#DIYwithDYD is a series that follows incredible individuals. We learn how they made their amazing projects happen. We talk to Warren Harries-Jones in our latest post. He is the founder of Dragon Ginger, South Africa’s iconic alcoholic ginger beer.
We’ve read your story and want to know a bit more about you and Dragon Ginger. Dragon Ginger was three years in the making, which is a long time to work on something. On top of that, you had major challenges. What kept you motivated in that time?
I think a passion for making alcohol is what’s kept me motivated. Also having the most boring plan-b-fall-back career known to man, as an accountant, keeps me on my toes.
What did your time management look like if you still had a full-time day job and had to brew in the evenings?
I basically worked full-time after hours and on weekends to get things going. My wife, Bron, kept things going in Cape Town and I started the Joburg operations. Definitely not an easy thing trying to start a business after hours because everything is shut. A lot of correspondence happened via email, which is difficult because nobody really responds to email without a phone call first.
We also saw mention of explosions? Could you tell us what happened one of those times?
We had a couple of explosions early on in Dragon Ginger. Back then the only way to stop fermentation was to drink it! We went through a period of plastic bottles because we didn’t want to take any chances and only when we were 100% satisfied that we’d solved the problem of exploding bottles did we go back into glass. In the earlier days I was putting the ginger beer in 750ml Black Label bottles. They are really thick walled bottles and we kept them in our dining room. Then about an hour after we ate supper the one went off and it detonated the rest of them. There was glass stuck in the walls 4m away. It could have been serious if we had been sitting there. Luckily no one got hurt. There’s a simple lesson in this that new brewers have to learn: either bottle in plastic or make really, really sure fermentation is complete before bottling.
Did you know that Dragon Ginger would become this popular when you started out or is it still a surprise for you?
In a way I’m amazed at the uptake. But at the same time it seems obvious that craft beer would start growing. South Africa has been pretty much SAB fortress since long before I had my first beer. Foodies and Hipsters are now telling South Africans what to eat and drink and they’re looking for something artisanal and small batch. No matter how bad the marketing, they want something with a story or something different and something that tastes good. It’s almost like craft customers actively seek out the little guy.
What made you decide to take on the craft beer industry in South Africa and why did you pick alcoholic ginger beer as your medium? Why didn’t you go with a more standard beer?
We decided to go for alcoholic ginger beer because it was a bit different from the rest. Also I really liked the taste. Ginger has roots in pretty much all cultures in South Africa and seemed like fun.
We knew you as Dragon Fiery Ginger Co. but now you’re Dragon Ginger. What prompted the name change?
Dragon Fiery Ginger Co. was quite a mouthful and also not an easy email address to spell on the phone. We wanted something simpler and to the point. So we chopped off the ‘Fiery’ in our email address. Although our ginger beer is definitely still fiery and we use fire as a main part of our branding.
What have been some of the highlights that you’ve experienced along the way with Dragon Ginger?
I think hitting break even was a big one for me and getting a big order from Pick ‘n Pay was also a biggy (watch this space for the Christmas gift set). Getting into Checkers was also a highlight, it took some serious persistence from the sales guys.
This feature falls in our “Do It Yourself” series. We’re trying to get young people to see different ways of handling their futures. What advice would you give to young people about starting their own projects and/or businesses?
I reckon starting a business isn’t really about the idea, rather the implementation of literally anything and then growing from there. It’s about time in the market rather than waiting for that perfect idea. I learnt a lot more from one day at the Melkbos market getting feedback from customers than any varsity course taught me. I think the way to start a business is to find something you are vaguely interested in, for me it was beer, then try and make and sell a single beer, repeat X 1000 and there you go! Sales cures everything. Getting paid for something means you have a business, having a business plan is great but banks don’t loan to people with business plans for a reason, you need proven cash flows. A real business plan is one that’s made after spending a good amount of time in the market and knowing the market inside and out and then writing a business plan. Having a repeat customer is when you really have the start of a business, so start small get some repeat customers and then expand the offering.