Watching the market

25 January, 2008

After countless trips to Belgium, Chris Gill took a keen interest in the beer. Nigel Huddleston talks to him about his compact stall at New Spitalfields

An early contender for promotion of the year can be found at Quaffs, the speciality beer retailer that opened in an adjoining pair of stalls in the fine food market at New Spitalfields in London last summer.

Buy 24 bottles of beer

and they'll give you a wheeled suitcase worth £60 to get them home in. The deal is a hangover from owner Chris Gill's previous life as luggage salesman and he admits that it will be strictly "while stocks last".

With daily sales of bottles of beer at the three-figure mark, and a growing reputation on the London beer scene, we can expect Quaffs to be around for a good deal longer than its expensive freebies.

Quaffs replicates the model of Borough Market's Utobeer, albeit on a smaller scale and in a more diverse trading setting. Alongside the fine food market's stalls selling oysters, salads, tea, pies and che ese, are others selling non-foodie stuff.

Driven by Gill's own knowledge and passion, the range is Belgian-skewed, and his fixtures and fittings have been cobbled together with the help of the Ikea catalogue at a cost of £1,000, but look custom-built for the job in hand.

Under market rules Quaffs only opens on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Why did you decide to enter the

low-margin world of beer retailing?

I used to work for Samsonite, which has its European headquarters at Oudenaarde in Belgium, and used to

go out there for meetings, which is where my interest in Belgian beer started.

I'd always had

a passion for beer anyway. We started making special trips to load up the car with beers for personal consumption

and a lot of friends who came round for dinner would try them and say how much they liked them, which made me think there could be something in it.

I was sick to the back teeth with luggage and wanted a change . When the opportunity

to do this came up I decided to take the plunge.

Why didn't you just open a

conventional shop?

We looked at a shop, but even in a secondary location like Epsom, where I live, you'd have to sell something like 700 bottles a week just to cover the rent. Here, the rent is relatively reasonable, although we do only trade for three days a week. But because we're on the fine food market there's an opportunity to link up with the other stalls to make it work. Borough Market is the most established, but Utobeer is already there and doing a great job. The advantage Spitalfields has over Borough is that it has other sorts of retailers like jewellers and clothes shops, so it's not just attracting the foodies.

What sort of people do you and the market attract?

There's a lot of diversity in the fine food market and everyone has their own little nuances and differences in their offering. The people who seek us out aren't looking for Stella, they're open to new things and accepting of something different.

On Thursdays and Fridays we get a lot of office workers browsing in their lunch hour, but the key day

is Sunday.

Spitalfields is

well known as a Sunday market and there's Brick Lane nearby which also brings people into the area. We have had a lot of Belgian visitors seeking us out, but they don't buy any beer!

How do you go about kitting out an outside space?

The shelving units are all from Ikea

and I've bolted four units together to make a fixture that folds into a storage case at night. I put load-bearing casters for 200kg each on them and heavy-duty hasps and locks on them. We've even got a fridge for chilled beer and that acts as my counter as well. We're small and fairly perfectly

formed, so every square inch has to work for us.

Tell us more about your range.

We've got

around 150

beers and the emphasis is on Belgium, which probably has about 100. We've got six of the seven Trappist beers, several abbey brews and Cantillon and Girardin

Gueuze, as well as wheat and fruit beers. Then we've got a section for Germany and US microbrewers, our own Ascot Ales from the UK [see beer news, page 40], Pitfield which is nearby, and some from Austria, France and Australia.

What motivates the casual shopper to buy beers?

Label appeal is very important.

Delirium Tremens is probably our best seller after fruit beers - because of the packaging. We can leave Gulden Draak on the bottom shelf because people are just drawn to its white bottle anyway.

People like the Flying Dog beers from the US because of the Ralph Steadman labels, especially the Gonzo Imperial Porter that came out in honour of Hunter S Thompson.

We've got our own shelf-talkers with pictures and descriptions and I always try to have an image of the beer poured into a glass so they can get an idea of the colour.

What about sampling?

There is a lot of product sampling on the market and we have done it, but I've pulled back from it, because you tend just to see hands reaching in to take a sample and the people doing it don't even stop to find out what the beer is.

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