The Drinks Retailing Awards is a wonderful event. As you might imagine, it isn't so much the food, drink and spectacle of it that I like (but of course, that helps)
and although the event wouldn't happen without substantial patronage from the big boys, that isn't what excites me either. No,
it's the independent players getting their recognition that really makes me happy.
The year we won the gong for Best Independent Beer Retailer (2003 - can it really be five years already?) was something of a watershed for us. I thought
it would be relatively easy to whip up a storm of free publicity on the back of the accolade
and, to a certain ext ent, I was right. Press releases were issued, news articles written, and a certain amount of traffic generated. But the big difference it made was in the way that I thought about the business. We're a small shop, with an awful lot of good beer
and a steady trickle of customers.
How to get them interested in what we want to sell them? As a specialist beer retailer, I've spent a lot of time gently persuading ordinary people to trade up from cans of generic fizzy yellow to something a bit more interesting
or, at the very least, perhaps something bottled.
People looking for beer to go with a curry are an easy target - they already want to buy a bottled beer (Cobra or Singha, usually)
and so have the idea that bottled beer and food go together. Once that seed is planted, it's a slow coax to get them to (for example) Budvar, to perhaps some pale hoppy English ale, and then gradually persuade them that a modest investment of time and money will eventually reward them with more pleasure and satisfaction than they ever thought
an apparently humble foodstuff
such as beer would give.
But of course, you have to be gentle in your approach. Even the curious can be frightened off by too big a surprise - there's a world of difference between Cobra and Sam Smith's Imperial Stout. It takes time for the palate to become accustomed to the great beers of the world, and longer still to build up a knowledge and appreciation of them.
I still can't quite get my head around the artisanal, unsweetened gueuzes from the Belgian Cantillon brewery, so chances are
I'll do more harm than good by springing them on someone before they're ready for it. The conversion has to be done incrementally, one step at a time, not by smashing a bottle of Deschutes
over the head of a Carling fanatic. Although now I think of it, there are a couple of customers who might benefit from that sort of treatment.
Enjoying more unusual beers can confer a kind of exclusiv eness
but for me, inclusiv eness is the key. I've got a passion for great beer, but I also know
there is some pleasure to be found in almost any brew, even if that pleasure is solely to slake a thirst or
rouse an appetite. Beer appreciation doesn't begin and end at drinking the rarest, strongest, wildest beers imaginable. That's
beer snobbery. I want to include everyone in my enthusiasm for great beers
and I'm going to do that one beer at a time, gradually moving people on from what you, I and every right-thinking person knows to be boring beer,
to something more interesting. And I'm sure
the winners at the Drinks Retailing Awards this week feel the same about their speciality.