When Thomas Fentiman, an iron puddler from Cleckheaton in the north of England, loaned money to a fellow tradesman in 1905, he could never have dreamed what it would lead to. A recipe for botanically brewed ginger beer was provided as security and when the borrower failed to repay the money, the recipe became his. Soon he began brewing the drink in earthenware pots and selling his brews door-to-door in a horse and cart. They proved popular, the business grew and several factories were opened. Later, fizzy American-style soft drinks caused botanical drinks to fall out of fashion and the firm died. But that was not the end of the story.
Fast-forward to 1994 and the story continues with Thomas’s great-grandson and current Fentimans’ managing director Eldon Robson (pictured, right), who re-created the family firm. Eldon took the original, hand-written recipes and, after tweaking them to comply with modern standards, set about producing drinks with 100% natural ingredients, made in the time-honoured way – brewing and fermenting herbs and milled roots over seven days. It has proved a success – revenues are likely to be £8 million (€10.1 million) in 2012.
The re-booted drinks were given quirky olde worlde names such as Curiosity Cola, Victorian Lemonade and Seville Orange Jigger, designed to appeal to drinkers with a penchant for retro stylings. Fentimans became controversial (and gained lots of free publicity) when its Victorian Lemonade was launched in the US in 2009 and promptly banned for sale to minors in the state of Maine because it contains alcohol – less than 0.5%, but enough to bring it to the attention of substance abuse groups.
International markets are important to Fentimans, but roots also matter. The head offices and brewing laboratories are still situated in the small market town of Hexham, where the first version of the business was based, and staff are specifically recruited locally.
“We felt that this meant the continuing growth of the company remains in the hands of our local community,” Eldon says, “and there was no need to advertise further afield when we had the necessary skills available on our doorstep.”
Being a family firm matters too. “I have two sons and the younger one [Jamie, aged 21] has worked for Fentimans for two years,” says Eldon. “He is currently pursuing other interests but I fully expect him to become involved in the family business again, after gaining experience elsewhere. I feel that this will make his contribution all the more valuable to Fentimans.”