In 1996 John Murphy set up one of the earliest craft breweries in Britain and in doing so anticipated the backlash against bland lager. This award-winning brand of beers and ales, St Peter’s is now known and well liked internationally.
Today a large proportion of production is exported to 50 countries with particularly strong sales in the US, Canada, Russia and Mexico.
In the early 1990’s, when John sold his branding consultancy to advertising giant Omnicom, a mix of motives drove his brewing ambitions. The main one was an almost complete absence of international beer brands associated with Britain. Only 2 percent of Britain’s beer production was exported. He was confident his brand building skills and experience would serve him well in this product sector.
Further, he imagined that learning how to make beer and ale would be interesting and fun and he also wanted to spend more time in East Anglia – where he had identified the perfect setting for his brewery. He had no problem in spending the Interbrand proceeds. Beautiful historical buildings were high on his list.
But, at some future point, he had his eye on making a future capital gain. John wanted to create a profitable, quality brand and take it globally but eventually he wanted to sell to a bigger company with the resources to expand.
As usual, when John had a plan, no time was wasted.
His new brewery was to be located in a beautiful moated 13th century manor house in Suffolk, St Peter’s Hall, which also had extensive farm buildings. He snapped it up.
This rural location close to the fields where the barley was grown and with its own deep well, projected the traditional image he was after – an industrial estate might be more practical but would never do.
Next he acquired two historical pubs in North Suffolk and a country house hotel. John refurbished them with fine antiques and thus had a few controlled outlets which could in due course be sold on.
He also bought the lease on a London pub, today the well known Jerusalem Tavern, found a competent MD and a head brewer and put in application to install a brewery in the farm buildings.
The first draught beer was brewed at the St Peters site about 12 months later and he discovered the branding was the most painless part. Brewing beer, was, for him at least, more challenging.
When the name St Peter’s was searched in the trademarks register for the main export countries it was available. On a day trip Interbrand’s graphic designers spotted in the nearby ancient church early inscriptions with a “ligature”. This is a connecting stroke, between the capital S and the small t of “St” which he liked.
The symbol was adopted, a key and a raven was added – the bird being the emblem of the Vikings as the moat around St Peters had reportedly been built as a defence against these Scandinavian warriors. The key represented St Peter’s key to heaven.
John’s vision of full bodied beers and ales was not a new one – the brewing tradition one hundred and fifty years previously was to add fruits and honey to produce seasonal brews – so it was essentially a back to roots strategy. Today St Peters produces around 20 beers and different countries have their favourites, Finland particularly likes the honey porter and in the US gluten free beer flies off the shelves.
Central to his strategy was that John wanted his brand to be a “packaged” brand, not a draught beer brand. He felt that providing a packaged beer (i.e. in a bottle or can) with personality was more feasible than branding a draught beer. However, John did not want the same boring brown bottle everyone else used.
During a brainstorming session his eye fell on an 18th century quart-sized, oval antique bottle he had bought a few years earlier at the Olympia Antiques Fair in West London.
It was perfect for his purposes, although running an oval bottle on a high-speed bottling line was not easy and the exacting manufacturing standards required forced him to instal a special bottling line to facilitate expansion.
At the end of 1996 he showed his prototype branded product to a senior buyer at Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain. He was much impressed and agreed to stock three beers nationally from early 1997. So for the first two years almost the entire production of the brewery went to Tesco with no spare capacity for the export market.
Costs also had to be carefully monitored as every increase in turnover demanded reinvestment. It was always production issues and not marketing issues that confronted the new team. But the herculean efforts required were being recognised and St Peter’s soon attracted scores of rewards.
When he started out John had viewed his brewery as a hobby, a challenging one, but ultimately a vehicle to pursue his interests. But with so much expansion in the first few years he knew he needed to step back in. The typical beer brewing process relies on four ingredients – malt barley, hops, yeast and water – but it is complex and needs close attention.
Today, St Peters is a fine brewery, with strong domestic sales – mainly to the major supermarkets – exceptional export sales and is staffed by local people, most of whom have been there for many years.
It has won scores of awards and its non-alcoholic beer is widely considered the best in town. St Peter’s now presents the business with very major new prospects. John has always been ahead of trends with an almost uncanny ability to forecast shifts in consumer demand. St Peter’ brewery has been true to form.