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What I've Learned: Sam & Rich Coombes, Batlow Premium Cider

Brothers-in-arms Sam and Rich Coombes launched Batlow Cider in 2011, a boutique local cider made from the apples of the Batlow region in NSW, which you may remember from the stickers on your apples in school lunches.

After a series of false starts that tested their mettle and some last-minute challenges which threatened to derail them, the boys prevailed and have won over fans with their unique spin on marketing and a personal approach which means that they still deliver kegs all around town in their ‘Batlow-mobile.’ Rich, whose background is in finance, and Sam, who owns his own clothing label and worked in marketing at MTV, perfectly complement each other. We got coffee with the Coombes’ in their new Bondi office to discuss how they stayed on the right cider things and what helped them through tough times.

We started seeing more and more people drinking cider, whether it was out drinking a pint of Magners or sitting on the hill in Bondi nursing a hangover and you just start to develop an intuition that something’s starting to happen. (Sam)

We got told, pretty much by everyone that we spoke to when we first started this venture over two years ago that we couldn’t make it work. The guys who do a lot of contracts said ‘We’ve looked at 200 of these products, small-format alcohol, it can’t be done.’ We had people inside the industry who said exactly the same thing; can’t be done. (Rich)

Every Batlow apple that sits in an IGA up the street, a grower goes to a lot of effort to grow the apple, but also the picking and sorting process. It’s like when you eat a burger, the lettuce, tomatoes, beef… it’s all come from farmers or growers in rural communities who are sweating their guts out to put that on the table for you. And you kind of forget that. (Sam)

I actually didn’t really understand Batlow as a town with a population of 1500 people. It was a co-operative with thirty families who grow apples under the Batlow brand – I had no idea. (Rich)

We had this plan to make a locally made, great quality cider. Our first call was to Batlow, actually. We went in there and they were like ‘What do you want apples for, and why do you want this volume?’ and we told them we wanted to make cider. They said that was really interesting, because they had cider as part of their 5 year plan. So pretty quickly it escalated and we were sitting in front of their head of strategic marketing and we had to pitch our vision and where we saw the opportunity in the market, because the market was very polarised. (Rich)

We basically delayed the launch – we launched September last year but the plan was to launch by the end of 2010. So we essentially lost a year. (Rich)

We were living together, too. It was pretty intense. With family you can have your blow-ups at each other and you sort of get over it. You don’t really have a choice in the matter, you can’t hold a grudge. (Sam) 

Sam and Rich Coombes

Being physically out there, you can have a chat with vendors and see what’s going on, but also throw ideas out there around value-added concepts. Especially as the market becomes more competitive, it becomes even more vital to add additional value. For instance, next door to us is [bar] Bondi Hardware. They wanted to do something with the wall outside their bathroom, so Sam painted it up with a nice mural of a grower enjoying a cider with a bird on his shoulder. So yeah, little things like that (Rich)

So how did we get around that? We basically moved production facilities. We spent a few months talking with wineries, breweries, champagne houses, you name it, along the Eastern Seaboard into South Australia. That was pretty intense and a little bit scary as well. (Rich)

I was back pulling beers at a Paddington pub. I was clearing tables at The Light Brigade and there was someone I used to work with at UBS and he was like ‘What the f-ck are you doing?’ and I said ‘Just clearing your table up!’ (Rich)

I guess in that 12 month period, nobody came in and shot the lights out, built a great brand and beat us down. Besides, nobody can claim that Batlow heritage and the fact that every apple that goes into the bottle is picked by the same family on the farm. Most ciders makers just call up and say ‘Give me the juice’. They don’t care about the variety or the quality. (Rich)

The good thing about family is you can speak your mind and not be afraid of putting your view on the table, whereas in a corporate environment, things are done a little more diplomatically. You may not speak up, it’s all about politics. (Rich)

We did Harvest Festival last year. At the eleventh hour, The Parramatta police came through and said ‘Right, it’s all mid-strength’. Luckily we were mid-way through production. We literally remade it just for the festival, 72 hours before. (Rich)

But for us it was pretty exciting, walking into the festival and seeing our green cups everywhere and people enjoying it. (Sam)

We did more research, met with a lot of different people across the industry and also got in touch with a guru in the UK who was instrumental in helping us overcome these challenges. (Rich)

With 20/20 hindsight, we were probably a lot better planned and prepared than had we just launched into market at that time. (Sam)

Outside of NSW, the Batlow brand’s not so well recognised, so we’re looking at ways to build it over there, do the right sponsorships and partnerships (Rich)

With blokes as well, in tough situations, you sort of say ‘Alright, get on with it.’ There’s that sort of approach, I guess. (Sam)

I think the lesson here is just to seek out passionate people who have built careers around what you’re doing. If they see that you’re having a crack and not just being opportunistic, they’ll be happy to help you. (Rich)

Find out more about the Batlow Cider story over at their website.

SEE ALSO: A good vintage: Brown Brothers
  • Good work guys. Batlow needs all the help and publicity, and apple sales it can get. It is a great community at Batlow and district, and adds enormously to NSW economy. Take care. God bless. Ken. Report this

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