We live in an age where a decent beer can be purchased from almost any retailer. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a student bar, gastropub, at a festival or popping to your closest Tesco Express, the choice and variety of IPAs, APAs, PAs, ales, lagers and the rest is the greatest it has ever been. What a time to be alive.
I can remember when my local supermarkets started upping their beer game. Slowly but surely, cans and bottles started to appear on the shelves that one would only usually encounter behind the bar of a reputable pub. I’m a pub loon, obviously, but there were certainly years of longing for greater variety from the dreaded off-trade (even pub journalists have to stay at home some evenings). But those years of poor choice have since been forgotten. Beer is now here, there and everywhere, much to my (and thousands of others’) satisfaction.
The fact that places like Tesco Express can now quench the public’s thirst for beer variety is, understandably, rather alarming for the pub trade. Much like when M&S introduced its ‘gastropub range’ of ready meals, this industry has yet again had to endure another threat from supermarkets through the replication of offer. They say that copying is the highest form of flattery. In which case, I think pubs have been flattered enough now, don’t you? Pubs are great. We know this. Now bugger off and get your own ideas.
Here’s where we arrive at what is known as a middle ground; the blurred lines; the, dare I say it, happy medium? I’m talking about bottle shops, or the modern day representation of. I can’t remember precisely when they appeared, but immediately outside my local train station in south east London there are two of these contemporary units. Small sites, humble signage, hundreds of beers. Posters advertising tasting sessions and meet the brewer nights offer marketing examples reminiscent of the pub trade, but to what extent are these shops competition? Should the on-trade be wary of the bottle shop boom, or should these particular retailers be embraced as pioneers of preaching the beer range gospel? As you’re reading the positive pages of Pub & Bar, let’s focus on the latter, shall we?
It all adds up
In the town of Dorking, Surrey, there’s a quaint little road filled with antique shops named West Street. This street is also home to three pubs and, since 2012, a little beer shop called Cobbetts. Now Cobbetts is sat right next door to The Old House, a popular Young’s pub that does a decent trade and has done in spite of a shop opening up next-door that offers a wonderful array of beers and the choice to drink in or take away. On Friday and Saturday evenings, Cobbetts is just as busy as The Old House. This is merely one small example of what is being seen in so many towns around the UK – the combined offer of the two different businesses acts as a strengthened customer draw to the mutual benefit of both outfits.
“I think there’s a nice symbiotic relationship that can be achieved,” says Jules Gray, co-owner of Hop Hideout in Sheffield. “It’s about finding that mutual benefit and balance. People try beers in the local pub and come to us to buy to take home. Lots of people also buy new beers we recommend in-store and then we advise where they can try this on draught locally.”
It’s a point that’s applicable to many topics covered in this magazine – as consumers increase their knowledge on a product, they seek to find experiences to satisfy their newly-educated preferences when drinking or dining out of home. Beer is one of the greatest examples of this. No longer does everyone order their go-to pint. Instead, people are studying pump clips and peering into fridges to see what’s available and what they might not have tried before. Or, as is increasingly the case, to find that beer they’ve recently tried elsewhere.
“I think specialist beer shops like ours add to the general excitement around craft beer,” says Jen Ferguson, director of Hop Burns & Black in East Dulwich, London. “We educate and inspire our customers about great beer, meaning they want to go out and find more of it.”
There isn’t really a natural order to who inspires whom when it comes to beer, particularly with the amount of accessibility seen on our high streets. An introduction could come from a pub, then again it could come from a bottle shop. Saying that, it might be from a brewer or even through a marketing agency. But, of course, there are also word of mouth recommendations to consider. And we thought chickens and eggs were up for debate.
The guys behind Hop Hideout took their own inspiration from the resurgence of the indie beer scene witnessed at various beer festivals around the country, many of which would have been held at pubs.
“We had thought about opening a micropub, but decided that our vision of a beer shop and tasting room fitted more with the breadth of beer styles and breweries we were excited about,” explains Gray.
One thing’s for sure, there are many who have thought along the same lines as Gray and her co-founder Will Linford. Since they opened Hop Hideout three and a half years ago, they have seen six more bottle shops open in Sheffield. The growth of this format has been fast and fierce, no doubt witnessed a little unnervingly by those shops that have been running for a while longer. Take Beer-Ritz in Leeds for example. Here is a bottle shop that has been in operation for over 19 years, introducing customers to great beers for nearly two decades – that’s an impressive timeline. Beer-Ritz will be one of the few bottle shops to feel the effect (positive or otherwise) of other similar openings over the past five years or so. But despite the dramatic increase in numbers, James Macdonald, manager of the shop, believes there’s plenty of room for more.
“There has certainly been a big upsurge in new bottle shops over the last couple of years,” he says. “We have three more competitors in Leeds than we did when I first started here five years ago. Because more people are realising that bottle shops can offer large ranges, and customers have the flexibility of being able to drink their purchases wherever they like, I think there’s still plenty of room for growth.”
“It’s going to be interesting to see how the independent beer retail scene plays out over the next few years,” adds Ferguson. “We’re seeing new beer shops popping up all over the place – some folks are really pushing the boundaries, but a few clearly have pound signs in their eyes and are just jumping on the bandwagon.”
This is inevitable. Many pub and bar operators have successfully transformed a former retail space into a licensed on-trade venue (look at Loungers, MEATliquor et al), but some of those operators are now looking at the bottle shop option as an alternative and cheaper business proposition. As Macdonald from Beer-Ritz says, “the economy of running a shop is very different to running a bar”, so it only makes sense for certain operators to look at adding a bottle shop to their estate, particularly the brewers.
Move with the times
The online element to bottle shops is another reason for their success. From pre-ordering and collection, to sending someone some birthday beers, this retail revenue stream is one that pubs and bars will find much more tricky to harness. If you ask a pub operator about future growth and expansion, they’ll tell you all about property and rates. Whereas if you ask a bottle shop owner, you’ll most likely find out how well their online activity is going and that’s where the growth lies.
“We’ve been seeking the perfect location for our second outlet for some time now,” says Ferguson. “We’ve also seen our online arm wildly exceed our projections, both through regular orders and our high-end All Killer No Filler subscription box. We’re curtailed only by space constraints for fulfilment, which is something we’re about to address.”
This success has no doubt contributed to the fact that Hop Burns & Black has seen its revenue for beer sales to July 2017 increase by 41% on the previous year. There’s a similar story up in Sheffield, with Hop Hideout’s website revenue up 24% year-to-date, with an increased basket spend average of over £30.
“Our website/mail-order and subscription club offering is the big focus for us this year,” explains Gray. “After that, let’s see what 2018 brings.”
Let’s see indeed. With online activity reinforcing the popularity of high street bottle shops and the public’s interest and knowledge around the beer category only increasing, the future is bright for the hop shop lot. This is without even highlighting the added opportunities presented by delivery companies, as well as just how many breweries are popping up all over the place.
Is this good or bad news for the pub and bar industry? I would argue the former. The most successful operators out there passionately state that they don’t have on-trade competitors – only peers. Together they champion the industry and the importance it has in our economy and lifestyles, and bottle shops can only add to that high street strength.
“It’s not just about stocking shelves with every single new beer and waiting for people to come into your business to buy them,” states Gray. “We’re very much focused on community, events, sharing knowledge, and a healthy balance with our running and bike clubs.”
These businesses deliver friendly customer service, community spirit, product education and social engagement – all key elements that make up on-trade hospitality. If bottle shops not only embody what the pub and bar market stands for, but also help encourage more people to learn about beer through paying a visit to their local high street, the benefits for both models are ready to be developed and utilised, leading to a greater shelf life for all.