After two years pulling pints at the family pub in Perthshire, Fred Wilde decided to step out of the bar and enter into the retail world by opening his own off-licence.
In partnership with his wife's parents and siblings, he set up The Scottish Real Ale Shop in what was once a microbrewery, next door to The Lade Inn, in the town of Callander. Dedicated solely to bottled Scottish beers, the shop opened in December 2006 with an official launch to the public this month.
OLN caught up with Wilde to find out how the shop fared in its first few weeks and to learn more about the passion behind the project.
It was a brave move to swap the on-trade for the off-trade - did you have any previous experience in retail before opening?
Before we came to the pub in 2005, I'd worked in a variety of high street wine shops, including Oddbins and Unwins, and was manager at Fresh & Wild wholefood store in London. I also did a stint in Australia at an organic supermarket. I was always interested in local produce, and real ale was an extension of that. Even so, I had to convince my business partners - i.e. my wife Alison, her mum, dad and brother - that this new shop concept would work!
How has trade been in these first few months?
The shop, like the pub, is slap bang in the middle of the tourist route through Scotland. We get a lot of passing trade from people going up to the Highlands and islands on holiday, although most of our current trade has been repeat custom from the local town. It has been quiet of late, but then it's a quiet time of year.
How much money did you invest in the business?
The shop building cost nothing as it belonged to the pub. It was once a microbrewery, but after a bit of a hoo-ha and some technical difficulties we found we were unable to brew there , so we were looking for something else to do with the building. So far, my partners and myself have invested ú20,000 in getting the stock together.
Any problems setting up?
It was a very smooth process. The only problem has been finding a way to get the beers to the shop. I try and get them delivered direct if I can, to cut out the middlemen, but it's not always feasible to drive to the middle of nowhere to pick up a crate of beer or some samples. It's amazing , even today, some of the medium-sized breweries have no distribution network set up. We hope to change that.
Why do you think Scotland needs such a shop? Why hasn't it been done before?
The brewing industry in Scotland is still relatively young and it hasn't been given the exposure it has had in England. Brewers are a naturally insular and protective species, and like to keep their recipes hidden, but at the end of the day they need to sell their products. Up to this point, most of the beers have been sold through their own brewery websites, but we want to provide them with a central outlet. We want to be the hub for real ales in Scotland and help microbreweries distribute their bottled beers to a public long starved of choice.
What does the range include?
We already have 100 bottled ales and we intend to stock every bottled beer from every brewery in Scotland, big or small. We have some from the well- known names such as Caledonian and Belhaven - who have been very supportive - but our main focus is on the small breweries and more obscure beers.
We also have three of our own-label beers in the shop: WayLade, LadeBack and LadeOut, which are brewed for us by Douglas Ross at Traditional Scottish Ales. But more and more beers come out of the woodwork each week and the numbers continue to rise - it's exciting to think about what samples we might get next week.
So what do you think will be the next big thing?
Organic beers are definitely piquing interest and we have a range of them here, but also fusion and flavoured beers such as Kelpie (seaweed beer) brewed by Heather Ale in Strathaven, or Blackford 1488 whisky ale, produced by the Tullibardine distillery, which is matured in whisky casks and has a unique, peaty flavour.
Do you think there are differences between the English and Scottish ale markets?
I think the market has gone stagnant down south, lots of the breweries are privately owned and there's no real variety or ingenuity any more. In Scotland it's still a growing market and we've certainly not succumbed to branding as much here.
What are your plans?
We'll have a website and online ordering service up and running by the middle of the year and we have plans to expand the shop concept into other areas of Scotland, probably one of the i slands.
Wilde's top tips
"We devised a special labelling system, so customers know exactly what to look for. We tie a colour-coded tag around each bottle neck, which denotes the style of beer : green is for our organic range, red for our amber ale, yellow for wheat beer and so on. On the bottle label we also have a bit of background history or recipes where applicable, and a brief description. If people don't know what they like they can find it straight away and we've had some very positive feedback from customers about this approach."