Loose Cannon - a black sheep in the family
Loose Cannon is the successful small Oxfordshire brewery of Will Laithwaite. Name seem familiar? Of course it does! Will is the middle son of that wine buff-entrepreneur, Tony Laithwaite, who started a fashion of selling estate-bottled wines in the 1970s, flying winemaker production in the 1980s and plenty of other wine firsts besides. Why compete with a father like that, let alone two brothers and a sparkling-wine making mother too, when you can break out and do something completely different?
We must thank Will, too, for being the inspiration and practical help for us in setting up Brew Republic. Cheers, Will.
A break out into beer
So, after studying Ancient History at London university and being issued an ultimatum by his dad ( … find a job or else!), Will decided to head out into the world of beer. He approached Rebellion Brewery in Marlow, explaining his intention to open a brewery himself. They took that on board and, over the next three years, taught him from the bottom up, every step of production. There aren’t many industries that welcome in future competition and help train them, but brewers are a friendly bunch!
During that time, Will’s personal tastes were morphed from premium lager to real ale. They taught him the importance of quality customer service, consistency of product and selling at a sensible price. Even when Will decided it was time to go solo, the Rebellion team were generous in lending advice. And during the seven-month run-up to opening and just after, their head brewer Mark was often found there lending a hand.
A brewery is born
After three years of meticulous planning, with a few hiccups along the way, and the help of his old school mate, Caleb, Will built a brewery from scratch in Abingdon. He used his well-honed practical skills (he’d built himself a kit car at uni and says brewery equipment is “just like a giant mechano set”). The doors officially opened in July 2010.
Why Abingdon? In 2000, the town had lost its last brewery, Morland of Speckled Hen fame. The locals were sad to see it go … and all the more delighted to see a new one arrive. They were knocking on the door before Loose Cannon had even opened. And for Will? He was clear from the outset that he wanted a local clientele and they have rewarded him with loyalty.
He’s been clever along the way – before brewing got into full swing, Will put out two beer styles to gauge local opinion – same ABV and colour, but different bitterness levels and hoppiness. He trialled them in select venues and the one that sold out first became Abingdon Bridge. It remains Loose Cannon’s top-selling Bitter to this day and nearly half of all their production.
Initially Will was head brewer – head everything in fact – but then Chris Ward came knocking on the door. Chris was a Kiwi with a great deal of experience in brewing in New Zealand. He moved over to the UK with his wife in 2010, and was just what Will needed. Tidily, just as Chris was thinking of going back to New Zealand five years later, an English guy, Alex Scott, who’d spent a few years brewing with the Kiwis, returned to the UK looking for a job. Deal done, there were eight months cross over and hardly a tremor in production as Chris bid adieu and Alex took on the brewer’s mantle. Alex continues to head the brewing team today.
They have grown over the years from one employee, Will, to a team of 12, and over the last 8+ years, have brewed 68 different beers. Some are core, some seasonal and some are one-off. They supply cask ales to pubs in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire – that’s the more traditional side of the business. In 2015, ahead of the curve, they also moved into keg production. This is for their bigger, hoppier, more modern style of beers – their DIPAs, American IPAs and the like they also do so well. Then the shop is always busy, selling nearly a third of what they make. They are delighted to be the feature brewery for Brew Republic too – “Having a beer club like Brew Republic out there, championing our beers, is just great – it means Loose Cannon can reach the glasses of beer lovers even further afield,” said Will.
Keeping it local and engaged
All the while, the Loose Cannon team has excelled at promoting ‘audience participation’! You can become a member (currently standing at around 500), with all the benefits, including a free t-shirt and glass. There are monthly beer tours for 170 people, which are so popular they regularly sell out, and then there’s the brewery’s special beer challenge! Taste all 18 experimental new beers, released throughout the year, get your card stamped each time, and, if complete – bingo! You receive a free t-shirt, free beer, your name on the wall and a gratis bbq in summer to celebrate. All in the name of fun … and beer. It’s almost worth the expense of moving there!
Will’s mum, Barbara, has always been very community driven and it’s certainly rubbed off on her middle boy. Loose Cannon are proud to put on the Abingdon Beer Festival every December, as well as support other local festivals like BunkFest in Wallingford. They’re generous in their charity work too – supporting a local young people’s group, the rugby club (Will was a keen player at uni, gaining the nickname ‘Loose Cannon’!) and others besides.
A tap room
Their latest project involves taking on the building next door, which they’ll convert into a tap room in 2019. Not only will you be able to enjoy the freshest possible beers on site, as well as sample their new-release, experimental beers, it’ll also be an open space for live music and comedy. Lucky Abingdonians! Beyond that, they plan to use the space to expand their shop, to offer a broader range of products. Plus, when the time is right, they will have the capacity to bring the bottling or canning in-house.
Beer styles – traditional and the more weird and whacky
As you might have gathered, the majority of Loose Cannon beer drinkers enjoy it from cask (60% of production, with 30% keg and the rest bottles) at their local pub. These are the more traditional styles. But there’s also a playful side to Loose Cannon and Will feels strongly you need to keep both alive. Hence the 18 new releases each year mentioned in the Beer Challenge. These are made as a single trial batch and their popularity monitored. In the future, they’ll be able to get feedback direct from the tap room. Ideal. Doing these new beers every month is vital, Will says, to trial new methods, keep the team on their toes and make work even more engaging. Oh yes, and the locals love it, too.
A spell in the seat of government – the Stranger’s bar:
Loose Cannon’s Abingdon Bridge has even had a week’s spot in Parliament … the Stranger’s Bar, that is. There’s a tradition that every MP is allowed to nominate a brewery within their constituency to appear as a guest beer for a week. And it just so happened to be the week in 2014 that beer duty was dropped by a penny a pint. Great timing seems to run in the family!
With awards, both national and regional, a vibrant and expanding fan club and most importantly an ever-exciting, great-tasting range of beers, Loose Cannon has a bright future. We’re certain you’ll enjoy their beers as much as we do, judging how they went down at the Brew Republic stand at the recent Vintage Festival show.
We had the pleasure of asking Will a few questions - catch our interview here: