Brewdog: We had to fill beer bottles with hand sanitiser

Scottish craft beer giant Brewdog was one of the first companies to start producing hand sanitiser in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, and with that came new challenges. We spoke to head distiller Steven Kersley to find out how the team are adapting to the new normal.

(Photo: Brewdog)

“At the moment, we are working pretty much 24/7” Kersley told db. Brewdog Distilling Co, the spirits arm of James Watt and Martin Dickie’s craft beer behemouth, is in operation virtually 24 hours throughout the working week maintaining its spirits production, and now weekends are given over to sanitiser.

Brewdog is known for it’s “punk” image and irreverent marketing stunts, but its public perception has changed dramatically since coronavirus reached the UK, and Watt pledged to produce thousands of hand sanitiser bottles as supplies dwindled.

The company, which is based in Ellon, Aberdeenshire, had announced it would be making 100,000 bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitiser for “those who need it most”, and have since started supplying the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary’s Intensive Care Unit, and NHS Grampian alongside local charities.

But things didn’t get off to the smoothest start. Earlier this month, Brewdog had completed its first batch and brought it to the intensive care unit, only to have it ultimately turned down for not meeting NHS hygiene standards. The “unfortunate” event, as Kersley called it, made headlines across the UK, with publications from the Metro to the Guardian picking up on the story.

“It really was a case of everyone trying to do the right thing in a short space of time,” Kersley said. About four Sundays ago, the distillery had just finished producing its first batch of sanitiser gel, when they received a call from NHS Grampian. Kersley said they were interested in the product, and wanted it sent over to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary that afternoon.

“We were only using old glass beer bottles at the time” he said. “Glass and dispensers are gold dust at the moment.”

That wasn’t the only problem. Kersley’s team had produced their sanitiser at 68% ABV, as per the World Health Organisation’s guidelines, but these hadn’t yet been formally recognised by the NHS, so once they had brought what they’d made to the Royal Infirmary, there was some to-ing and fro-ing about whether or not they should go ahead and use it.

“There’s a lot of accreditation you have to go through with the NHS,” Kersley said. “The analytical team wondered if it should be over 80% ABV, or the raw materials should be from credited suppliers as well, everyone was just trying to do the right thing in a short time frame.”

Ultimately, NHS Grampian turned down the first batch, and asked Brewdog to rework their recipe to be hospital-grade. Thankfully, Kersley said the team dropped off 5,000 units to the hospital last week at 80% ABV, and the company has since packed and donated over 50,000 units to the NHS and local charities. Brewdog has even set up a second packaging station at its brewery in Ellon, and enlisted extra team members from closed Brewdog bars to help pack more.

The NHS has since relaxed its rules on hand sanitiser production to allow for WHO guidelines, enabling more distillers to supply local health services with their own wares.

While making the sanitiser itself is easy enough (“we’ve already got the raw materials,” Kersley added), packaging is the hard part. It takes time, and there aren’t enough dispensers in circulation to accommodate the huge surge in production. Even the Scotch Whisky Association now has a section on its website dedicated to helping distillers and bottlers work together to be able to supply each other with the materials required to produce hand sanitiser units on a grand scale.

When it comes to the “time consuming” process, Kersley said the company has had to use whatever they can get their paws on.

“We’ve been a bit scrappy and filled into 30cl, 30ml, 500ml bottles. We’ve filled many beer bottles just to get as much out the door as possible.”

Kersley told db that Brewdog now has the capacity to produce about 4,000 litres per week, but packaging is still “the pinch point”.

As for the day-to-day running of the facility, there’s now only one distiller on shift at any one time, along with Kersley to ensure the safety of the whole team.

“It’s one of the most amazing projects we’ve every been involved in,” he said. “We’re on the front line of trying to make the community safer and help in just any way we can.”

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