James and Kat, of Artefact Brewing in Ixworth near Bury St Edmunds, talk about their multi-awarding winning beers and getting through Covid with a drive-through
Our look at Suffolk food producers and suppliers with interesting stories has reporter Kevin Hurst this time talking to Artefact Brewing.
“Just as we were bottling that very first brew the pubs were told to close. Overnight, the industry felt like it was all over.”
When husband and wife team, James Phillips and Kat Lawson-Phillips, from Artefact Brewing, were getting their first beer out of their Suffolk 40ft shipping container nano brewery and into pubs, the first lockdown struck.
But now the pair, with their multi award-winning range which was started from a passion grown from James’ home brewing, can look back at how they got through the tough times and look to the bright future ahead.
On how it all began, Kat said: “James started brewing on the kitchen stove in 2013, and we both started to get more and more into our beers, the different styles, observing the craft beer craze and thinking ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could have our own brewery’.
“Fortunately my family, the Lawsons, have a farm in Ixworth and being in this fortunate position with land there to use, we thought we should at least give it a try.”
In 2018, they thought more seriously about how they could make it work on a very, very small budget and decided that converting a shipping container was the cheapest way to test the waters and see if they could create a product that people wanted to buy and something that was more than just home brew.
After gaining planning permission, James, with his creative design engineering skills and a second-hand 250 litre brew kit from a microbrewery in Cambridge, set to work in evenings and weekends to get Artefact Brewing up and running, which he did in January 2020.
With all their ducks in a row, they produced their first batch of 3.2 per cent Dark Mild beer in February, with the aim of a March launch – but the pandemic put an end to that.
James said: “Some breweries were pouring beer down the drain and we had not even really got started. Luckily for us though, we were both still working full time and could hit pause on everything and ride it out.
“Once things 'returned to normal' we launched slowly that summer, getting bottles into Beautiful Beers in Bury St Edmunds, cask beer into a handful of local pubs and we were doing farmers’ markets and a pop-up shop at the farm once a month.”
But when the country went back into their homes again that winter, the pair came up with a great idea which would save the day – a monthly drive-through.
Kat said: “We just thought it was worth a go and after researching the rules around what was essential and what was not and also how to stay safe we started in November 2020, and up to April / May 2021 it was our main source of income.
“In a way, we met most of our regular customers through those and it enabled us to get our name out there in a way that we never would have been able to ordinarily.
“We were working in all weathers from a gazebo in a field - even doing one on New Year's Eve, as we figured everyone was definitely staying in.”
The plan worked, keeping the brewery afloat, and since the lockdowns ended the pair’s beers have gone from strength to strength –with Artefact Brewing having made around 40 since it started.
Six have also won regional and national Society for Independent Brewers Association awards, one has received a Great Taste accolade and the brewery was a finalist for Best New Start Up at this year’s Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk Business Awards.
St Edmundsbury Cathedral has also teamed up with the pair to launch a trio of beers for its shop and restaurant – The Dean’s Undoing which is an Extra Special Bitter, The Canon’s Comfort which is a Ruby Ale and The Vergers Reward, a Blonde Ale.
Fan of Artefact, the Dean of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, Very Revd Joe Hawes, said at the launch: “I first started buying beers from Artefact Brewing when they had a stall on the market place and very much like what they do.
“I have really enjoyed working with them on this and it is great to support a small but growing young local brewery with this type of partnership and I hope it continues to grow in the future.”
Taking a look back from where they have come from, Kat said it had been a whirlwind of challenges with lockdowns, the economy and the cost of living crisis.
She added: “It has felt like one step forward and two steps back a lot of the time and we never really knew if we are coming or going, but our amazing and loyal supporters with their great feedback make it all worthwhile.
“We still can't quite believe that we started selling beer in the rain during lockdown from a gazebo in a field, essentially, and now we are holding our own beer festival once a year, supplying various pubs and pulling pints at five to six big food and drink events a year from our portable bar.”
On what is next for Artefact, James said they have been thinking long and hard about that over the last 18 months.
He said: “With so many craft breweries closing at the moment, it makes taking that next big step even more scary as for so many, sadly, it does not work out.
“We really need to move out of the shipping container to produce bigger volumes we think and supply more pubs further afield as well as maybe opening a permanent brewery shop or tap room of our own.
“The next six months means we really need to work on our numbers, make some big decisions and be bold – hopefully 2024 might be our year.”
To find out more on Artefact Brewing, go to its website.
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