It was set up as a 10-barrel microbrewery in Wiltshire in 2004, with a range of ales inspired by the life and works of legendary 19th century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who built the Great Western Railway.
Box Steam moved to larger new premises in December 2011 as demand surged, and it picked up listings in Tesco around a year ago.
But general manager Niall Thomas told OLN: “We weren’t getting the sales we needed."
The brewery decided to overhaul its packaging, and is now reaping the rewards.
Thomas said: “Bottles for us were seen as a way of providing cask ales to upmarket off-licences and restaurants.
“Our imagery was very much designer-led, based around our heritage, linked to Brunel. But they weren’t very distinctive. They looked great at the back of a nice restaurant but they didn’t fight against the crowd in off-licences and supermarkets.
“So we re-released the bottles with clear, coded labels and much better signposts.”
Box Steam scooped third prize in OLN’s International Beer Challenge Design and Packaging Awards 2013 and the new bottles led to a surge in sales.
“Since we moved to the new labels we have increased sales at Tesco by 100% in the past two months,” Thomas said.
The brewery turned over £750,000 last year and Thomas said that this year it will be £1.5 million.
The off-trade represents around 30% of its business, but it is planning a major push into this channel as it seeks to expand out of its south west heartland and become a national brand.
“We were originally listed at 34 Tesco stores in the south west,” said Thomas. “We are in 70 at the moment and we are going in Tesco Express stores, so that’s another 100. We are pushing towards the outskirts of London now and hoping for a full national listing from them soon.”
The brewery also has listings at Majestic, Wine Rack and various independents, and is stepping up its push into wholesale.
“I think our brand has national appeal,” said Thomas. “We went national with Carlsberg and Punch in the on-trade and figures show we are their fastest growing producer, and we are permanently listed from Inverness to the Kent coast, across to Wales. Having that presence in pubs is great for the off-trade as there’s that familiarity – it’s not a new brand coming in.”
But rapid expansion poses problems to any brewery.
Under progressive beer duty, Box Steam and hundreds of others across the UK pay less tax than the big brewers – but that benefit disappears when they start producing more than 5,000 hl annually.
“Progressive beer duty has been great for small breweries,” said Thomas. “Looking at the new breweries that have come on to the market, from a consumer perspective it’s fantastic, and great for competition.
“But the impact of crossing that 5,000 hl line is quite significant for us and a fundamental issue in the business plan.
“We don’t want to creep across it. You then have a lot more cost but not the sales. We are gearing up our market penetration so that as we cross that barrier we have the volume coming in to give us the scale to counterbalance the cost.”
At its new site Box Steam can now produce 600 casks a day, equivalent to 78,000 bottles, so Thomas believes it has the capacity for national off-trade listings.
He has to weigh up the benefits of moving into the off-trade while appeasing the loyal on-trade following the brewery enjoys.
“I have to balance growth against our ability to do cask ale as well,” he said. “We have been pushing hard into the off-trade. We are pushing hard with wholesalers. The key for me now is looking at the margin returns.”
But he added: “Undoubtedly the off-trade is a major area of focus for us.”
Another difficulty thrown up is the challenge to a brewer’s craft credentials that inevitably arises when it hits the mass market and becomes a bigger player in the category.
But Thomas said: “We consider ourselves a craft brewer. Craft ales and premium ales are appealing to a much wider market share than they did before. That’s largely down to the support of Camra and Siba but also the perception that these are natural products, locally sourced – they tick boxes in terms of what people are looking for.
“I would maintain that we are still a craft brewery. We are just looking at increasing our range of seasonal ales. We will have the flagship brands – Tunnel Vision, Piston Broke, Chuffin Ale and so on – but we also have seasonal ales and they are key to us, to keep producing innovative and interesting products every six weeks in an 80-barrel run.
“There are Christmas ales at the moment, then there will be a honeyed ale after Christmas, we just had a wheat beer out, we will have one for the start of the rugby season. They go out in limited bottle runs.”
Either way, retailers are likely to see more Box Steam beers at more cash and carries across the nation in the coming months and years.
When asked why retailers should consider taking them on, Thomas said: “I would say stock our beer because it’s a damn good product – the beers are very good and they tend to breed a loyalty. People return to them. They now have excellent shelf standout – they are very well signposted. The majority of our beers are now award winning, and they are great value for money.”