Stuck in a Barn with… Tom Dunn, Founder and MD of delicious cider company Beard & Sabre

Following a busy day at the press, you’ve gone for a stroll, taken in the Cotswolds view and decided to have a little snooze in a comfy barn, but when you wake up the door is jammed.  Eek what to do?….

Answer our nosey questions of course:

So Tom…..who would be the first person you’d want to ring once you’d realised the barn door is jammed?

I don’t want to be too cliché and predictable but i’d have to say my business partner, I’ve phoned Angus when i’ve found myself in a lot more trouble than getting locked in a barn and his relaxed attitude (sometimes too relaxed I worry!) is always helpful. Problems must always be put in perspective and it seems these days our job as directors mainly involves sorting short-notice problems of varying degrees of severity.

If you read the countless books that are available on start up businesses and business in general they often advise against going into business with friends but after two and a half years of hell and happiness he still remains my closest.


You’re trying not to panic so to change the subject, tell us how you went from the Navy to running your own cider empire?

One of my biggest flaws, that I like to blame on stress, is incredible short term memory loss, sometimes I forget how we got to where we are and I always wonder what the journey must look like from an outsiders’ perspective. I wish I kept a diary and always think about starting one but at present there’s simply no time. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was growing up, I liked history and ended up doing film at university – I thought it would be an adventure but the Royal Navy offered far more appeal, I could ‘do’ things rather than film them and that’s why I signed up for the Warfare Branch (despite the scary name it was mostly navigation!).

The only downside was the lack of freedom of expression and scope for solving problems in unconventional ways. I always had a close eye on the craft beer revolution and wondered why cider, a historically British drink, hadn’t seen such a transformation. I thought we could lead that change and as it hadn’t really been attempted before there was a lot of freedom to experiment and make the rulebook so to speak. I still remember the day I phoned Angus from the forward tracker officer of HMS Northumberland and said it’s now or never. I think a lot of peoples dreams fizzle away if they are afraid of making that big jump – and for me the idea of looking back with regrets is absolutely terrifying.


Where did the name Beard & Sabre come from?  We hear it’s a mix of old meets new….

This is a funny one and people often say that a brand image finds you, not the other way around. Chronologically after we decided to go into business we began brainstorming and building a thorough business plan, we really struggled on the name. We wanted something minimalistic, something relatable and something that inspires images such as the interesting and ‘alternative’ names in the craft beer world do. Empire era Britain was always a big theme of ours, commercialism, trade, pioneering, exploration – cider played a huge part during that period, most farmsteads would pay for labour with cider and labourers would choose farmsteads that produced the best.


We were looking for a name that fits the bill, something quirky and interesting that would inspire our target market when they are browsing the beer festival drinks list for something to try. We wanted to steer clear from “Cirencester Cider”, “Gloucestershire Cider” etc. as we thought it was self-limiting and traditionally cidermakers have standard or simple company names followed by ‘dry’ ‘med’ ‘sweet’ for their cider offerings. If we followed suit we would not be leading the craft cider revolution at all. It was only until we took the name Beard & Sabre to our graphics designer that he actually interpreted that to be myself and my business partner, Angus, an archaeologist and myself, a Royal Naval officer, whilst this wasn’t what we intended it was perfect for what we wanted as we really were combining traditional methods with modern vision – in a sense the logo personifies our business model.


What songs are you singing to while away the time?

Angus likes Folk, I like Indie-Rock, but what really winds people up who have worked around me is my love for old army marches and traditional folk, there’s nothing like singing one of those when you can’t afford to repair your shoes and are living off rice and bread. Have a search for ‘The Regular Army O’ / ‘Pound a Week Rise’ or ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ / ‘I’ll Go Enlist For a Sailor’, that sort of thing! I can guarantee that nobody has heard of them and i’d like to maintain that never once have I viewed myself as ‘cool’. Our company secretary, Kyle, who is currently serving in the Army, enjoys them as well – thankfully, but he can confirm that the modern armed forces aren’t enthusiastic fans! I bought a guitar to learn, as people often do, but it’s currently sitting gathering dust.


What makes you laugh?

Sometimes when you are living life in the present, in first person, you often think what you are doing is completely sane and is absolutely the most efficient way of doing things – looking back, we have made a lot of stupid mistakes between us and not once did we question them at the time. We used to store our cider two tiers high, three 1,000 litre tanks below a set of racking and three above – we were wondering how we could possibly move the tanks on the top whilst they were still full of cider and we all agreed that we could simply buy a manual pallet stacker and lift them using it.


Not once did we think that it would be impossible to lift a one ton tank at 1.5 metres under our universes’ laws of physics. We found out… the hard way… and at once it was apparent how idiotic our clever plan was. Rather than be hurt by the setback we decided to print this mistake, and all of our other similar mistakes, onto the back of beer mats so everyone could enjoy them. Trust me, there are some really bad ones that aren’t public knowledge and they all make me laugh!


Which one of your ciders are you planning on drinking as soon as you’re out?

My personal favourite is Berrymaster, which is our best seller, I should really push our traditional range, Apple Smuggler and Yardarm as we pay cider duty on those, currently at 40p a litre – our fruit ciders come under ‘made-wine’ duty which is currently at 89p a litre; we take the burden of this cost upon ourselves to remain competitive. These are challenges all craft cidermakers face, unlike breweries that have a lot of scope to experiment and create interesting and quirky drinks we are penalized by an archaic duty system that is designed to hinder large corporate alcopop manufacturers yet doesn’t cater to artisan producers.


The same duty regulations classify ‘cider’ to be anything made with only 35%, which is an absolute dis-service to the consumer as many big brands that claim to press ‘traditional’ cider actually are selling rehydrated 35% apple juice concentrate. It’s a mission of ours to campaign for changes to this system so that consumers can recognise 100% pressed, craft, ciders compared to misbranded alternatives. We also push for our older audience to give our fruit offerings a go – at present we have had almost 100% positive feedback from those willing to try our fruit range and that’s what the craft cider revolution is all about; combining tradition with vision to craft drinks people enjoy drinking. Given the season it’s a great opportunity to share with you our mulled cider recipe:

To make up 5 litres:

5 Litres Apple Smuggler, 5.5%
500g Sugar (or to taste)
½ Sliced Orange
1 Cinnamon Stick
3 Star Anise
15 Cloves

Warm until there’s a strong spice aroma, whilst heat will naturally evaporate the alcohol content you may add apple juice to reduce potency or add brandy to increase.

We have pre made kits available at all of our markets if gathering the ingredients is a burden!


What’s your first delicious item of food going to be when you’re free?  Where will you get it from?

Angus and I have an obsession with carveries. During our first year when we built our presence up for scratch – the hard way; often pub to pub, we’d regularly stop off at carveries to unwind. In some cases we’d end up having two carveries a day. ‘Business Carveries’ as we’d call them. We wouldn’t want to mention specific places as we’ve been to so many, but we did have a secret ‘Carvery of the month’ facebook group where we’d review each one in detail! Failing a carvery, you can’t beat crispy aromatic duck.


Where would be your favourite place to stay in the Cotswolds, if you weren’t sleeping in a bale of hay?

I’ve recently moved to Cirencester from Wotton-Under-Edge as it’s next to the press and I am really happy here, there’s a pond outside, apple trees and fields and woodlands for miles. We are fortunate enough to visit lots of nice places including Stow on the Wold, Stroud and we sometimes venture into West Oxfordshire. It’s all very nice, we’ve seen almost all of the Cotswold Hare’s. I grew up in Bussage, a village east of Stroud and we were right on the edge of the valley. As I child we used to build bases, camp, fish and other things youngsters used to do and it holds a special place in my heart, perhaps my answer is to trade the barn for open skies.


What are your immediate plans as soon as the barn door is open? Any hobbies you’re going to take up?

As business has taken up most of my free time I’ve actually had to work hard to find some hobbies! I would like to learn the guitar as I’ve mentioned, although I don’t think I have the patience. Writing a diary may sound nice but I’ve found blogging more practical, we have a slightly populated one available on our website: I’m hoping to find the time to add further articles relevant to cidermakers and drinkers alike. I recently got a baby rabbit to look after as it seemed like a lot less maintenance than a dog, given my busy schedule, but it’s proved a lot more trouble than I first thought and requires constant attention. Even as I’m writing this she’s slapping a tube against the floor repeatedly because she knows I’m about. She’s called Ida, the anglification of the old norse goddess Iðunn: goddess of apples and youth.


What would you say to anyone planning on starting their own business in 2018?

I think this question could have an interview dedicated to itself, I also don’t think I’m qualified to give advice as each situation is different to the next and the battlefield is ever changing. There are a few news articles doing the rounds as of late that suggest university candidates should be dissuaded from going into business as an alternative, due to the risks in the current climate. Unfortunately I have no choice but to advise anyone planning on starting their business in 2018 to ‘just do it’. There’s never going to be a right moment, it’s not going to naturally happen on its own.

You have to make sacrifices and swim upstream like a salmon wishing to spawn: and once you’re in, don’t stop and don’t look back. I think there’s a grace period for all new businesses where you only think about the rewards and the successes you’ll achieve, but the grim reality is it takes a lot away from you, financially and mentally – you need a good support structure. We would never have made it this far without family and friends, you’ll also lose some on the journey as well. Once you’ve set off, the best piece of advice I can give is to make friends, be nice, business isn’t about trying to cut the best deal at the other party’s expense – some people operate this way, so be cautious, but from experience we can tell you that the most successful people tend to be selfless and in turn attract more people of the same ilk around them.

We have a great relationship with our suppliers, landlord, and wholesale customers – and that’s something you’ll need because there will be bumps along the road and sometimes you can’t meet obligations, it’s much nicer to have the liberty of discussing options, solutions, alternatives with understanding friendly people than it is with someone that’s always trying to get one up on you. In summary, ‘Do It’, be prepared to make sacrifices, fight the ‘good fight’ alongside family and friends and always be nice to your suppliers and customers; you don’t know when you’ll need their help.


What are your plans this Christmas?  If you get out of that barn of course…

Unfortunately, and I don’t want to give a boring and predictable answer, but this Christmas will be entirely consumed by cider related activities. It’s always a challenging period this time of year, when summer ends and before Christmas sales pick up, so we are all working flat out. We have a hugely busy Christmas schedule which can be seen on our website or social media – we’ll be at a lot of Cotswold markets and events (ironically I’ll be in a barn again in Cheltenham). Christmas eve I will be at Swindon market and after that I think i’ll be sleeping in until late afternoon Christmas day.

For any market or event enquiries, Judith is the expert – she’ll happily put aside anything you’d want, especially our mulled cider kits.


Rock the Cotswolds is a not-for-profit campaign created to promote the talent and creativity of the area.  

It is sponsored by Crowe Clark Whitehill in Cheltenham – their belief in what we’re doing and generous support helps keep the campaign alive and kicking!