In May 2005, Bob Worboys left London, with his French born wife, Carolyn and twin sons, to start a new life in the Pays Basque region of France. During the previous decade, they had spent numerous holidays and weekends property hunting in France and had looked at various regions before settling on the Pyrenees-Atlantiques department. Whilst they had decided on an area, they certainly had not got as far as choosing a property. However a change in circumstances, meant Bob decided the time was now right to make the move ‘back’ to France.
As a family they were probably better equipped than most to make the move. Bob explains “ I had always spoken French with Carolyn. We met on a language course and the boys were at a lycee in the UK, so the language issue was never a problem for us. Even so, we did leave behind our support network of friends and family and it was surprising just how much of a shock it was to move to somewhere so much smaller and quieter than London. We lived in Biarritz when we first arrived which is quite cosmopolitan but even so, I was stunned by how quiet it was. We moved inland a couple of years ago and I would say that we are still settling in.”
Having given up the career in the media industry and moved to France, Bob now needed to earn a living. Five months after their arrival the idea of running a brewery took hold. Bob embarked on a period of extensive research about the viability of running a brewery and the brewing process itself. Other brewers proved to be a good source of advice and distance learning provided factual knowledge. Bob reveals “ a brewery appealed as I have always really loved witnessing the transformation of raw materials. I enjoyed my career in TV but I felt that I really wanted to get back to basics and create something. I did consider ice-cream but I was already an avid home brewer so that seemed like the logical way to go. I spent a huge amount of time reading and much of the learning process was done on the fly. Once I bought the equipment, I started brewing and learnt from my mistakes. I threw away a fair amount to start with!”
Finding premises proved tricky and it was not until November 2006 that Bob finally signed the lease on the building in Hasparren that is now Bob’s Brewery. Raising finance was another part of the project that proved harder to do in France than the UK. Bob also found sourcing brewing machinery more difficult and eventually bought his equipment from Lancashire. Even so by March 2007 beer production had started and the first batch was on sale three months later. The fact that the beer is brewed using British equipment is perhaps no bad thing as Bob is very keen to stress that the beer is an English style ale. He feels that a lot of his success is attributable to this and explains “ I feel that the beer has managed to cross the cultural barriers. I have been very sensitive to the fact that it is English product and not tried to pass it off as a Basque or French artisanal made beer. I have made it clear when I sell to outlets that it is a locally produced product which always proves popular. I also made sure I took advice from local people about the image of the product and have included elements of Basque culture in the packaging.”
The marketing of Bob’s beer has been a phenomenal success, especially given that it has been achieved almost entirely by word of mouth. Having taken the decision at the outset, not to advertise, the breweries success has come about entirely as a result of people trying the beer. “People respected the fact that I wanted my beer to speak for itself and was not prepared to pay for advertising. I needed to get my beer out there and being drunk so it was a matter of finding outlets. And finding the right ones too, not just those that were after free beer! I had a small amount of local press coverage and I think the ‘exotic’ factor helped too; there are not a huge number of small scale breweries and even fewer run by Englishmen. I have made a huge effort to be really open, approachable and chatty and it has paid off. I am sure people thought I was mad at the outset, but now the young crowd in Hasparren will only buy Bob’s Beer for their parties” reveals Bob.
The packaging has helped too. Each of the beers has a different label and Bob uses a fantastic old French Citroen lorry for deliveries. The van has proved a huge asset and always draws the crowds. The van itself has an interesting history. “It was exported to the UK in the 1980’s and it was then re-exported to France by an Englishman who raced bikes. He was based in Beziers in the Languedoc but used to travel throughout France with the bikes in the back. My brother owns the same model over in the UK and he heard that this one was for sale so I rushed down to Beziers and bought it. The owner assured me that it was extremely reliable and I would have no trouble getting it back home. Twenty kilometres later, one of the fan blades damaged the radiator and there was water everywhere. When the recovery truck arrived, they asked me which breakers yard I wanted it to be taken to! It took months to repair but these vans are iconic in France. Virtually everyone has an uncle or father or grandfather who had one and I think it is a fantastic form of mobile advertising” says Bob.
I asked Bob about the ups and downs of running a brewery in France and how he felt the move to France had changed him. “The sheer amount of work involved has been one of the hardest things to deal with and if I had known what was involved, I might have hesitated. But I guess that is true for anyone starting a business. My premises had been a working garage until quite recently - the floors were inch deep in oil and I found myself working incredible hours to bring the place up to standard. Painting the walls by myself at 2 am was a particular low point. Working alone as a brewer can be really hard; it is soul destroying when things go wrong and other brewers often recommend working in a team. On the plus side the brewing fraternity is a close-knit community and I have had huge amounts of support. And one of the best feelings in the world is attending a party or event, seeing people drinking your beer and hearing them talking about how great it is. I am really pleased with how things have gone to date and my plan for the future is to keep it small. It would be tempting to start expanding too quickly but that would mean taking on more staff and investing further in the brewery. Given the current economic climate, I want to remain ‘nimble’, continue to sell my products locally and perhaps look into opening another artisanal manufacturing business in the area at a later date. I love what I am doing and where we live and I could never go back to living in a big city. When I consider the things I miss, or rather the things I think I miss and then compare that with the pace and quality of life we have here, there is really no comparison. We came here to change the way we lived and we have certainly managed to do that.
Bob’s top tips for running a French business:
It will be very hard to set things up unless you speak French - so learn!
Don’t underestimate the ‘Anglais’ appeal factor - your business may be taken more seriously as a result.
Locally produced products will often appeal to the local market - exploit that.
Make sure you have a huge margin of error where cash flow is concerned. This could be the difference between survival and failure.
Keep your costs down whenever possible.
Don’t buy equipment that you can manage without.
Find the right outlets for your products.
The beer is bottled on site and is additive free containing only malt, hops, yeast and water (in the form of eau de source).
The malt is sourced from Germany and the hops come from the UK, Germany, Slovenia, France, Poland and the Czech republic.
Etxeko Bob’s Beer Sarl
69 rue Francis Jammes
Words - Catharine Higginson
Photography - James Higginson