Green Element Weekly Podcast Interview with Brendan Thomson of Renegade & Longton

This week we have Brendan Thompson, co-founder of Renegade & Longton, the pioneers of elderflower sparkling wines. We talk about sustainable packaging and production of wine.

Highlights:

  • Plastic labels on wine bottles
  • How to reduce carbon footprint in the bottling wines
  • Challenges of recycling wine glass bottles
  • CO2 footprint on food labels
  • Brendan’s business superpower
  • Biggest struggle in running a sustainable and ethical business
  • Problem of getting a Vegan Society Stamp

https://renegadeandlongton.com/

00:01 Will: Brendan, thank you so much for joining the podcast. I’m really looking forward because I work with you in the entrepreneurial spark, I’m not allowed to call it that, RBS Accelerator and Programme and Cocoboln. You run a business, it’s not champagne, it sparkling wine.

00:23 Brendan: Don’t use champagne, we’ll get in trouble for that, champagne method.

00:26 Will: It tastes nicer than champagne, personally, I think. Renegade in long-term, tell us more about your business and yeah, tell us a bit more about it.

00:35 Brendan: So basically, I’m using traditional methods that have been around it for actually thousands of years before even sparkling wines were made, you just ferment any ingredient and that’s basically how you get alcohol. I’m using different ingredients in the champagne methods, it’s called traditional methods and at the moment I’m making two flavors got an elderflower and elderflower bourbon strawberry. Because we’re using the champagne method, we’ve got the same alcohol percentage at 12% AVV and I keep the sugar level quite similar to Brut Champagne as well.

The whole idea behind it is to use different ingredients and different flavors in an arts and crafts way, in a more traditional market. So, you already had gin doing that, you’ve had beers doing that, you’ve had vodkas, you’ve had all these other spirits doing it and there’re two markets in the alcohol section that have not got to that experimental stage yet because they’re more entrenched really. One is whiskey and then the other one is wine and I’m looking to do that, what happened to gin I want to do that in the wine market.

01:35 Will: Okay. You’re obviously on this podcast because its sustainability and because of the way that you run your business. Could you take us through how you run your business, where you started from and why you ended up running a business…?

01:57 Brendan: … In the way I’m running it. I guess it probably goes back to how I was brought up, it’s almost like second nature to make the decisions I’m making. So, just background, my mom is an artist, my dad is an architect, so slightly heavy background, my parents were living in and out of the sky. I’ve always had certain things in my house that seem normal to me that are actually just coming in now from an environmental perspective. Our house had been triple blazed since the early 1990s, properly insulated, limited electrical supply, we’ve had other forms of energy generation.

Whereas that’s just been the case because Mom and Dad have the architectural training, they’ve looked into all that makes economic sense, worst of all environmental sense. With the triple glazing for example, they just had that installed in the house because it was going to cost them less over 10, 15 years that did not happen yet, so that was the decision. So, applying that into the business role, it’s second nature for me to go, well, okay, it might not be intuitive initially to go for the environmental approach to things, but actually, in the long run, it’s probably always going to work out.

So, that’s where I’ve really gone with it and it’s behind a lot of my decisions on the packaging. So, one decision that we made, it wasn’t even thought about to be honest with you, we were looking for paper labels and then that decision would be made maybe 16 months ago. Maybe a bit longer than that and then suddenly it’s maybe about 12 months ago that the whole plastic in the sea, plastic waste, all that suddenly took off.

03:44 Will: So, most labels are plastic?

03:47 Brendan: Most labels have some sort of plastic in them. The reason behind that is if water in tracks with your label, so obviously paper-based label if it’s in an ice bucket for two hours it will start to disintegrate. In my mind, that’s actually acceptable by most consumers, most consumers are okay with that, especially now that they’re looking at the environmental impact of okay, well, we have a label that sits on the bottle perfectly but it’s going to destroy the environment, which would you rather? It’s those sorts of decisions that I’ve made and it’s transparent to be actually, it works in the longer run. So, if you can make the right decision early on from an environmental perspective it probably works out for the business as well, that’s tensing the whole thinking with everything.

04:39 Will: Okay. Can you get environmental bottles?

04:46 Brendan: So, part of our issue with our bottles, glass bottles essentially are reasonably environmentally friendly in terms of it’s just sand, you’re using natural material and you’re just reworking it.

05:02 Will: You can just recycle them, so that must be a good thing.

05:05 Brendan: Yes. The one thing I would really like to do that we can’t do because of the nature of making a sparkling wine is under quite a lot of pressure. So, our bottles have to be able to withstand 12 PSI, which means you can’t reuse a bottle once it’s been used because there’s a risk that there has been some sort of stress on the bottle, some impurity that which will then decrease the 12 PSI threshold. In theory, you go and check off and test and that’s actually a lot of extra input which makes it not environmentally friendly if you got to check everyone.

So, one company that used to, I don’t know why they stopped actually, what frustration that they had but bars used to do the glass bottles and they used to do the recycling scheme and that’s something I’d love to do. I just have to figure out a way that we can use our bottles in a different way, so I just pretty well would ask at the end of the podcast for ideas on what we can do to use our bottles in a more environmentally friendly way. So, ideas that we want to have is something to build building blocks, fill them with sand even if they go in as filled with air, it creates that air pocket in a building salute.

There’s definitely something we can do with them, I just haven’t come up with the right thing yet. Once I come up with that thing that makes that economic sense, we can then offer some sort of recycle policy on our bottles, which is something that most other people are not doing. Sparkling wine is probably not the most environmentally friendly market because you actually have to have this physical bottle for every 750 mils of liquid and glass bottle is a heavy thing and actually, a lot of resource goes into making it. Obvious, it’s better than it being a plastic bottle but actually, there’s the carbon footprint aspect of making glass, it has a natural impact.

Something we are looking at in the not-too-distant future once we have our own site, there’s a lot of consumer side things this part but it’s something that’s definitely going to happen at some point is wines out of kegs. It already exists, so it’s wine in a tap basically, the problem with it is the consumer sees it as being cheaper, that’s all through  the presentation but then if you look at the environmental aspect underneath it, a keg is about 80 liters, you get a 80 litre keg or a 40 litre keg. That’s one keg and that’s a much lower amount of materials used to support that amount of liquid, so it’s on the verge of being 40 times more efficient.

07:47 Will: What about those five litre kegs?

07:48 Brendan: You could even do it smaller but actually, the smaller you go here with the container the less environmentally friendly it is.

07:54 Will: I wonder, have you done or thought about doing where they cross over? What’s the point, is it only half a liter keg to a bottle?

08:08 Brendan: I haven’t looked into that, into enough detail yet. I guess one aspect to look at would be, you’ve got Jeroboams, Methuselah’s, the larger bottles basically, which technically will be more environmentally friendly. But actually, the problem with those is once you open them you have to use it all because of the nature of sparkling wine, once it’s exposed to air it off sizes, etc. Whereas, with a keg, you can actually just serve a little bit, a little bit, a little bit. This is probably going to require a lot of consumer research as well as branding it in the right way. People have a thing in their head about you drink wine in a certain way and if it’s on tap it means it’s probably rubbish but actually, it has nothing to do with quality, it’s just perception.

09:02 Will: Well, you should just start doing it, your product will stand up for itself.

09:07 Brendan: There is an element of that, but people do look at the brand, the brand is important to people. This actually ties back to what saying the very start about you make the decision and actually the economics will back it up, so it’s environmentally friendly to sell it in a keg, it’s also much cheaper for us. A bottle costs us, it depends on what volume you’re ordering, it can be anywhere between fifty P and a pound for the bottle and that’s even if you’re a massive scale. So, even your bottles recycle that are making millions of bottles, their bottles are costing them around 50 P. Whereas a keg is going to be a couple of quid for the whole keg and that’s the supply.

So, I actually can see really quickly the economics make sense to put it in a keg, but it’s that brand message or requires someone to go, David Altenburg type of person. With the plastic waste, somebody went, “Oh, of course, straws, absolutely ridiculous things, why are we all using straws?” Suddenly all costs down. It’s getting that conversion to that point is the really difficult part and that’s what we haven’t quite got to that stage yet. I think our first stage is, get ourselves established, prove ourselves with our environmental credentials on certain levels.

I guess it’s always making small steps and always looking to improve so the keg aspect is our next level of improvement in our environmental aspect. At the same time, we’re still doing as much as we can with the labeling that we’re using, with the production process. It’s something that we’ve talked about before actually, is that I really want to know what our carbon footprint is for production. Obviously, small brands quite difficult to do it when you haven’t got the cash necessary to look into it. I’m pretty sure we will be better than traditional wines because we’re not using grapes because grape is quite a labor-intensive crop to produce.

Therefore, one of ours is elderflowers [11:04 unintelligible] and we’re looking at Victorian-style ingredients or things that are popular to the UK market should be fewer miles to travel for them. Also, you can still get them from, this is probably not the right message, but larger farms are technically more environmentally friendly because they’re more efficient in how they use their resources. So, we’re still able to apply those things to it, so our thinking is we should be a lot better than grapes because grapes require a lot of effort and a lot of maintenance. Again, we haven’t been able to put cash into proving that yet, so it’s a balance between them.

11:42 Will: I went for a meal in the Lake District this weekend at a restaurant that had CO2 attributed to every single menu item and I chose my meal in accordance with the CO2 and what I wanted. So, I didn’t go for the least CO2 but the thing I wanted initially, I looked at the CO2 and went, “I’m not doing that.”

12:09 Brendan: Was it a steak or something?

12:10 Will: It was actually lamb, if I remember which Laura found.

12:13 Brendan: [12:13 overlapping talk]

12:14 Will: Well, it must be because Laura found that rather weird being the Lake District and of course, I don’t eat meat that often. I actually don’t, obviously now saying it tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t, partly why I was going to eat out, but I wonder if we end up going down the route of looking at our products and going CO2.

12:44 Brendan: In an ideal world, yes. One of my main concerns would be where do you draw the line? It feels like it will be very open to manipulation for some people to be like this is incredibly our CO2 footprint, but they’ve just manipulated how they’re doing it. It’s obvious you need to set a sound of how it’s recorded, I’m just thinking off the top of my head. For example, with grape wine, they might argue, yes, our footprint is really low, all our grapes are handpicked by local people, we don’t have any machinery. Actually, that’s not really true because although there’re people picking it, they each have their individual carbon footprint that you should be adding into it. It’s that long chain and where you draw the line and it feels like there’ll be a lot of manipulation of it to some extent. Ideally, you could have some sort of…

13:45 Will: Template that’s put forward for everything done.

13:46 Brendan: This is the standard way of measuring. If you said maybe 15 years ago all the menus are going to have the calories on them and every restaurant is going to have three vegetarian options. I am vegetarian and I’ve been vegetarian since I was a kid and I remember going to restaurants and having like half an option because it was a couple of sides, okay, that’s what it is. Now I go in I’m like, oh, there’re three options and they are everywhere, so you never know how things can change very quickly.

Again, another aspect, I would say that probably requires people like yourself to really set those templates to make it as easy as possible for your smaller producers. I know for myself, cash is tight, and you do want to do all these things. For example, I do a lot of sampling, I would love to have non-plastic sampling things, but I’m not presented with any of those options that are even viable. So, let’s say the food use vessel that just leading up to Christmas, it was an indoor event, people should have just been given a tasting glass that was part of their ticket.

So, it could have been glass, or it could have been something else, but it should be their permanent thing and they should have had a couple of stands where they could go wash it if they wanted to wash it out. They can go and sample all the same things with that one glass as opposed to every stall there, so there’re 12 gins there, a couple of other wines and a couple of other people. I know for myself, I probably went through a thousand samples plus and that’s a thousand little plastic cups. Whereas let’s say, I think there were maybe four thousand people there, so you just give 4,000 people glass thing and that’s part of their event, that’s a lot less strain on the environment. Also helps all the exhibitory, so I don’t have to spend 25 quid on plastic sampling cups but also means I can be environmentally friendly, but there are no other options.

15:39 Will: They can brand those glasses as well.

15:41 Brendan: Exactly. Apparently, it happens in Europe for some type of food events, they’re given these things and that’s one thing that I was really enabling about it. They’re building themselves of these environmental things and then they don’t make it possible for these things. That’s a really simple one, that’s no hassle for them really, it’s still simple things that people don’t necessarily think about perhaps.

16:08 Will: What would you say your business superpower was?

16:12 Brendan: Persistence.

16:13 Will: Persistence? You’re going to have to tell us more.

16:20 Brendan: I guess this comes down to my sales aspect where I’ve done a lot of cold calls and a lot of calling to target some businesses that I wanted to get into. For anyone who has ever done it, it’s the worst experience because you actually phone someone up and they say no and knowing that they’re like a gatekeeper type person, they are the person there that says this person is not available. What you’ve had before you start calls, normally send a couple of emails because you might get a hold of the email address of the person you want to get in touch with. That person tends to get thousands of units, then they’re not really going to, there’s a chance they might respond, but it’s more of you have to send an email before you can make the call.

So, you then call the person up and the person says, well if they’ve not responded, they’re not interested, which is never true, it’s more if they’ve not responded it’s probably not read or such. So, then the next step is how do you get through that gatekeeper, it’s like persistence of finding different ways around them. So, one slight trick I might have done recently, I have a background in accounting and phone and ask for the finance department. They don’t know that they’re not allowed to transfer you to the next person, so I get transferred from the gatekeeper to the finance department and from finance department to the person I want to speak to.

As long as you’re honest about it and open about it people are normally okay. So, I was speaking to a distributor the other day and he said, “Yeah, you are really persistent”, I was like, “Well, how else was I going to get a hold of you?” He admitted, he went, “Yep, that’s fine, to be fair I would do the same.” So, as long as you’re not…

17:51 Will: An ass.

17:52 Brendan: An ass, yeah and you’re open with what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, most people are okay with that. Actually, if you say, if you’re not interested, let me know and I won’t contact you, that’s also fine because you’ve given them that option. That’s one of how I’m persistence, I’ve been told no a lot by different sales opportunities and actually, a few of them have ended up, I managed to get a couple of sales out of them, so that’s probably it.

18:19 Will: People buy off people, don’t they?

18:21 Brendan: Yeah.

18:26 Will: When it comes to running a sustainable and ethical business, what would you say your biggest struggle was so far?

18:31 Brendan: Cost. So, going back to those plastic sampling cups, I would love if there was an environmentally friendly option, there’s not really that matches them. There’s like a, it isn’t even comparable, but you’ve got plastic something cups, which work for sampling sparkling wine. Then there’s this like little paper things that you could in theory use, but actually, they just don’t work for sampling, they’re more for like sampling Porteage or something like that. Even then, for the same size, if you’re working with the same volume, you’re looking at three times the price. I’ve had a look for stuff, I’ve not been able to find anything yet, which is able to offer me the same sort of thing anywhere near the same place.

As I said if you’re going through a thousand sample cups, you’re tripling the price, that makes a big difference when you’re starting out. It’s those types of things that unfortunately, it probably has to come from government to fix it because the reason that I had to go for the plastic ones is just because the price is right for them. Whereas if you had, for example, a tax or anything that using oil to make plastic to make it the same place as everything else, then it doesn’t create that option. Then as the whole market then opposites price whereas, if you’re the one standing out saying I’m going to do this up your price, most people buy on price and so you’re going to lose out. It’s that balance of yes, you want to be the leader, but you can’t be the leader and have your price too far away from anything, your price needs to be close enough. I could be the most environmentally friendly product…

20:19 Will: But no one would ever buy it.

20:20 Brendan: But no one would ever buy it, exactly. I’d be more than impressed at 18 pounds a bottle in retail and if I wanted to be the most environmentally friendly, I’d have to go like 50, 60 pounds a bottle.

20:30 Will: With exactly the same product?

20:32 Brendan: Yeah. So, the underlying products are the same but just the credentials are excellent, but actually, some people will buy it but not enough to be really that brand that changes the environment.

20:47 Will: I remember working in the wine trade and finding out that Patrice is organic, and they’re not certified organic. They’ve never used pesticides, they’ve never used fertilizers, anything because they know that that gives them the best wine. I found that slightly bizarre that they have thought exactly and at that time, what is ecological, the Vino ecological I think it is, the standard that is in France is so expensive to get that they just went, I know we’re really expensive but you know what, it still cuts into our profits. What’s the point, we are the best wine, we don’t need to tell people that we’re environmental at the same time.

21:34 Brendan: Yeah, there’s another aspect of that that I looked at recently, was getting the vegan society stamp on the bottle. I can’t remember the exact number, it was a number that was like [21:45 unintelligible]. You’re then just a business in your right, you’re not helping people who are vegans, you’re just trying to make money. Sure, you want brands to sign up to your Be Vegan, and so what I when with, well I’ll just write it myself on the bottle because actually, it’s a labeling thing. As long as you can back up your claim that was fine. So, there’s like trading standards basically, if you put a claim on your bottle, you have to be able to back up.

So, you can write vegan on it without having the vegan society, it’s more just that stamp of approval to get people looking at it from an economic perspective on that. If they’re charging me a thousand pounds, I need to generate X number of sales to cover that cost just to make break even on that and that’s just never going to happen based on what they’re offering. The same applies in the example with the wine industry when they’ve said that they are using organic methods, but the verification process costs too much, it’s not going to get them enough extra sales to cover that cost. So, it is getting that balance between yes, you want to get your message across but actually you need to stay in business otherwise.

22:56 Will: So, what sort of glue do you use for the backing if you are a vegan?

23:03 Brendan: I can’t remember off the top of my head what it is.

23:06 Will: But you know that it is because I think a lot of glues do have animal stuff in.

23:10 Brendan: Yeah, they’ve got horses and stuff. I can’t remember off the top of my head what it is, but we use a very small label manufacturer within London somewhere. This might have been a mistake, but also it gives me flexibility, so they have not really done large production runs, they are actually a very sports kind, they make really nice small runs of things. So, we made 10,000 of each which is their largest ever production run for labeling. So, they’ve got like this is where we’re in, they’re quite high-end manufacturers that go over really good products, really nice things. So, we’ve got embossing on our label, gold foiling, and all that stuff, but it’s also paper and yes, they’ve come up with the clue for us.

23:58 Will: Brilliant. So, can you tell us a bit about how, I mean you’ve talked about your environmental management, do you have a set approach? Do you go right, so this is what we’re going to do, and this is how we’re going to do it? Is it more because you grew up on Skype, because of your background, because it’s who you are?

24:20 Brendan: That’s it, it’s probably more an A.

24:21 Will: It’s more an A, okay.

24:24 Brendan: Instinctively, I’m like, well, that’s the right thing to do and it will make business sense in the long run. So, I’ve got a business partner and he just couldn’t get it initially why I was pushing these lines and then we got someone who bought off us because we had no plastic in the label. As soon as that happened, he went, “Oh, I understand it now” and now he’s more in charge of the operation side of things whereas I was more in charge of sales, marketing, and branding. So, it’s quite tricky that I was trying to push a light on him that he wasn’t really sure of but now he fully gets it and he’s actually in the process of doing a really detailed product audit of where everything comes from and where all our stuff is and how we make it up. Then creates a plan B option of, well, if this happens to this supplier, what are we going to do to [25:19 overlapping talk]?

25:19 Will: I guess risk analysis comes in. You’ll be able to do a carbon footprint on the back of that as well.

25:24 Brendan: Yeah, so that’s the idea. When you’re starting out it’s very difficult to have a full track of everything because you’re dealing with so many different suppliers. So, we’ve literally just done one production run because the way the wine works is you do a batch production and it’s not continuous. So, you don’t have those long-term supplier relationships and it’s trickier to get that balance of understanding where you both want and what you’re looking for. So, that’s why I’ve got Richard looking into detailing exactly where everything is, contact the other suppliers, make sure of what they provide and when they provide it. That also allows us to look at the carbon side of it as well.

26:07 Will: Okay. What’s the best way that we can connect with you and understand more about your business?

26:13 Brendan: So, I would love it if people have ideas for what we could do with our bottle, so any follow on social media, we’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I would like to say I update it more often than I do, but I’m not bigger than anything at the moment, but when I get messages I do respond, but it’s more I’m not good at posting at the moment. It’s something we’ll look into more coming to summer because that’s our main busy season. If people can send me any message of ideas, what they would want to use our bottles for.

We’ve also got corks and metal caps as well, those are the three main things that I would like to find some way to reuse. Corks are a great material and there’re lots of things you can do with it and I’ve opened like a thousand bottles of sparkling wine now, so I’ve got hundreds of corks just lying around. There needs to be something better I can use these for, so if you have ideas for anything, we can use the bottles or corks for, that would be great.

27:08 Will: Brilliant and all everything will be on the show notes on the bottom of it. Thank you so much for your time today Brendan, thank you.

27:15 Brendan: Perfect and good strap, cheers. 

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