“Sometimes opportunities just present themselves,” was the modest way Tim Longstaff described his and business partner Ash Smith’s successful decision to open a small craft brewery in the French Alps despite having no brewing experience and little experience of running a business in France.
“In France you could see, if you looked around in Lyon or Paris, that craft beer was happening here,” he said. “There’s that cliche that France is 10 years behind the UK – it was inevitable there would be a craft beer boom here, like there had been in the UK.
“We thought if we don’t do it, someone else will.”
Nine years earlier, new graduate Tim had headed to the Alps for a seasonal job on the slopes. He had, by his own admission, no idea what to do next with his life, but thought idly that opening a brewery in the mountains might be ‘cool’.
“I moved here in 2013 to do a ski season in Les Arcs,” he said. “I came over after university when the craft beer scene had exploded in the UK. I was always surprised there was no good beer here.”
“I went back to the UK for a while and moved back to Chamonix in 2017 and – again – there was no good beer. Me and Ash Smith, my business partner, were bored of drinking crap, fizzy lagers, so we decided we’d learn to brew and start a brewery.”
From such crazy ideas, successful businesses grow. The location was right. The business was right. The timing was – just about – right.
“It was winter, January 2018,” Tim, 30, said. “We decided we’d start learning to brew. We bought some small homebrew equipment, 25-litre stuff. I did our first brew in March 2018. And in May 2018, we signed all the paperwork for a 500 litre brewing equipment with four 1,200-litre fermentation tanks.
“We installed it in October – Nov 2018. That was our first winter season – we were running as a proper brewery, brewing 700 litres at a time.
“We went from literally reading a few books and watching some Youtube videos, we produced one beer that we thought was reasonable, and that was it. We went to the bank, got a loan, put some money in ourselves and went for it. It was pretty ballsy, I guess.”
The pair’s Sapaudia Brewing Co is ideally placed in Aime-la-Plagne, in the heart of the world’s biggest ski area. “In terms of a market, especially in the winter, we couldn’t have asked for a better location,” Tim said.
“It was a bit of a risk, but we were both in a place in our lives where we decided to just take a punt. We knew we were at the start of something in France. When we set up, there were two other breweries in this area – they were quite small – and there are now about 14 breweries of different sizes within an hour of where we are.
“A friend has a really small brewery that does 100 litre brews that he only sells in his restaurant, and there’s us who sell 30,000 pints a month in our biggest months. And there’s everything in between in this area.”
A business loan got the pair started, even though, in Tim’s words the bank’s business manager ‘didn’t have a clue what we were on about’, but getting through to local bars was a different matter.
“When we started chatting to bars, the two references for beer are the Belgian styles – they’re quite strong – and then everything’s by colour.
“So we’d say, ‘we’ve brewed an IPA’ and they’d ask ‘is it a blond, or a blanche?’, and we’d say, ‘no – it’s an IPA’, and no one knew what that was. They’d call it a blond because it was the same colour as a blond beer. But now IPA has become a massive buzzword [here].”
It seemed the pair had tapped into something – but then Covid hit. And everything shut down.
Tim believes that French government help for the hospitality industry played a key role in ensuring the new business that was just starting to blossom would survive.
“The support from the French government was nothing short of incredible,” he said. “If we had set up in the UK, I think we’d be gone. Speaking to friends in the UK who have businesses – the difference in the financial support we received was night and day.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever complain about paying URSSAF stuff again after the help we got.”
Even with all the help, times were hard. Neither Tim nor 43-year-old Ash could afford to pay themselves any wages from Sapaudia during the long lockdowns. “It was a case of reduce spending, pay the necessary bills – rent, electricity and stuff – and just try and fight through.”
Pivoting from working with businesses, such as bars, to sales with individuals was not straightforward, though they tried. “We’re set-up to do keg sales – getting in bars, on tap,” Tim said. “We did flip a bit – we tried to sell bottles but we don’t have a proper bottling machine. We’re not set up to do thousands of bottles a day. We did some 5-litre mini kegs which sold pretty well around Christmas time.
“But it was tough, especially round here. It’s a massive tourist area, everyone’s business was decimated. People have tightened their belts and haven’t been spending.”
The business came through the Covid lockdowns intact. And it is now operating flat out. “As soon as everything opened up, orders started to come back – and they came back really strong,” Tim said.
“I was worried we wouldn’t be able to pick up where we’d stopped. I didn’t know how the market was going to be, but it was almost like nothing had happened. It was – bang – back to where we were.”
And the first close-to full winter season after Covid was just what the brewery needed – despite a scare when British holidaymakers were stopped from travelling by concern over the Omicron variant.
“This winter’s been massive. Everyone needed a big winter. The Brits getting banned from travelling back in December was a bit of a kick in the teeth for a lot of people. But, from February onwards … I can always tell how busy a week’s been by how many empty kegs we get back in a week. The week the British returned, our distributor had to bring a lorry – there were six pallets of empty kegs. I thought “yeah – the Brits are back”.
More official help for the business came when they were looking to hire a full-time employee. Pôle emploi offered to pay the wages of a local worker during a 12-week formation – and give Sapaudia €5 an hour on the promise he was given an open-ended CDI contract at the end of the period.
Having lived in France since 2017, neither Tim nor Ash – both of them originally from Stockton-on-Tees – found any problems applying for post-Brexit titres de séjour.
“Politically Brexit bothered me,” Tim said. “Personally, I was here and had all the paperwork, so when I went for my carte de séjour, it was almost too easy. “France made the system really easy and wanted people to stay.”
From a business point of view, however, there have been issues. “We used to work with UK suppliers – we used to get branded beer glasses from a firm in Halifax, and got other bits of promo material from Britain and we’ve had to stop using them. A lot of them won’t ship to us because it’s too much of a headache.
“The company that print the beer glasses told me they are not allowed now to print the CE logo onto the glass … we get our glasses from Germany now.
But he knows other local businesses have found it harder than they have. “The majority of our clients here are British-run bars and they struggled so much to get staff this winter.”
And, despite the forced two-year break due to Covid, Tim’s sure he and Ash were right to take a risk four years ago.
“No one saw the pandemic coming – I don’t think you’d take a risk on anything in life if you thought there’d be a pandemic round the corner.
“In terms of our numbers, when we did our business plan, we’re exactly where we projected we’d be, with a two-year delay because of Covid. Everything’s going the way it should be, it’s just that we were put on pause.”
Now, they’re looking to grow, and take the business year-round.
“I just got off the phone this morning with an equipment supplier. We want to expand in autumn 2023. This winter we reached capacity of our current equipment – and we’re having to throttle sales back a little.
“We’re massively seasonal – winter’s really big, and we’re working to make summer as big as winter so we have a distribution partner in Lyon and we’ve got a sales rep working in the west coast in the Hossegar area.
There’s a reason that their business plan jumps from the mountains of the east to the shores of the west. Many people who spend their winters in the Alps head for the surf towns of the Atlantic in the summer. The idea is to let word of mouth from the east spread their IPA gospel in the west, too. And in cans, too. Part of the next phase of the firm’s could include an online store, selling Sapaudia beer to individuals across France.