Words by Lucy Studley
When one of Cornwall’s best-loved brands floundered under pandemic pressure, the community came to the rescue in spectacular fashion.
In 1997, Steve Skinner established a brewery by the waterside in Truro. He’d already been a successful publican and brewer on Jersey, but wanted to fulfil a dream of living in Cornwall and contributing to the amazing food and drink scene beginning to flourish here. Nearly 25 years later and Skinner’s is one of Cornwall’s most recognisable and iconic brands, with beers like Betty Stogs, Porthleven and Lushington’s flying the flag for Cornish beer way beyond the borders of the Duchy.
Lewis Gillingham at Cool Earth
However, the Covid-19 pandemic hit breweries up and down the land hard. For Skinner’s, it was a perfect storm which arrived just as the business was in a transitional phase and uniquely vulnerable. Steve, alongside his wife and business partner Elaine, were trying to bring the brewery back into their exclusive ownership after years of managing the needs and expectations of investors and stakeholders. In December 2020 they finally did so, but at huge personal cost.
“We threw everything at buying out all other investors,” explains Elaine. “It had long been our dream and we stuck to the plan despite the pandemic, because we believe in the culture and community around Skinner’s and that the best is yet to come. Now, as sole owners, we can move forward with greater agility and purpose than ever before. If we can survive all this and a global pandemic, then we can survive anything!”
With the pubs and hospitality sector closed or operating under restrictions for most of the past year, the brewery has been without about 70% of its income during this transitional time. “It was touch and go at the start of 2021,” says Steve, whose creativity and experienced palate is behind the design of Skinner’s characterful beers. “There were moments when I thought we wouldn’t make it through to May, which is when most pubs will reopen.”
However, Steve and Elaine decided to launch a Crowdfunder Campaign to ask Cornwall, and the wider community of Skinner’s enthusiasts, for help. “We thought long and hard about putting the campaign out there,” says Steve. “No one likes to admit that their business needs help to survive. But Skinner’s fans have always been very active and vocal; we thought if any brand has the community to do this successfully, then we have!”
Within four days Skinner’s smashed its Crowdfunding target of £100,000; at one point it was the most popular page on the Crowdfunder UK website, with more activity than both Sunderland Football Club, and rock star, Nick Cave. “Beer lovers and the wider public here in Cornwall and beyond supported and shared our campaign with a generosity beyond our wildest dreams,” says Steve. “It was like being given a warm hug by an old friend!”
Given the incredible levels of support, Steve, Elaine and their team were nudged to think bigger, and they decided to use the extra funds to kick-start a project which would take them from surviving to thriving. “Once we hit our first target, ‘the survival fund’, we were determined to use any extra cash to give back to the community which supported us so emphatically,” said Elaine. “So, we have brought forward our plans to create an outdoor dining and drinking space by the waterside here in Newham, where locals and visitors to the brewery can come and eat, drink, socialise and party on a regular basis. It will be a game-changer for the brewery, and for Truro. Alongside the reopening of The Old Ale House, our wonderful pub just a few streets away, this new project will be a big step towards putting some much-needed fun and social culture back into the city centre.”
If enough is raised, the new space could be up and running by spring. “We’re thinking pop-up food outlets, our freshest brews on tap, and regular live music events – all within striking distance of the city centre,” says Elaine, who has been the passionate driving force for post-pandemic recovery. “The plan will not only create a buzzing new social space in Truro – much needed we feel – but also create jobs and opportunities for others, including Cornwall’s amazing food businesses and the music performers who have struggled throughout the pandemic.”
A Skinner’s Brewery Bar has all the ingredients to become Cornwall’s post-pandemic destination of choice. Always found at the heart of the crowd – be it at the International Sea Shanty Festival, the Falmouth Oyster Festival or a myriad of other memorable celebrations over the years – Skinner’s are known for bringing the party! Alongside Betty Stogs – a larger-than-life character created when Steve first brewed his Cornish Bitter back in 1997 - this fun-loving, community-centric brewery has raised over £500,000 for local good causes by taking a leading role in charity events and fundraising. “Community is what we live for here at Skinner’s, and we can’t wait to get back into the thick of things again,” says Steve.
As well as the outdoor brewery bar and a relaunch of the Visitor’s Centre (where guests can enjoy tours, tastings and brew days) the team are planning a more agile, playful approach to brewing, with small-batch runs and seasonal specials joining the core range. Skinner’s fans can enrol in a Beer Club to get access to the freshest releases and priority booking for brewery events. “We’re not a microbrewery, nor are we a giant, so we can exist in that middle ground where we have nationally-recognised brands like Porthleven, whilst rolling out seasonal releases like our delicious milk stout, PennyComeQuick, or beers to celebrate special events like Splendid Tackle for the up-coming Lion’s Tour,” says Elaine.
Lewis Gillingham at Cool Earth
The brewery team is also looking forward to serving pubs, hotels and restaurants again, as the beleaguered hospitality industry gets up and running ahead of what should be a busy season. “One of the main messages we are putting out to our community now is to support local pubs as soon as possible; if your local is open please get down there and support them by buying a pint or two, or having a meal – even if that means wearing a few extra layers to sit in the beer garden,” says Steve. “It has been a horribly uncertain time for landlords and staff and they will be heartened to see the faces of locals and regulars. Just make sure you order a pint of Skinner’s!”
Recent events have shown that Skinner’s Brewery is woven into the fabric of Cornwall, and the incredible food and drink scene of the south west. When the survival flare went up, help arrived with the speed and determination of an RNLI rescue, accompanied by Trelawny’s Army blaring out ‘This is My Cornwall’ at full volume. “It has been really humbling to hear how much the public love the brand,” says Steve. “Lots of people have said that Cornwall just wouldn’t be the same without us! Luckily now we’ve avoided that scenario, and pints of Skinner’s will feature in that bright Cornish summer we’re all looking forward to.”