February 12, 2019
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July 21-22, 2019
The vast majority of British beer used to be sold over the bar in pubs, but that’s no longer the case. In 2015 - for the first time - more beer was sold for consumption at home than was drunk on licensed premises. It’s an accelerating trend.
Most of this beer is sold by the major supermarkets, but independent bottle shops - of which dozens have opened in the past five years - are increasingly important in the craft-beer sector.
James Hickson is CEO of Two Heads Beer Co, which operates six bottle shops in south-west London and Kent, under two names: We Brought Beer and The Beer Boutique. Hickson founded We Brought Beer in 2014 when London’s craft beer scene was just starting to pick up the pace.
“Craft beer is entering the mainstream now,” he says. “That means supermarkets have suddenly got decent ranges - that should worry me, I suppose, but overall it’s a good thing. The enemy is people drinking bad beer.”
The variety of beer available in the UK has grown hugely in recent years, so how best to catch James’ eye? Here are his tips.
“The first thing you need to do is send samples sent in, with some information and a handwritten note, too. I got a note from the owner of [a brewery called] Small Beer; it was such a great sample job. He sent two of each of the beers, one for me and one for someone else - a really good sign - with a nice handwritten card. That probably took him a bit of time, but it made the difference. I sent him an email saying, ‘Thank you very much. I appreciate you taking the time to show you care about being in the store’. We don’t have to stock breweries - everyone has to work to be sold, just like we have to work for customers to come into the shop.”
“We have an idea when we see packaging whether it will be successful. Colour works a lot these days - just look at Beavertown. Whether it looks professional is very important; people can see through branding that hasn’t had enough time and money spent on it. It has to be well thought out and coherent. Sometimes we get five different beers from a brewery and they all look different - you think, ‘I don’t understand. Is this all the same brand?’ It can work, but generally not. Five Points [Brewery] is perfect branding - it's quite middle of the road but it's very clear what they do, how they distinguish their different beers. You know where you are.”
“We don’t need to take poor-quality beer any more; we haven’t even got enough space to stock all the beer we want to. We’ve got nearly 400 different lines in each store, and we’re still turning stuff away. I insist on samples - if the beer and the packing are good, we’ll give it a go - but if the beer’s no good it’s a non-starter.
“Often the first few batches are not as good as the 15th or 16th. When we first had Brixton [Brewery], some of their beer wasn’t that great but that’s changed. Three years ago we still sold it because they were local. When I turn breweries down I say ‘it’s not never, just not now’.”
“Pale ales and IPA are our best sellers by a country mile. At the moment New England IPAs are up there; I think we’re selling more than we are than West Coast. That might be because there are more available. When we get a new one, people lap it up.
I think pale ales will always be our biggest sellers in terms of volume. Sours are decent for us; as we come into summer sales [of those] increase. I’ve been very impressed with Brick [Brewery] recently, the Tamarind and Lime Leaf Sour are one of my favourite beers of the year. There are a lot more London breweries making competent sours these days.”
“I’m a big fan of perseverance. It’s the key to sales! I might ignore the first and the second email but you should feel free to persevere. Don’t give up after not hearing back the first time!”
The article is contributed by Will Hawkes. He is a freelance journalist specialising in beer and travel. He is an author of Craft Beer London, a guide to the city's burgeoning beer culture and a regular contributor to a host of publications including The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post and Beer Advocate.
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