Founder of a London Brewery on Beer and Babies

Estelle Theobalds left a career in events after the birth of her firstborn to launch Canopy Beer Co brewery with her husband, in south east London. The toddler’s now at nursery but the baby…? She has a cot in the brewery. 

Estelle Theobalds, 34, lives “in the wilds of Crystal Palace”, south London, with her husband Matthew and their children: Finlay, two, and Juniper, seven months. They set the brewery up when Finlay was five months old, started brewing when he was 10 months olds and then “just two optimistic months later,” Estelle was pregnant with Juniper. Their brewery Canopy Beer Co. is in nearby Herne Hill.

What time do you wake up in the morning?
I’d like to wake up at 8am, but usually it’s between 6-7am

What wakes you up?
The sunshine/ cats jumping on the bed/ toddler jumping on the bed/ smell of coffee.

How do you feel?
Either happy or stressed!

What’s your home like?
If you were being polite you might describe it as a ‘busy family home’; being realistic I have to say it’s chaos, with laundry and bikes and toys scattered around. It has a slight air of having been ransacked; but underneath the mess it’s light and bright and full of things that I love.

The brewery is my office. And so is my car…

And your ‘office’ – do you work from the brewery, and what’s the set up?
The great thing about running a business in 2016 is that your office can be anywhere. I can be at the park, in the living room – anywhere, and keep (almost) on top of things. My car is a second office; often if the kids are asleep you’ll find me parked up with my laptop out. And then we do have an office at the brewery, and I spend about three days a week there.

How long have you been brewing your own beer?
Matthew has been brewing beer at home since he was at school.

Canopy Beer Co Brewery sign

When did it turn from hobby to profession?
We set up the brewery in 2014. We had thought about it a few years previously but it wasn’t the right time for us as we both had jobs and bills to pay; but then with a young baby you’re forced to look at your work/life balance really closely and it’s a challenge to make things work.

I decided that working in events, with long and anti-social hours, wouldn’t be compatible with raising a family; so we decided that it was a good opportunity to see if we could make a brewery work. There is a lot of community support for hyper-local products in Herne Hill where we’re based, and that boosted our confidence. There’s an old saying that “beer is best drunk in the shadow of the brewery”, and with (at that time) a lack of micro-breweries in the area we felt confident that we would have a strong local customer base.

We decided to start small, to test the market, and our beer has proven to be so popular that we’ve expanded our capacity 10-fold in the 18 months we’ve been going, and we are still struggling to meet demand. It’s a great position to be in, we’re thrilled that so much of our beer is being enjoyed around London! We opened our tap room in June 2015 and that’s like a shop front for us – people can come and drink our beer in the brewery, right at source where it’s made. It’s a great way to maintain our links with the local community.

Estelle and Matthew - Canopy Beer Co. brewery - theearlyhour.com

The next step for us is that this week Matthew is coming to work for the brewery full time; we hope that this will help us to build and expand the business.

What training did you have to do before setting up?
There’s no essential training required. There’s a lot of learning along the way though, in both the brewing technicality and business side.

Brewing the beer

What’s the process: how do you make your beer?
There are just four main ingredients to beer – water, malted barley, hops and yeast. You extract the sugars from the malt by steeping (“mashing”) it in hot water, then you boil the resulting sugary water (“wort”) with hops, to add bitterness. Then you chill it quickly, add your yeast, and let it ferment, which usually takes a couple of weeks. Then you have beer! It’s essentially a simple process but there are lots of complexities beyond that.

How do you decide on different strengths/flavours?
Mainly we make beers that we like to drink. We pride ourselves on making great, no-nonsense beers and we try to avoid gimmicks. And then it’s partly market driven, based on what people ask us for; and partly supply-led, based on what ingredients we can get our hands on. We have a core range of beers and we supplement that with our experimentalist range of one-off and seasonal brews.

What’s most popular?
Brockwell IPA. It was our first beer and it’s by far the most popular. It’s a hoppy, juicy, smooth IPA with lovely citrusy hops – you just see people’s eyes light up as they taste it.

canopy beer co - brewing beer - independent brewery - theearlyhour.com

Where do you sell it?
Anywhere that wants to stock us! Independent bottle shops, restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs. We’re mainly south east London, but our reach is expanding and we have stockists in Leeds and Manchester.

Do you have help with either the practical or the admin side of the business?
Matthew is technical and practical, I’m everything else.

Have you come across many other women working in the industry?
There’s a few, yes, although there’s definitely more bearded men. Jaeger Wise is the Head Brewer at Wild Card Brewery in Walthamstow and she’s quite an inspiration for me, she’s got an engineering background so she’s a lot more focussed on the brewing side whereas I do a bit of everything – design, sales, marketing, ordering.

Running a business with young kids

How has it been, running a business with a young baby?
I have to preface this by saying that when I read about these power women like Marissa Mayer of Yahoo who announce their plans for two-week’s maternity leave I think that they sound absolutely barmy. That’s not how I see myself. But that being said, I worked up to my due date with Juno, which was a Friday, gave birth on the Saturday and then I was back in the brewery by Tuesday.

I can assure you I really didn’t want to be there and all I wanted was some time off to gaze at my beautiful newborn but at the time we had staff issues, production issues and it was critical for the business that I was there, otherwise there was a real threat that everything that we’d worked for could have failed. And I wasn’t prepared to let that happen – the brewery is like my third child. I’ve invested so much time and love and heartache for it and I feel like it’s got such great promise and potential that I am determined for it to be a success.

Estelle Theoblads - Canopy Beer Co. brewery with finlay and juniper - theearlyhour.com

Beyond the first couple of weeks, having a baby at work has been fine. Certainly she’s a dream compared to trying to work with a toddler around! We’ve put a cot in the brewery, and so I can get chunks of work done while she naps. Ok, sometimes it’s tricky, but you just get on with it. She’s getting to the age when it gets a bit more difficult because she gets bored of being in the same place and she wants attention, so the next few months before she goes to nursery will be a bit tough. But that’s the benefit of being the boss!

What’s the dream for Canopy Beer Co.?
To cement our reputation for great beer; to build our brand; and maybe to open more retail outlets, because it’s nice to see people drinking your beer.

And for you in your personal life?
Honestly, I’m living the dream. I couldn’t be happier.

If you could wake up anywhere tomorrow, where would it be?
In the Scottish Highlands – I just love it up there in the vast bleak wilderness, it’s so beautiful.