Pushing beer’s boundaries

06 August, 2010

The beer retailing world might have found its own version of the cosmetics chain Lush.

Lush seduces the consumer by way of sensory overload – soaps and bath-bombs sold loose in rainbow colours, and if the sights don’t get you, the heady aroma of some of nature’s sweetest smells will.

Drink is, to date, only a single shop in west London’s Fulham, and its bedrock range of 600 British, Belgian, US and world beers is very good, but hardly unique in the context of the rest of the UK.

But the pots of spices on the counter and blackboard advertising home-made curry pastes certainly are – for a beer shop at least. Like Lush, it’s got a thrilling dash of colour and exotic smells that lift it above beer shop conventions.

Drink is the creation of Shrila Amin, a former teacher and post office manager, whose aim is to bring food and beer together. It’s not just about raw ingredients either – there are home-made snacks and finger food on offer on Saturdays.

She’d long harboured a desire to give her family’s expertise in Gujurati cooking a shop window. A visit to her cousin Jayesh Patel’s Westholme Stores in Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire – where he sells anything from 500 to 800 bottled beers at a time – filled in the gaps.

“So few people know about beer and this is a way of learning about it,” says Amin. “They’ll learn about beers they don’t know – and about a new cuisine at the same time.”?Patel has come on board to advise about the beer line-up, hooking Amin up with Beer Paradise and Pierhead for the international stuff, and drawing on his own contacts with British microbreweries for much of the rest.

In return, Amin is sourcing from micros on her own patch for both businesses, where they won’t deliver as far as Patel’s Oxfordshire base.

Amin acknowledges her cousin is providing valuable business experience while she focuses on the creative element. It’s a division of expertise that also explains why they have differing views on whether the concept could roll out. Amin favours consolidating the first site but Patel suggests it could have legs. As sole shareholder, Amin gets the final say.

“You’ve got to get the right spot,” says Patel. “It’s got to be an affluent area. And the rent and rates would be a problem in lots of areas of London. Frankly, one of the reasons this works is because Shrila already owns the freehold.”?But commercial limitations aside, Patel argues that it’s concepts such as this that could take beer retailing to another level, giving the category an injection of profitability by persuading people there really is a good reason to pay more for beer.

“There’s a big hole in this market, especially for beers from smaller brewers who don’t want to – or can’t – deal with the supermarkets,” says Patel.

“I did a test in my place by taking out cans altogether – people don’t stop buying beer, they walk out with bottles instead and we sell higher-margin products.

“I had a regular who only wanted to buy Stella Artois, but when I showed him some lighter ales that were closer to a lager in style, he realised they were not too far from what he was used to and they tasted great. Now, he only buys the lighter ales.”?Amin had long harboured a desire to showcase her sister’s cooking talents in a business context and a visit to Patel’s shop provided the inspiration.

“I fell in love with the beer labels and could just see a shop full of bottles of beers looking really pretty. But the beer on its own was not enough; it was a creative thing – one led to the other.”?The success of Drink – which despite the all-embracing name sells only a few premium-priced wines and no spirits – could hinge on how successfully Amin can marry the beer and food elements of the business. Selling both is one thing, but getting them to drive each other is another.

A sign in the window promising a search for products from the “aromatic spice markets of Gujurat, India, to the barley fields of Berkshire” is a good start. Food-matching tastings and brewer talks will be another step in the right direction.

Linking up with a micro to produce its own curry-matched ale could be another. The Drink team is keen to avoid the convention that suggests only generic lager can go with Indian food, or that a special brew would have to involve adding gimmicky spices.

“When you go to an Indian restaurant, why should it just be Cobra or Kingfisher with curry?” asks Patel. “There’s not much difference between Cobra and Carling, Foster’s or lots of other lagers, so there’s no real reason why that should be the one you drink with Indian food.

“People don’t think in that way when they buy wine to go with a meal, so why do they with beer? Why shouldn’t you drink an ale with a curry??“I’ve got a friend with a restaurant in Reading and we helped him put some Good Old Boy from the West Berkshire Brewery in there and it’s selling well – beers like that will if you give people a choice.”?Amin adds: “You’ve already got spices in the food, so why do you need them in the beer as well? You might drink white wine with curry because it’s more fruity and complements the food better than red, but it doesn’t have spices in it.

“The whole concept is about making connections with people but allowing them the freedom to match any food with a range of beers. It’s all about the senses and the emotions.”

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