Things have moved fast for Tiny Rebel. Since the brewery was founded five and a half years ago, it has won Champion Beer of Britain, moved to a larger brewery and has an estate of three bars in south east Wales. Founders Bradley Cummings and Gazz Williams have had to learn fast, coming as they have done from engineering backgrounds. This expansion has been built around a lack of fear, according to Cummings.
“That’s the biggest advice we could give,” he says. “Go into the unknown; don’t be scared of it. Don’t fail, but don’t be scared to make a mistake.”
Construction to brewing to bars
Having planned on opening their first venue four years after founding the brewery, Cummings and Williams found the right site in Cardiff after one year, opposite the Millennium Stadium. They went for it. Perhaps Cardiff’s first fully independent city centre bar, it took six weeks to destroy and rebuild. A Newport venue soon followed, transformed from a concrete shell into a food-led venue. Two different bars in two different cities run by two guys with no prior experience of running bars.
“We’d never run a bar in our lives,” exclaims Cummings. “We’d never bought beer in bulk before. Running a bar is completely different to running a brewery and it took us a year to get that Cardiff bar where we wanted it to be in terms of operations. Now what we’re looking at as a whole is the customer service side.”
It didn’t take long for the brewery to exceed its limits. Brewing 750,000l a year was not enough to grow sales or expand the bar portfolio. So just before winning Champion Beer of Britain – the youngest brewery and the first from Wales to do so – Tiny Rebel started looking for another site for a brewery that would meet its needs for the next 10 to 20 years. Cummings looked to his hometown of Rogerstone, just outside Newport, and found an abandoned warehouse that had once made shopping trolleys. He and Williams stripped everything out and then designed, developed and constructed it from scratch. Two years after purchase, the new brewery and its adjoining Brewery Tap were open and operational.
“We’re engineers by trade,” says Cummings. “We know building. We know it’s not a quick process to get what you want. We did our first brew there on Friday 13 January 2017. That was phase one. Once we had production running, we started the second phase – our visitor centre with a bar, a restaurant, a shop and our offices.”
Rogerstone is the company’s biggest site – with a capacity of 420 – and, like the other two, has its own personality. Located in a residential area, it has a community hub feel, with families and football teams visiting. But it has also been conceived as an events space that can be stripped out and turned into a venue. In each site, Tiny Rebel has sought to try new things and push out of its comfort zones, which is Cummings’ advice for any budding new operators.
“Don’t be afraid to make a mistake,” advises Cummings. “We had no knowledge of the beer world or the bar world, so we’ve learned everything as we’ve gone. We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but we’ve made sure that we never made the same one again.”
The modern beer movement
Cummings shies away from the term ‘craft beer’ – he has never called Tiny Rebel a craft brewery – but he has been at the forefront of changing attitudes sweeping the nation. Beer is Tiny Rebel’s primary focus and even infuses itself into other aspects of the business. With the exception of Rogerstone, the venues have a 50/50 split on own beer versus others, showcasing and celebrating the category. The number of taps is impressive – 12 cask lines and 24 keg lines at the Brewery Tap; eight and 14 in Newport and Cardiff – with a focus on UK breweries.
“We like drinking other people’s beers, so we just buy in the beers that we like,” says Cummings. “We try to support the smaller Welsh brewers as much as we can because we used to be there – that used to be us. We focus on the UK more than abroad because there is so much good beer in the UK.”
The brewing revolution has brought beer to the front of the general consciousness and introduced people to all number of new and interesting beers. After years travelling miles to find something different, Cummings has welcomed the mainstreamisation of independent breweries. However, he stresses that the focus should always remain on quality over variety. He is always cautious about protecting Tiny Rebel’s reputation and ensures every beer he brings in is of the highest quality.
“The problem the industry has got is that with a big increase in brewers, there’s a lot more good beer, but there’s a lot more bad beer,” he says. “We’ll deal with brands and breweries that we know, and we won’t buy anything in now unless we’ve tried it first or it’s come from a recommendation that we can rely on. It’s a quality control thing.”
As well as caring about the beer coming into his venues, Cummings also cares about the attention that beer – particularly cask ale – requires in his cellars. Cellar training happens regularly – almost every week – at every venue, where team members are given an hour and a half of training, refreshing memories and educating about problem solving.
“If there is an issue, they should try and fix it themselves,” says Cummings. “As engineers, that’s our thought process: try to sort it yourself before you get on the phone to someone. It’s trying to understand the problem first and that’s what we do with our guys. That’s the best way to learn.”
As well as training staff how to care for the beer, Cummings also educates them about the product. When any new beer arrives, staff will be given a set of tasting notes and a bottle or a keg so that they can understand what they’re pouring before it’s even on the bar. Experts in each site will conduct taste sessions with staff and customers alike, while tap takeovers, meet the brewer events and beer festivals contribute to the wider aim of communication.
“It’s about communication between everyone, from there to there to there,” says Cummings. “If you have a break in that chain, then no one knows.”
The rebel culture
Recruitment is a significant issue within the on-trade, and for Tiny Rebel the challenge is not to find people with the requisite skillsets, but people who understand and buy into the Tiny Rebel culture. The company looks to hire people with the right attitude, moulding them into what it needs them to be and promoting from within. Both managers in Cardiff and Newport have made their way up through the company.
“We try to train and recruit from within to give everyone the skills that we want,” says Cummings. “It’s what we would want as an employee, so as an employer it’s what we try to give. When we recruit, part of it is bringing in someone who understands the culture of the company.”
And what is the Tiny Rebel culture?
“Work very fucking hard and play harder!” laughs Cummings. “Teamwork is a big thing. No matter what level you’re at, everyone does everything. There’s no job too big, no job too small. No one is above anything; it’s about the bigger picture.”
Regardless of their location, each Tiny Rebel site aims to become a community hub and to that end, they host events to draw customers in and make them feel like regulars. Quiz nights, Bring Your Own Vinyl nights and folk evenings reflect the musical city centre vibe of the Cardiff site and its workforce, while curry and IPA nights highlight the importance of food at Newport. As for Rogerstone, Craig Charles has already played there and the aim is to have headline DJs and bands every two months. Weddings, christenings and awards ceremonies have also been booked in.
“We’ve had Craig Charles, we’re looking at others, as well as hosting beer festivals – summer and winter – and bringing other breweries to us,” says Cummings. “At Rogerstone, we can have multiple breweries, which I think gives us something a bit different from just a one brewery tap takeover. I think that’s going to evolve a little bit.”
More than just beer
While the focus is understandably on beer, other drinks – like cider in Cardiff, prosecco in Rogerstone and coffee in Newport – maintain a more universal appeal for the bars. All serve food as well, built around a central theme but with additions specific to each venue. Last year, Tiny Rebel brought in a new head chef who changed the menus immediately. Where before the focus had been on ‘dirty’ pub food like burgers and pizzas, the mentality has been flipped on its head.
“He came in and changed the menu completely for the better in all our venues,” recalls Cummings. “The output of food has grown instantly – it’s a big positive. What we’re focusing on now is more back to basics – gastro pub food but with our own twist. We use beers in pretty much all of our dishes. It’s a bit more high end, but priced reasonably, and everything – and I mean everything – is homemade. Which is how we wanted it. We brew in-house, we package in-house, we want to do everything in-house. We’ve just roasted our own coffee, which we’re going to start selling.”
Tiny Rebel has always planned on having more bars. But with the brewery’s expansion, focus is now on consolidating, perfecting and their existing range of beers before looking elsewhere because ultimately the bars’ success hinges on that of the brewery. Not that they won’t be keeping their ears to the ground. The concept – with three differently sized venues in three differently sized towns and cities – clearly has scope for success.
“We could look at every area, it’s really about looking at a location within that area,” says Cummings. “It’s about not trying to force it. We grew the brewery organically and we want to bring that over to the bar side as well. We could just as easily go to Bristol and Swansea or London and Manchester. Maybe we’ll go outside of Wales for the next one.”
With all the uncertainty in the current climate, Cummings and Williams would rather not waste time trying to predict what might happen next. Instead it is all about constant self-appraisal, finding flaws to be ironed out, opportunities to be seized and improvements and innovations to be made, both in brewing and bartending.
“I think for any bar or pub, you need to stay fresh and stay on your toes,” concludes Cummings. “Keep evolving and don’t get set in your ways. We try not to focus on what’s going on around us too much. We focus just on us and what we want to do.”