The search for non-alcoholic beverages with the depth and flavour profile to rival our favourite tipples has been a key driver of the drinks industry in the last decade. While great progress has been made in the beer category, replacing other drinks such as sparkling wine and champagne has proven more challenging, particularly when it comes to pairing them successfully with food. But that’s started to change.
In 2016, David Begg founded the now Waddesdon-based business The Real Drinks Company, with a mission to create sophisticated and credible alternatives to wine based on the fermentation of the world’s finest loose-leaf teas. After experimenting with 150 varieties, he launched Royal Flush, a fruity and bubbly alternative to Champagne, and Dry Dragon, which works as a kind of Sauvignon Blanc with notes of grapefruit and lemon.
The beverages met with universal approval and within a few short years of launch were stocked by 60 Michelin-starred restaurants such as the Fat Duck and Le Gavroche. The big supermarkets were quick to take note and today you can find their Sparkling Tea range in stores such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s.
Such a rapid rise to acclaim and commercial success may sound like a breeze, but behind the scenes, like the proverbial graceful swan paddling furiously beneath the water, the business has made an art of making the challenging look effortless.
One critical component behind the company’s growth has been its involvement with the LEADER Programme, a publicly-funded initiative managed by Ngage Solutions which is designed to foster and support the rural economy.
“LEADER has been enormously beneficial to us,” says David Begg. “The scheme helps with investment in capital equipment, and that has given us the confidence to accelerate our growth plans.”
The Real Drinks Company and Ngage have worked together at two critical stages in the company’s development to help finance expansions in its manufacturing capacity. In 2018, LEADER supplied a £23,000 grant to help with early-stage scaling of liquid production through the purchase of six fermentation tanks at its original Wendover base.
This increased production capacity five-fold to 50,000 litres a month.
The project was initially forecast to generate two jobs, but ended up creating 16 new jobs.
With such a stunning outcome, and demand for the product continuing to rise, the groundwork had been set for further investment. But then came an unexpected blow.
The Covid lockdowns placed pressure on their core restaurant trade, encouraging the business to turn its attention to a larger and potentially more stable prize - supplying the big supermarkets.
But it’s easier said than done. Evolving from a small craft business to one with the scale to go after significant retail chains comes with challenges. Meeting the requirements of supermarkets like Sainsbury’s and Waitrose is not just a question of volume. It’s also about consistency, repeatability and the flexibility to meet changing orders in double quick time. That’s before you get to the additional accreditations needed for food safety.
Changes were afoot.
In 2021, conversations with LEADER were re-started. David was looking for a larger manufacturing facility to handle what could be a potential substantial rise in orders. He’d need more fermentation tanks, but the big win, if they could pull it off, would be to bring bottling in-house. At the time, they had subcontracted bottling to a third party which meant that their liquid had to be sent in tanks for carbonation, filling, capping and labelling.
“We had monthly bottling slots, but we had to book those two or three months in advance,” explained David. “It means you’re either slow to react to changing orders or you have to hold a large amount of stock which in the short term is dead money.” Excessive inventory can affect the quality of a perishable product, place pressure on storage space, and at a time of rising fuel costs, add unnecessary transportation costs which harm the bottom line.
David believed it was vital the company gained vertical control of their production process.
Supported by a grant of £157,000 from LEADER and an additional £1 million of private sector investment, The Real Drinks Company greenlit bottling as part of a 2022 move to the Waddesdon Estate – a decision which should increase profit margins by 10%.
The grant also supported the purchase of an additional five fermentation tanks and one steep tank used to extract flavour from the tea. The new facility offers plenty of room to grow, with production capacity now at an impressive 250,000 litres a month. This second grant will create 39 jobs over the next three years as the business gears up for exports to overseas markets.
With growing orders from top food retailers and glowing recommendations from the country’s top sommeliers, the prospects for The Real Drinks Company appear rosy.
The role that LEADER has played in the company’s growth is a testament to the power of targeted capital grant programmes to make a real impact on jobs and investment in the countryside.
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