Specialist beer shops and craft beer bars are springing up at a rate of knots. Off-licence chains have cottoned on to the fact that beer is trendy. And increasing numbers of independent wine shops are opening up their shelves to products of the grain as well as the grape.
The speciality/craft/premium/ niche beer boom – call it what you will – has seen a rush of new entrants into the beer wholesale market, just as it has in expanding brewery numbers. Consumer and retailer demand to get hold of the next new thing as soon as it hits the streets has increased the pressure on wholesalers to be on their game.
But for now, there seems to be plenty of business to go around.
Zak Avery, co-owner of Belgian and British beer specialist Beer Paradise, says: “This business has been around for about 20 years and my business partner Karen [Annely] and I have owned it for the past five and in pretty much each of those years we’ve seen double-digit growth.”
Such growth opportunities have seen competition hot up in wholesale, but the likes of Beer Paradise and established competitors such as Beer Direct and James Clay have experience on their side.
Avery says: “The feedback we get is that, although we may be a little bit more expensive, the list is great, the service standards are high and we’ve always got good availability of stock.”
This last point is one where wholesalers most frequently let the side down, he feels.
“Anyone can put together a great list of beers,” Avery says, “but you need to have good relationships with brewers to make sure you have all the stock you say you have and on time.”
That consistency of supply also feeds into another important aspect for Avery – making sure that beer is supplied as fresh as possible.
“We did try shipping beer from the US a couple of years ago,” says Avery, “but why bother dragging beer thousands of miles when the UK is so vibrant? It doesn’t arrive as fresh as it should. Even when it’s shipped in refrigerated tanks you can tell when it’s a couple of months old.”
Avery’s service ethic as a wholesaler is moulded by his long experience running the Beer-Ritz beer shop in Leeds. “It probably does help to see the business from both sides,” he says, “to have a clearer understanding of what the customer wants from a wholesaler.”
Warwickshire retailer Leamington Wine Co is among a band of independent wine shops which have built up their beer ranges in response to increased consumer interest in the past couple of years and buys from Beer Paradise, Beer Direct and a relatively recent start- up, West Sussex-based Pig’s Ear.
The shop’s beer expert, Rob Patchett, says: “Each of them has their own strengths in terms of product range and a focus on service. The craft British range from Beer Paradise is awesome and Beer Direct is very solid in Belgium and other European beers.”
But it’s often the service element as much as the product range that scores with independents, for whom managing stock and cashflow are important.
“With Pig’s Ear we are able to build up a pallet, so we can pick a case of one beer and a couple of cases of another beer that it will put to one side for us, and then deliver when we have enough for a pallet.”
The service provides Leamington with a novel solution to the problem independents often face – whatever the product category – of being unable to source certain products because of unrealistically high minimum order requirements.
Patchett adds: “We originally approached it to try to source a particular beer, Wylam Brewery’s Jackhead, but when we got the T&Cs through it was a case of ‘wow, what’s the catch?’”
Another recent wholesale start- up, The Beer Collective, part of the Two Tribes brewing operation, also based in West Sussex, is expanding its footprint in the off-trade after initially focusing on independent bars and restaurants.
It supplies both keg and packaged beer to customers, including the south London beer shop We Brought Beer and Brighton independent Quaff Wines.
The Beer Collective has a core of UK microbrewers that it represents on a continuous basis and supplements that with a rotating selection of beers from a handful of others that change every three months.
Joint managing director Niki Deighton says: “Rather than keep loads of beer in stock for people to order from we try to curate specialised ranges to suit our clients’ needs.”
Deighton says delivering beer at its freshest is part of a core philosophy. “Because we’re a brewer as well we know how to warehouse beer and we keep everything in a cold store to keep it in good condition,” she says.
But she adds that The Beer Collective is aiming to go a step further with its service, with after- sales support for retailers to help them market themselves as beer shops and promote the brews that they stock.
“We’re trying to do a lot more off-trade events to help shops,” Deighton says. “We want wholesaling to be about education, not just selling a product. It’s a different take on the traditional approach to wholesaling which is just getting stuff into the warehouse and getting it out again.”