing that under the supervision of TASH and they’re doing great. They don’t need 17 people watching them. And I think it’s showing that actually there’s capability there, it’s just a bit different from maybe what you might expected to be.

DEBRA: Have you still got the same 5 guys who volunteer?

NICK: Yes. Yeah.

DEBRA: Has anyone else asked to join?

NICK: Yes and No. So we have people who want to come and so we’re quite strict about joining because at the moment we’re just sustaining ourselves through sales and it’s tricky to take on any more. But this is now the reason form team to top room, we need to be able to expand the jobs we can offer. So a big issue for us is that we want to be seen as a new small business so we’re going through exactly the same issues as every small business goes through which is cash flow, not getting any debts (we don’t have any debts which is great), building up sales, building up our reputation, keeping customers happy, getting delivery thing sorts out. We are struggling in terms of we are in a new business and what is really easy for us to be seen as a some sort of craze eyed government employment project that doesn’t have to worry about sales or tax or anything and should just be able to provide 25 jobs. So it’s a really interesting conflict for us because we obviously want to offer jobs but we are contained by the fact that we are a small business. We give our profits away but we still need to make a profit.

DEBRA: So, when you talk about expanding, you talk about other job roles. How long do you think before you can expand?

NICK: We are in January 2018 and I want us to have this bar open for Christmas. And it just has to happen and it’s my thing for this year. And we’ve waited a long time to find any sites and the classic is that two sites come along at once so we’re just trying to sort that out but what that would enable us to do is we can, the big issue for our team so far has been about reading (if you can’t read), so we can get everything on iPads, we can make a picture, we can get tap machines (which means you can just put your debit card onto it so there’s no need to handle cash). So all these technological advancies mean that actually service jobs are something really open to this group because you can just go tap what you want, there’s your card, done. Therefore, I think what we can provide if we had our bars, there’s always something that has to be open for, I have 35 hours a week, and that’s a lot of hours to fill. We found a big thing that people want are part-time jobs, they don’t want to be here 5 days a week. So actually we could probably offer quite a few different jobs to a range of people and then help them to get into full work if they wanted. Or indeed, if we sell out the beer, offer full timer to ourselves.

DEBRA: Have you seen changes in regards to working?

NICK: I have and before I answer that question, I think the one that freaking things about selling beer and not having government funding, is that you don’t have to fill out on Alcoms tables and saying Describe how this person has develop? because I refuse to do that. But in terms of the actual thing we do care about which is their real lives yet we’ve seen real changes. The example I give you is say one of the team is very very very alert to noises, crashes and bangs. And if a bottle goes over and it breaks, that’s a huge, huge deal. It’s take a year but actually a bottle fell off when we were brewing last week; smashed, beer everywhere and everyone was calm and just went “Okay, that’s fine. No problem.” And that is a massive step forward because that would just not have happened a year ago but it was great! And there was no blame. That’s fine.

The interesting that’s happened is that the team themselves are not friends. So outside work, they don’t talk. What you’ve got is a really functioning team who are out for each other, look out, make sure they’re all okay. And I think that’s just really great model for work. You’re getting on people that you wouldn’t necessarily choose as your friends and doing it brilliantly.

Time-keeping has got a lot better and also just in terms of the numbers, it used to take us two and a half hours to bottle is now an hour and forty. Brewing used to take 3 days and bottles probably 12 hours but now we bottle and brew in one day. So in terms of just actual speed, it’s really good. And everyone’s here all the time. So from those perspectives, it’s been a really really good thing.

DEBRA: You think it’s something that could be easily replicated? I may now realize if you not given the equipment, it’s must be a massive purpose. But is there a model that you can see being replicated?
NICK: Yes. So what we’re doing is absolutely ordinary. It’s easy on an ordinary person, anyone can do this. And the model is you get your equipment. You don’t have to have what we have, there are cheaper models out there. But for bid of capital expenditure and someone with some brewing knowledge, and a bit of a risk assessment., you can total produce beer and sell it. I think the struggle I have faced has not been the process of doing that, it’s been holding, being the first person to do it. So that’s been the thing.

DEBRA: With the guys that you’ve got with, do you see them moving on to other jobs? Or do you want them to stay with you? Or do you see them moving on to something else?

NICK: I’m a helicopter buzz so I just want everyone with me at all times and I can see what they’re doing and make sure everyone’s happy. So, I’ve got to get over that and let them graduate. So, my hope is yes, we will have people who go. There’s certainly two of the team where you think: Yeah, c’mon you can go and do this. I think all I could really look back at this moment is like an amazing time, very fun of working together and doing really well and then when people leave, it will be hard. I think we’ve probably got at least one person who worked for us for a long time and that’s fine because that’s what happens with a lot of jobs. So, it’s a mixture. We base it around them, really. `

DEBRA: I’m just interested to know when all the skills that they learned from you, will they be able to translate into maybe another hospitality business or something similar?

NICK: Yes, they would absolutely be working on a brewery and didn’t know exactly what to do. My desk is just around, it’s providing the right environment for one or two who will not cope well with noisy environment or with people shouting. Someone shouts at them; our team doesn’t enjoy that. But breweries can be quite poisseux place is and it’s those kinds of things where we just have to nail those things before they would move on somewhere else. With the waiting and the bus stop though, that is something we could really do well because there are cafes everywhere. If we can get people trained that often, I think there’s a lot more scope there because that’s a bit easier to observe task and you can in doing great if there’s a problem.

DEBRA: Do you have much contact with the parents?

NICK: Yes, I tip my hats to those parents really because they have been risk-takers and they have said “Alright then, go on”. They’ve never gone to brewery but they’ve put a lot trust in me and said “Yes, alright, let’s give this a go”. And there are things when we’re doing events in the evening, I might not be dropping off somebody until half 12 at night and that’s a quite big ask for anyone so they’ve been amazing and really supportive.

DEBRA: As dangerously talk about risking, because I get the impression of the charity is a bit of risk, is it the safety risk of the charity sake?

NICK: I think it’s a safety risk and I think there’s also something about enterprise and charities that just doesn’t go together and you see it all the time where people do applications for a gardening project or whatever project, which is great, I love that. But there’s never a kind of element of “I’m gonna trying develop an enterprise. We’re gonna grow these plants and we’re gonna sell them.” And is that professionalization says ” We’re not just gonna grow our plants and sell it. We were gonna put it on a really nice pot and cellophane it. And stick a ribbon on it and sell it for £10 because that looks wicked.” And there is that lack of enterprise because I think a lot of people going for charity sake myself included. But probably what the charity needs is, to be able run businesses and know what to do so then they can say ” Actually, you can probably double your money on that.” I give boxes, three bottles (they just fly off the shelves instantly because they look amazing) and that £10, and off they go. And it’s that kind of things and I think that isn’t around in the charity sector very much.

DEBRA: Yes, because you mentioned before that you said the first thing was the beer, that’s the most important, and who makes it becomes less important. You think that’s the model forward maybe rather than thinking about whether a person has additional needs. It’s what they can do rather than what their needs are?

NICK: Absolutely. I didn’t know if the team would be able to brew because actually, I didn’t know what brewing was and that’s been a really good thing. By attacking something that’s completely unknown to me, we’ve had to work as a team and that has exposed everybody’s talents but I think the conversations we have are very different.

To the ones I would have a Tuesday Club search, using club here going “What can I do for you?”. And here it’s like they sing to me: Where the hops? Where’s the barley? Why you got that? I need this. And that’s just totally different conversation that I was unaware of having in this sector for awhile. And that’s the thing that’s really empowering about it. It doesn’t make a difference who makes your beer as long as it tastes nice.

Interestingly for us, the more we go on about the learning disabilities or additional needs, the less beer we sell. It’s really interesting. The more you bang about those grey courses, you can see them just going “Uhmm I just want a beer”. A beer is a split-second decision that you make. And I think about a beer person who enjoys all the time but actually generally so much is in a barn maker. And I think that’s was there for our kind of low cost on our compose as they just go “Okay. Does it look nice? Does it taste right? Fine, let’s just keep it going.” And that seems to me what keeping us in.

I think once we expand, then I think we’re probably ready. We’ve not done much publicity and stuff and so, I think we’re probably in a bit more of a situation to start challenging perceptions and saying “Okay, you know that this is one off. We’ve got lots of people that capable of doing this. We can do this, there’s no problem that we cannot recover from sort of get over. And it’s just a matter of working together we find that solution.”

DEBRA: Thank you, Nick so much for your time.
Key takeaways. Well it is possible to create a sustainable business while employing people with additional needs. And we all need to increase our aspirations and think about what’s possible. Projects like these remind us of what is possible.

Ignition Brewery

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