Strathearn Cider Company which produces the Scruffy Dog range is looking forward to the day it can make its own liquid.
A Perthshire cider producer forced to put expansion plans on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic is hoping for a bright future when trading can return to normal.
Currently outsourcing production, Strathearn Cider Company, which sells the Scruffy Dog brand (Ozzy, working cocker spaniel and family pet is the image behind it), had big plans to begin producing its own cider on-site last year.
But, in common with the majority of other businesses the length and breadth of the country, they put their ambitions on the back burner to focus on the here and now when Covid-19 struck.
George Blues had worked in the Scotch whisky industry for 14 years, but when the company made a move west, he decided to go it alone targeting a future in the craft cider market.
He said: “I used to work for Edrington in Perth who closed their offices at West Kinfauns and moved to Glasgow and the commute just wasn’t for me so I took redundancy.
“In discussions with my partner Carol (McLaren) we wondered if there was a wee gap in the market for another Scottish company doing cider. The only one we could really think of was Thistly Cross.
“We did a wee bit of research and discovered with the growth of companies like Magners that cider was very much an expanding category, it was on the coattails of the growing craft beer world.
“We started speaking to the Cider Makers’ Association down in Herefordshire and we went down and spent a long weekend there and before we knew where we were my redundancy time had come and we were on our way. It was about March 2017 that I left Edrington so the business is about four-years-old now.”
Visits down south put George, 55, in touch with cider makers and were key as he planned his business.
He added: “We did a couple of trips down to Herefordshire, with the first one being in October 2016 and the second in April 2017, and we spoke to a few cider makers down there, including one guy who is a bit of a legend in the cider world, a guy called Tom Oliver who has his own brand Oliver’s Cider.
“Nowadays he spends more time travelling the world lecturing on cider and conducting education programmes on it. So we spoke to him and he gave us a really good bit of advice.
“What he said was that in the south-west of England every year there are hundreds of companies set up from guys in their backroom to people putting serious kit together to make cider, but there are hundreds that go out of business because it is very competitive and they just run out of cash.
“We had a story in mind of what we wanted The Scruffy Dog to be and he said what I suggest you do is get your liquids contract made for you, get your brand built up and if it doesn’t work you move on and you haven’t shelled out thousands of pounds on equipment. If it does work you can take it from there. So that’s what we’ve done.
“We applied to Leader (part of the Scottish Rural Network) for funding and we got match funding and built our cider sheds next to our house out here in Perthshire.”
But, as has been the case for businesses of all shapes and sizes all over the country, the coronavirus pandemic meant all plans to invest had to be put on hold.
“After a couple of years of having the cider made for us, last year was going to be the big year of getting our own equipment, but Covid has come along and whipped the legs away from us, as it has done for everybody, so we have had to stall on that,” continued George.
“We are hoping to get our equipment in to make our own liquid this year, but again it’s all fingers crossed, wait and see and hope it goes the right way.”
However, during Covid, a mission to build The Scruffy Dog brand became even more important if the company was to survive and George has been busy finding people to stock it.
“In the meantime we are continuing to build our brand. We got a really big break at one of the first events we went to, Taste of Grampian,” he said.
“There was a guy who came along who worked in Oddbins in Aberdeen who said I would love to sell your cider in our shop as we don’t really have a lot of Scottish cider companies.
“That started the ball rolling of me talking to Oddbins and we got listed in all seven of the Oddbins stores in Scotland. That just gave me such a good kudos and such a good lift.
“Since then we have gone into the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, quite a lot of farm shops mainly in the surrounding area to us. Balgove Larder, Loch Leven’s Larder, Castleton Farm Shop – they all sell us, and we are in House of Bruar.
“It’s really all about building the brand name. About now our liquid would have been maturing but it just hasn’t happened because of Covid.”
While there is an enormous market for flavoured ciders, Strathearn Cider has stuck to the more traditional varieties for now – although they will look at expanding the offering in the future.
“We have held off on the flavoured ones, as we wanted to walk before we ran,” George revealed.
“There were some key milestones we wanted. First of all we wanted our cider to taste of apples, some ciders out there are very sweet – we didn’t want just another sweet cider.
“We basically have two variants, a traditional that is a medium dry and original which is a medium sweet and that is what we have gone with at the moment, basically just building our brand with what we’ve got.
“There’s lot of things you can do with it, you can leave it unfiltered or leave it uncarbonated, and we will look at the fruity ciders further down the line.”
With online sales being a key part of the business during the pandemic, offering delivery has also been positive with many people supporting local companies during the pandemic.
And George isn’t resting on his laurels as he continues to plan for the future.
“There are quite a lot of ideas,” he continued. “But getting into the on-trade has been very, very difficult. Speaking to wholesalers and distributors it’s a very challenging market.
“If there is one thing positive that can come out Covid is a lot of people are now into buying local. We applied to Perth Council and we got a licence to do deliveries last summer and we have now turned that into a permanent licence so we do deliveries in and around 20 miles of Perth.
“There is free delivery by the case and the feedback from that is that people like the fact we are local and we deliver, and hopefully we can build on that and use that model to try and break into more outlets.
“We are still speaking to wholesalers and outlets just now, but they are not looking at new listings at the moment because it is just a battle for survival.
“But our plan is to grow the brand and get into the central belt, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and try to build. The on-trade is proving very difficult.
“There are two main players in the on-trade in Scotland, Belhaven and Tennents, and it’s very difficult to break into that, but we will work away.
“Once they are back up and running we will be at events as the feedback you get when you are doing tastings is really positive and it gives you a good boost and we can then approach outlets and say that the cider will sell.”