As the pandemic restrictions carried on to the end of 2020, Robert made another bold move, deciding to go back to his expansion plans and risk going ahead with them. ‘At the end of last year, I said that we could dig a trench and hide until this is all over, or we can start building again. The world will come back to life and we want to be ready. I would rather give it and go and fail than wait. What’s the point of surviving the downturn if we end up missing the upturn? That to me would be illogical and an even bigger business risk. Things will get better and we are going for it.’
As a former actuary who laughingly says he was rubbish at everything but maths, Robert’s career switch from assessing pension investments to brewery owner is relatively recent. Orbit Beers, based in Railway Arches, rented from The Arch Company in Walworth, London (225-228 Fielding Street, SE17 3HD) is a long way from his native Dundee. Having moved from Edinburgh to Camden in North London in 2006, Robert said it was then a further adventure to travel south of the river to base his brewery. He had never been involved with the ‘frustrating experience’ of commercial letting before so was getting desperate when an arch came up near Elephant and Castle.
‘I had rarely ventured south of the river – this was a new world to me. I knew nothing about the area but I wanted somewhere central and arches offer that option. It looked about the right size and shape and had plenty of yard space. I thought it looked pretty good and so I grabbed it. The arch had also been recently cleaned up and modernised. The price seemed like loads at the time, but looking back it wasn’t too bad. It was scary but shouldn’t have been. Committing to that lease was crossing the line, and owning a brewery became real the moment I signed it.’
Pensions to beer
Robert’s ownership of a brewery came from a promise to himself at the Millennium. ‘The bigger a role I had working in a large company, the less engaged I felt. I wrote a promise to myself that I would one day walk away to start a new life. It said “11/11/11 – don’t be here”. I beat that by a year, leaving the world of finance to travel the world for two years on 11/11/10.’
When he and his partner returned, he went travelling again in an old camper van called Brian, with a view to writing a book about touring the breweries of Scotland. What he learned about how beer is made, its history and traditions had him hooked. ‘Iain Banks had already written a book about his tour of distilleries in Raw Spirit, and there are no vineyards in Scotland, so that left the breweries – and they are everywhere, from the Highlands to the borders, and the islands to the cities. I knew nothing about beer when I started my journey, but after five months on the road, I had fallen in love with the brewery business and decided to start my own.’
Building a brand
Having accumulated the capital to start his own brewery, Robert had the money to invest in it, but still needed to find premises and come up with a plan. He completed a brewing course, met others in the business and once he found his Arch, hired a brewer. He says, ‘the brewer is as important as getting a good chef for a new restaurant.’ On the 1st of July 2014, they produced their first beer, a pale ale called Ivo. All Orbit beers are inspired by traditional European beer styles, their provenance and culture. The branding and beer names have a strong connection to music, especially vinyl records.
The name Orbit has nothing to do with Outer Space. Instead, it is deeply personal for Robert, a nod to his first attempts to say his own name when he was a child with a speech impediment that meant he couldn’t pronounce ‘R’ at all. ‘It goes back to my first nickname when I was a little boy. A friend asked my name and I said ‘Obbit’ because I couldn’t pronounce Robert. He heard ‘Orbit’ and that was it, I was Orbit at 4 years old. When I finished speech therapy, I never wanted to hear it again, but then I thought I needed to bring it back to life in a positive way and that’s how the brewery became Orbit Beers.’
Emergency brakes on expansion
Starting out In 2014, Orbit Beers had just one arch. By 2017 it added a neighbouring arch and by the end of 2019, they were at capacity. Mr Middleton says: ‘We were growing at 25% a year. Another business in the arches across the road sadly went under. It was a shame for them but we were able to take the opportunity to make plans to double in size and add a tap room. I had a business partner, money to invest in the next phase and was ready to sign the lease when on March 23 the world got closed down.’
As with most businesses that have survived since then, Orbit Beers had to adapt, and quickly. ‘I had seven employees, in addition to me, and we were suddenly without customers. We mostly sold kegs to pubs and with pubs closed, we had to find a way to sell directly to the public. One positive from this situation is that we now have a web shop, geared up for direct sales to retail customers. Revenues are just a fraction of what they were pre-Covid, but luckily for us it is enough to keep us going until the good times return.’
Apart from furloughing staff, Orbit Beers has had very little financial help to get through the restrictions. They have been paying all of their rent and rates in full, and then in September 2020 a planned 3-yearly review doubled the rent for their newer arch.
Planning for the future
Having stayed in business until now, and with Covid vaccinations being rolled out across the UK, Orbit Beers has reviewed its timescale for expansion. In two phases, it plans to open a brewery bar in one new arch in May, and if that goes well, a new brewery later in the year, doubling their capacity and footprint. Robert says: ‘I think this year is still going to be pretty tough. I don’t think we will get back to normality until next year. While it’s great to have a forward-looking ethos, you still have to have money coming into the bank. We did everything we could to stay afloat and we are still here, still with our whole team intact. Orbit means too much to us to let it fail and I won’t ever let that happen.’
225 & 228 Fielding St, Walworth, London
020 7703 9092