Starting up in lockdown …

Bright Barley drinks founder, Jiali Jiang, on launching the first barley alternative milk range into a locked down Britain … and reintroducing the original supergrain, first cultivated in 10,000BC …

 

Launching a new brand and introducing an entirely unprecedented product to the UK drinks market is a risky, logistically fraught project at the best of times. Which this isn’t. 

 

Start-up brand, Bright Barley, has launched the UK’s first range of plant-based milk drinks made from barley, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic; with Britain in complete lockdown and founder Jiali Jiang and her team geographically marooned.

 

“No one could have predicted, when we were planning our launch, that this would become a global crisis,” says Jiali. “In a way, being unprepared for the pandemic and its impact was a help – we just carried on. And thanks to our fabulous production and distribution partners, lifeline conference platforms such as Zoom to keep us all in contact; and some unexpected added benefits to our commitment to sourcing locally and independently, Bright Barley has been launched on time, at the peak of a global crisis.”

 

Jiali was a 25-year-old, recent Cambridge graduate in 2016, when she first had the idea of harnessing the healthiness and history of one of the first cultivated crops: the forgotten supergrain, barley. Having studied Environmental Policy, she was keen to bring together her interests in organic ingredients, sustainability and ancient grains in a new food or drink product; and realised that the answer had been on her doorstep all her life. 

 

She was brought up in a region of China close to the Tibetan Plateaus, where barley has been a mainstay for millennia, for both its nutritional value and hardiness at such altitudes. “For Tibetans”, she explains, “barley is a staple foodstuff, particularly “tsampa”, which is a type of bread made from roasted barley, but is also used variously in cakes, porridges, soups and the alcoholic drink ‘chhaang”.  So, when I came to the UK, I was amazed to discover that this delicious little grain, full of fibre and heart-healthy beta-glucans, and cultivated here since the Iron Age, was now largely relegated to animal fodder. Bright Barley is all about changing that.”

 

 

After four intensive years of product development, Jiali and her team have perfected a range of vegan barley shakes in Salted Caramel, Chocolate and Coffee flavours, filling a gap in the UK market for a grain-based ‘mylk’, tapping a booming category that a quarter of Britons now claim to buy into and bringing impressive sustainability credentials to the party too.

 

Provenance and sustainability is important to both me and our target consumer, and discovering high quality barley flour grown in the UK was central to my decision to develop a barley drink.” Jiali explains. She has been meticulous in sourcing her ingredients, including using grain from selected UK organic farms, which is ground at Shipton Mill in the Cotswolds, where flour has been produced since Medieval times. “So many plant-based milks have hidden environmental impacts on land and water usage or in food miles. Ours was going to be different in every way.”

 

That very commitment to reducing food miles by UK sourcing would prove vital to ensuring that ingredients were available and delivered on time for the first production run in April 2020. It was a date that the team was committed to, irrespective of the corona crisis; with ingredients ordered, factory booked, packaging arriving and distributors already eagerly signed up to list the trailblazing range.

 

“We have been lucky,” admits Jiali. “Because few of our ingredients are bespoke and all are natural, our supplies were relatively straightforward and largely unaffected. And our decision to support independents has also helped, with our family-owned, Somerset-based processors remaining open - safely, but defiantly – as they have done since 1898.” 

 

“We did have to safeguard our routes to market, however, and the first thing we did when lockdown was announced was expand our retail plans and build an ecommerce side to our website. In just two weeks.”

 

The team were having to adapt to a new set of changed circumstances every week, in fact. From shelving plans to launch at cancelled trade shows to targeting online retailers to scouting for a photographer who had a home studio for the product photoshoots.

 

“This may be something of a baptism of fire,” says Jiali, “but it has certainly made us resourceful. Ultimately, the product will do the talking, however, and I’m confident that we have developed a range that is unique, delicious, healthy and timely.”

 

Bright Barley has continuing ambitious plans for barley, with new product lines already in development in their mission to “Bring Barley Back”. As one of the first cultivated crops, that sustained such great civilisations as the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, the return of the original supergrain is long overdue.

 
 
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