How this craft beer entrepreneur faced off with industry giant BrewDog

“My favourite quote is ‘a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor’.”

Sonja Mitchell is the MD/”beer admiral” of Jump Ship Brewing, which she launched in December 2019 to brew “world-class” alcohol-free beer in Scotland, also bringing in her love of everything nautical to the brand. After gaining traction, it in January of this year said it had opened Scotland’s first and only brewery producing non-alcoholic beer, a purpose-built 20-hectolitre facility in Midlothian, and after in 2023 raising £300,000 via crowdfunder. It in November said it had launched legal proceedings against controversial beer giant BrewDog to safeguard the name of its Shore Leave product.

You’re now up and running in your own purpose-built brewery, how does this pave the way for further growth?

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It has been really transformational for the business. We’re now well set for further growth, having increased our production capacity, and can quickly adapt our schedules to meet new demand. We’ve been able to experiment with new beer styles, such as our new Gooseberry Gose, and have fine-tuned all of our recipes and processes. More storage space means we can switch to printed cans, cutting out plastic labels. We’re also launching into new formats such as keg – a really exciting area of growth in the “no and low” category.

What are your thoughts now on having taken legal action against BrewDog? How has it shaped your business and role as leader – has it been your most pivotal moment of running Jump Ship so far?

Taking the decision to launch this legal action was one of the toughest calls I’ve had to make so far. We’re such a small business in comparison, but I believed that we had goodwill in the name Shore Leave that was worth defending.

After discussions with BrewDog, we’re really pleased to announce we have reached an amicable settlement in relation to the use of the name. Moving forwards, the new name for our summer series of fruit-forward, sour beers will be called Ocean Drift. I’m delighted to be able to move on, focusing on our new releases and exciting developments to come.

How is hitching your wagon to the growth in people increasingly swerving alcohol, particularly younger generations, supercharging your growth – and do you believe such expansion will moderate in coming years?

I wasn’t alone in wanting to cut back on alcohol when I launched Jump Ship. Half of UK adults are either not drinking alcohol, or planning to cut back. At Jump Ship, we see a lot more growth still to come in the category. In the UK, fewer than 2 per cent of total beer sales are alcohol-free, still very low compared to markets such as Germany’s 7 per cent, and Spain above 16 per cent. We’re only just getting started here.

How have you navigated the troubled economic backdrop of recent years?

I launched Jump Ship pretty much straight into Covid, and I’m not sure I’ve experienced “normal” business conditions since then; from lockdown through to Brexit, high energy costs, and a cost-of-living crisis. It’s not surprising that my favourite quote is “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”. We’ve had to adapt, to be resilient, and keep moving forwards.

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And we’ve had some silver linings. I never planned to launch a direct-to-consumer business, but Covid made online sales an imperative. We’ve since built an amazing community of online customers who still make up about a third of sales. And it was from this foundation of support that we were able to launch our successful crowdfunder last year.

You recently spoke at Egg’s Women on Top event at The Balmoral, touching on finding your tribe and being authentic and vulnerable when sharing your story. Can you give more details on this?

There is a huge amount of pressure to project a relentlessly successful image, but the truth is that running a business is tough, and at times it can be exhausting and overwhelming. And people following our story want to hear the good and the bad. We can’t compete with the big glossy brands and their huge ad spends, but we can show our heart and our determination, and people really respond to that.

One of our most successful social media posts this year has been an image of a pile of beer cans that fell off the back of the lorry – a very bad day in the brewery, but people rallied behind us and snapped up the dented cans in the space of a day.

What do you do to give back – you say you’ve committed to give at least 10 per cent of your profits to charity, for example – and reduce your carbon footprint?

So far, we’ve given a donation each year on our birthday to a cause selected at random from a list nominated by our followers. Often these are smaller charities that make a big difference in their communities, such as the Water of Leith Conservation Trust or First Hand Lothian. We’ve also sponsored Autism on the Water, a charity working to make sailing more inclusive to all.

We want to brew our beer as sustainably as possible. Moving all our production to one site has helped reduce our carbon footprint, saving up to 11 tonnes of carbon over the next three years by cutting out the miles the beer travelled to get canned. We now brew on 100 per cent renewable energy, with all of our brewery bi-products (from spent grain to effluent) being reused elsewhere on the farm or local area. I’m carrying out a full carbon audit this year.

Who do you admire in business?

I’m a big admirer of David Hieatt, founder of Hiut jeans in Wales. He’s created an amazing brand and a purpose-driven company focused on making the most sustainable jeans on the planet from his home town in Wales.

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