Throw out the rule book and innovation will flourish, says founder of Cannabrew

As one of the first producers of CBD infused craft beer and cider in the UK, Cannabrew prides itself on helping people to naturally unwind, whilst supporting a sustainable brand. Because innovation shouldn’t come at the cost of the earth. 

Cannabrew is one of a number of companies that has benefited from the Peer Networks programme, run by Boost (Lancashire’s Business Growth Hub) and supported by Jane Dalton of Groundswell Innovation and Paul Aisthorpe of Scale-Ability.  

Maia Broadley from Lancashire innovation agency, Groundswell Innovation talked to Cannabrew founder and CEO Elliot Horner about the importance of throwing out the rule book and discarding limitations – in business and life.  

Q. Tell me a bit about your story… 

A. I grew up working in the pubs and restaurants my parents ran, starting as a glass collector, before becoming a waiter and eventually a bartender! I’ve always been fascinated by beer and as a young lad it was my dream to own a brewery.  

Alongside this passion, I also played semi-professional rugby which definitely has a boozy culture – rugby and beer seem to go hand in hand! As does pain – your body takes quite a battering on the field and by Monday you’re still in pain. My friend suggested trying some CBD oil to loosen up and unwind without paying for it the next day… and that’s when I became an advocate for it – I even got my gran to start taking it! 

The thing is, craft beer is a pretty crowded market and I needed to find a niche. So, I started researching CBD and saw the huge growth in that market. I released I could combine the two to make this really niche product in an overcrowded market. We launched Cannabrew on a shoestring budget and our first product was Sesh IPA. 

Q. How would you summarise what you do at Cannabrew? 

A. We’re a CBD infused craft brewery with the goal to help people naturally unwind. Whether that’s chilling at home, going to a gig or eating out at a restaurant. We do it with a sustainable footfall, we’re a carbon neutral workforce and we plant 2 trees for every single case of beer we sell. Consumer trends are changing and personally, I fit right into that sustainability focused age group… so we’re not doing all of this from a sales point of view – we’re genuinely passionate about sustainability. 

Q. What does innovation mean to you? 

A. It is creative problem-solving. As a business owner, I’m constantly putting out fires and jumping over hurdles. And it’s about creating new ways to do that! 

Q. Any innovations/products you’re particularly proud of? 

A. We launched in September 2019, just before the pandemic. That was a brutal learning curve. I had no experience in running a business and we couldn’t get any suppliers, so the first year was about learning and using the time to think clearly and strategise for the future of the business. The pandemic really forced us to be innovative – we launched our website with a virtual showroom (thanks to my friend and his obsession with his VR headset!) and started selling direct to consumer. 

I’m also really proud of Cannabrew as a whole – we’ve been shaping the category in CBD infused craft beer and cider. We’re still the UK’s only CBD infused craft cider producers and it’s been received so well – especially our launch campaign! The idea behind our cider is to defog your mind and get your head out of the clouds. So, we put that to the test and sent my mum on the wing of a plane, with a can glued to her glove so she could drink it mid-flight. It was so much fun and we got into the national press for that! 

Q. What difficulties have you faced and how did you overcome them? 

A. Money really! In order to grow your business, you need capital to level it up. I decided to crowd fund instead of apply for a bank loan or use a private investor. You get paid smaller chunks of money but from more people, which means you get the capital for growth and you also get people who are personally invested. They want you to succeed, they talk about you to your friends, or buy your products if they see them in a shop. Or if they don’t, they’ll talk to the shop owner! 

Q. What do you think the next 10 years holds for the future of the beer industry? 

A. I think alcohol free and low alcohol is really going to step up. And I think that will translate really well in our niche, because we can offer low/no alcohol which still gives them a great experience, just with a CBD infused enhancement, rather than alcohol. People will still get those calming, unwinding effects – without the negative effects of drinking alcohol.  I also think companies are also going to be held more accountable for wellbeing and team culture. There’s a statistic showing that around 70% of millennials will choose a different brand from the one they’re used to if it has ethical values that align with their own. 

Q. How can we all become innovators in our chosen field? 

A. Chuck the rule books out the window – just because something’s not worked in the past doesn’t mean it won’t now. Don’t be afraid to fail and don’t bother chasing perfection! Just go out and try things for yourself, and learn from your mistakes. 

Q. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? 

A. Definitely. Especially in the sense of the limitations and boundaries we put on people. Let’s say someone worked at a huge corporate brewery and all they were allowed to do was call customers and make 50 sales a day… they’d probably become a bit passive about their role in the whole business. Especially if they can’t speak to the director or make suggestions. Whereas if they started working at Cannabrew and those boundaries were let go, they’ll slowly realise they have a place at the table and can make suggestions to make the business better for everyone.   

Q. Tell us one small thing that we can all do that would make a big impact… 

A. Take time for yourself. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day stuff, and lose sight of the important things. Make sure you take time out and be present – I go camping once a week to just get away and be along with my thoughts. It helps me to see things from a completely different perspective and I often gain clarity on problems I’ve been struggling to solve. 

Q. Speaking of different perspectives, any thoughts on the Boost Peer Networks sessions (led by Jane) that you’ve attended? 

A. Absolutely. What's brilliant is that it just provides another angle, an alternative way of thinking which sparks new ideas. So, when we go into those sessions, Jane always asks if anyone has a problem or something they’re working on. And I’m that annoying kid at school who always puts his hand up! But that’s what’s amazing – it’s Jane and loads of other business owners putting their ten pence in – the ideas you get out of that are just incredible.  

Q. And what/who inspires you? 

A. Hearing stories about people who came from nothing to reach the top of their game. Particularly businessmen, but sportsmen too. I recently read Shoe Dog (by Phil Knight, founder of Nike) and was really inspired. I really related to him with his business in the early days – lots of mistakes were made! You don’t know everything from the get go and nor should you! 

Q. Wise words to live by? 

A. Never stop learning. It doesn’t matter what the situation is – wellbeing wise, physically, personally, professionally – keep learning. Don’t just stagnate. 

Find out more about Cannabrew’s mission to help you unwind naturally and have a look at their offerings here https://cannabrew.uk/ 

Jane Dalton, founder of https://www.groundswellinnovation.co.uk/ and Paul Aisthorpe, managing director of https://scale-ability.co.uk/ are leading a fully funded peer-to-peer networking programme. It’s a peer-learning group that supports you with the right tools, techniques, and advice to direct your innovative thinking towards scaling up and strengthening your business.  Scale-Ability also provide one-to-one coaching as part of the programme. Elliot was supported by Paul who worked with him through growth mentoring through the pandemic and also referred him into Access2Finance and Propel2Grow, as well as other Boost & Co, partners to help him on his growth journey.  

Peer Networks is a programme led by Boost, Lancashire’s Business Growth Hub. Boost is led by Lancashire County Council and has supported over 8,000 businesses since 2013. To find out more on this funded business growth and support service, visit www.boostbusinesslancashire.co.uk