Q&A with Richard Adamson, Co-owner of Young Henrys, Sydney’s Award-winning Craft Beer and Spirit Producer
Founded in 2012 by Richard Adamson and Oscar McMahon, Young Henrys was birthed from the belief that the Sydney beer scene should be more adventurous, innovative and fun. Bringing together their extensive brewing knowledge and understanding of hospitality to an industrial warehouse in Newtown, it didn’t take long for Young Henrys to take flight and become one of the most lauded beer and spirit brands in and around Australia.
As part of our ongoing Behind the Kounta series, we chatted to Richard Adamson, founder and director of Young Henrys, about some of the lessons he’s learned along their journey from local brewery to an international beer and spirit wholesaler with a cult following.
Tell us how Young Henrys got to where it is now
Everything stems from the brewing space, but it took us a while to find the right one at the start. Originally, we looked at Surry Hills, but the time wasn’t right and we felt the community there wasn’t ready for a brewery yet.
In the end, we were very fortunate to end up in Newtown, which has been great for us. Honestly, it wasn’t a conscious decision because we had limited options, but it turned out to be the best move for us anyway. Newtown feels like home to us as we are all from this area, and now, surrounded by other breweries, it feels like it’s where we belong.
In the early days, we were actually looking at doing a restaurant-brewery but we ended up being a production brewery with a tasting bar, mainly due to planning controls and licensing laws. However, over the years our focus has shifted and we are now very busy with our wholesale arm.
How did you deal with the licensing limitations that stopped you serving food?
We knew we needed to be able to serve food, people get hungry after a couple of beers! So we sourced some food options that were in line with our brand. We currently have Stinking Bishop’s (an incredible local restaurant) sandwiches there every Friday and a rotating food truck policy for the weekends.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge?
Managing growth has definitely been our biggest challenge – going from a small business with three people to one that employs over 50 staff in such a short timeframe has meant a steep learning curve.
Growth brings a variety of different challenges, from practical operational challenges like staffing and being able to ramp-up production, as well as less obvious issues such as being true to your brand, maintaining a local feel and a strong connection with your customers.
Finding the right staff has been a really tricky one, as we put a lot of focus on cultural fit, more so than we do on skillset.
Today we have a large national sales team and staff in the brewery, the tasting bar, and also in administrative roles. We’ve found that even within brewing and sales, we prefer to hire people that will fit in with our business culture and train them on the way we do things, rather than going for someone who has developed their skills elsewhere and doesn’t fit in culturally.
Throughout our growth, we’ve managed to keep in touch with our local Newtown community. When we go interstate, we look for the same types of people that would normally come to our tasting bar in Newtown.
This has helped us stay true to our brand and our audience. Young Henrys is built around music, arts and culture and in every city there is a group of people that appreciate those three things. Taking this approach when entering a new market allows us to attract like-minded people and has definitely made our growth easier and more rewarding.
What would you say has been your key to success?
Having a good product is the most important thing for us, and second, being genuine.
We are firm believers in honest connections and we stay away from ‘marketing speak’. We tell our story honestly and have a genuine interest and belief in what we stand for. People see through fake marketing these days so staying true to your values helps you stand out.
Marketing – what was most effective?
The most FUN are the music events! It’s probably not the most effective for reaching new audiences, but it is effective in telling our story and positioning our band.
The most effective marketing for raising our brand’s awareness is probably the partnerships we’ve done with magazines or radio stations that connects us with new and relevant people in their audiences.
We’ve found that the effectiveness of our partnerships was something that increased over time. In the early days we weren’t in a position to really capitalise on the brand, we didn’t have the reach and were too small to get involved in bigger partnerships. Now that we’ve grown, we attract bigger partnerships and have had great results from them.
Other than partnerships, we are big on events. We do events with musicians, chefs, magazines and more. These have been really successful too.
We won a gold medal at the World Spirit Awards and a silver at the San Fran awards, but we did that to benchmark ourselves rather than for the marketing. We’ve won a lot of medals for beers as well, but again, we don’t focus on it too much for our marketing strategy, more to see where we sit with our product.
What lessons have you learned over the past few years?
There are so many I don’t know where to start! Managing cash is a big one, and by that I mean making sure you’re not lacking in working capital. A lot of companies can be successful in selling products and making money, but managing that cash effectively is another thing.
Another steep learning curve for me was understanding the regulatory environment in which we work.
We have to deal with so many levels of government and so many ins-and-outs of licensing.
It’s complex and has such a big impact on your business that I have actually ended up lobbying the local council and state government on planning controls and regulations. I actually created the Inner West Brewers Association with four other founding members to help with this.
What external changes have you noticed over the past few years that have affected Young Henrys?
The rise of social media in general has meant that most of our direct communications come through our social channels. But we’ve also seen a return to the email newsletter which I find interesting – lately our customers have indicated they prefer to be contacted by email compared to any other online methods, including social media.
Other than that, there have been regulatory changes in licensing which has affected Newtown as a whole, nightlife has picked up dramatically since the lockout laws were introduced in Kings Cross for example. Newtown has also become more gentrified and more of a destination with a much better offering over the past few years too. There are more upmarket pubs and restaurants here now.
What are Young Henrys’ core values?
Our guiding mantra is “brew beer our local community would enjoy and be proud to call their own”.
We like to keep our specific values internal and express them by living them through the way we run the business and interact with our customers. We believe that a real brand goes beyond visual identity and image and penetrates how you go about doing things.
We make sure everyone in the company understands those ideals, and lives and breathes them.
How did you come to supply major retailers like Dan Murphy’s?
We were very fortunate to be approached by Dan Murphy’s quite early on, however, we were slightly resistant about supplying them at first (until we were ready) for two reasons; keeping up with demand would have been hard at that stage, and we also wanted to build our brand from a grassroots level first.
We’ve never employed a growth-at-all-costs strategy – rather it’s more important to us to have close, mutually beneficial relationships with all our customers.
What does the future hold for Young Henrys?
Simply, we want to continue having the privilege to make beer that people enjoy, play around and make some interesting spirits and have fun along the way.