When specialist beer shop Clapton Craft opened in 2014 in London, the name suggested that there would never be more than one store. But such has been the level of demand for craft beer it has gone on the expansion trail, just like other similar beer-focused independents.
As the company prepares to open its fourth unit in Finsbury Park, co-founder Tom McKim says: “We called it this because we just wanted one beer shop. But the market has moved so fast we’ve needed to keep moving or risk being swamped. Buying beer is part of the trend of people shopping locally, as with butchers and fishmongers, through a renewed sense of community.”
As long as there is a high population density in a location then the catchment area for a bottle shop can be very small and still be successful because customers will invariably carry their beer home. It just needs a small percentage of these local people to use the store regularly.
Location is essential. Smaller towns and high street locations – avoiding the big cities – are the ideal locations for Red Squirrel, which now has five beer shops, including one at its brewery site. These are in Amersham, High Wycombe, Berkhamsted, Chesham and Potten End, and the plan is to have 10 shops operating within three years.
One common theme among the expanding bottle shops in London is that they opened initial units in affordable, up-and-coming areas, which have since seen big changes.
“With the Clapton site we knew the area was changing and it’s the same with our Walthamstow site. It takes time to identify such a site and it can be quite fickle. One block too far and you might not be on the route home,” says McKim.
James Hickson, founder of We Brought Beer, recognises the value of location as he used to find bar sites for Brewdog. He says his first bottle shop benefited from the landlord liking the business plan and giving him a discounted rental break that enabled him to open on a corner unit in Balham just as it was “rejuvenating”.
His learning from adding further sites – a tiny unit in a covered market in Tooting and a larger Clapham shop – is a need to adapt the offer to suit each unit. “Clapham hasn’t got the volumes and footfall of Balham but it has a tasting room so we do food and beer dinners, meet the brewer events, and host a homebrew club every month in order to drive extra revenue streams.”
This need for adaptability will become increasingly important to Hickson as he has big plans. “We’re looking at London villages such as Queen’s Park, Turnham Green, Hammersmith and Mile End. It needs ABC1s with disposable incomes in their early-30s to mid-40s with children, so they want to take beer home. We often have lots of prams in our shops. They are good beer carriers,” jokes Hickson.
All three of these retailers have championed growler fills that dispense draught beer into takeaway vessels. At Clapton Craft these can account for as much as 25% of sales in the summer.
CHANGE OF PLAN
Growler fills are also a feature at the original Brewdog bottle shop, Bottledog in London’s King’s Cross. It was due to be the first of a chain of such stores but Martin Keith, openings and projects manager at Brewdog, says the plan has been changed to incorporate them into the company’s regular bars instead.
“Since Bottledog opened two-and-a-half years ago our core customer has come to associate us with our bars, so we’re now incorporating the bottle shops into these. This increases the bottle list from the typical 30 [in a bar] to more than 200. Corkage can also be paid to drink them in the bar,” says Keith.
Around 10% of floor space is given over to this retail element at seven bars across the UK, and although the percentage of sales generated is modest Keith says it is valuable because it gives a “360° beer experience” for drinkers who might well have travelled some distance to the outlet.
He cites JD Wetherspoon as also recognising the value of offering a bottle shop element as it has introduced large standalone craft beer fridges into many outlets.
At The Counting House in Glasgow it has an area dedicated to a bottle shop that stocks hundreds of beers for take-away.
While Brewdog clearly values having its bottle shops as part of its bars rather than separate entities, Keith says the prospects for dedicated specialist beers shops are bright.
“Buying beer in the supermarket might enable drinkers to catch the bug but then they’ll need to go to a bottle shop. Only there can they ask the guys [behind the counter] about the top IPAs and be taken on the craft beer journey. People love this element of the bottle shops.”
The beer knowledge of staff is the secret weapon of these independents, according to Hickson, who argues that the beer ranges in the likes of Majestic and Oddbins are too mainstream, which means they do not attract the really passionate beer-focused staff.
This ability to appoint enthusiastic members to the team has certainly made the expansion of Clapton Craft easier – particularly when it added its second unit. “The massive thing is letting go,” says McKim. “You can overstate your own importance. We thought that when we weren’t there [in the first shop] customers would walk out. But the manager now is just as passionate as we are. The new wave of beers has inspired people to make a career in this industry.”
While some people join Clapton Craft for the opportunity to stay and grow with the business, McKim says others are there to gain experience then look to open their own beer shops one day.
This certainly suggests there are likely to be more specialist beer outlets springing up in the future, just as high-end specialist wine shops have successfully differentiated their offers from the mainstream players through interesting ranges and passionate employees.