YOU never know what’s coming next.

Those are the words of Chris Ward, director of the family-owned Thomas Hardy Burtonwood.

He is taking a moment to reflect after giving Weekend a guided tour of the contract bottling business’s new £13million second line.

We have just watched thousands of bottles whoosh along in a process which washes them, labels them, fills them and carbonates them before they are boxed up by a machine to become cases of premium tonic.

The automated assembly line is memorising – 450 bottles a minute were being produced during our visit but if smaller bottles are being filled this can rise to up to 700 bottles a minute.

Parts of the process work faster than the eye can follow and the remarkable technology can automatically detect if a bottle is under or overfilled, contains any foreign bodies or even if the label is wonky. Elsewhere in the 1000sq m bottling line – which has five miles of pipework – is a processing room for mixing and blending.

Knutsford Guardian:

Today it is tonic water but tomorrow it could be craft beer and that variety is what keeps things interesting for Chris, who has to keep his finger on the pulse when it comes to trends in the drinks market.

He added: “There’s been a big rise in the popularity of tonic water and soft drinks. We adapt what we do to changes in the market.

“We’ve definitely seen trends and things like the sugar tax have driven certain changes. That in turn drives behaviour.

“We started with alcopops in the late 90s which just went nuts. Then there was the cider revolution led by Magners where you’d have cider over ice in a pint glass and that sent cider to another level.

“More recently there’s been this huge push in ‘craft’ – whether that be craft beer or crafted spirits like gin. And what’s paired with that? Tonic. So you have people like Fever Tree who have challenged the market by saying: ‘If you’re buying a premium gin and three quarters of your G&T is tonic why not buy the best tonic?’

“That has resonated with people. More recently we have seen a definite growth in what we would refer to as ‘premiumisation’.

“So people would rather go out and buy two premium drinks such as craft beer than three standard drinks such as mainstream lager.”

Thomas Hardy Burtonwood was launched by Chris’s late dad Peter in 1998 on the site of the former Burtonwood Brewery and now has 12 main customers ranging from international breweries to market leading soft drink companies.

The company sold its brewery to Molson Coors in 2015 meaning it now has a unique business model where it solely focuses on bottling and supports other firms rather than being a competitor.

Chris and his team specialise in bottling smaller or niche products or new drinks that are going through product development.

Business has been booming since. The second bottling line was in response to capacity being reached on the first line, which is eight million cases of alcohol and soft drinks a year.

After a nine-month build, Thomas Hardy Burtonwood now has additional capacity for eight to 10 million cases a year plus the creation of its own water source. It could also see up to 48 jobs created on top of the current 56.

Chris said: “We have a site in Kendal as well and we had a bit of a tight patch where we were operating 24/7 on both sites absolutely flat out.

“We came to the decision that if our customers were going to continue growing – which was the expectation given the tonic revolution and soft drinks revolution that has been going on – we had to make the investment.

“At the moment the line is operating 24 hours a day, five days a week. With the rush up to Christmas where everyone is stocking up we can go 24/7 so we have that flexibility.”

Chris is also proud that he is leading a family business on a site that is steeped in history. Burtonwood Brewery dates back to 1865.

Knutsford Guardian:

His dad Peter worked in the brewing industry for more than three decades for Courage and Scottish and Newcastle.

He was then a consultant for World Bank, valuing breweries all over the world, when he saw an opportunity in 1997 to buy Eldridge Pope brewery in Dorchester and make his own name. The next year he took over the Burtonwood site.

Chris, who has been involved with the business since 2008, added: “My dad died in 2011 so I then took over the business with the support of a very strong team.

“My mum Rae sits as chairman. She doesn’t necessarily get involved with the day-to-day but she looks at the strategic longer term and investments bits and she keeps an eye on me! I love working for a family business and we have plenty of families working here.

“We have numbers of people within families of various generations that have worked for us or continue to work for us which is really nice. We probably take more risks than corporate businesses might do. It’s an exciting place to be and I really enjoy it.

“We choose what customers we take on and which direction we feel we should move in.

“I don’t know what trend might be next but there’s definitely big movements in the ‘low and no’ space – things like non alcoholic spirits and low alcohol beers and things like kombucha coming in.

“That might be the next big thing. We just try and keep an eye on what’s going on and who will be the key players.”