The brewer, Robinsons, has a history dating back to 1838, while the retailer, the Co-op, was born within six years of this in 1844. As an additional coincidence, both grew up around the Manchester area.
On paper it looks like the perfect mix, but this recipe has an added ingredient: it also involves the consumer. An intriguing project and we couldn’t resist visiting Robinsons in Stockport to find out more.
Robinsons is still family run – in fact, 11 members of the family are currently involved and the striking Unicorn Brewery sits on the site of William Robinson’s original Unicorn pub where it all started.
It’s a traditional brewer in many ways, but five years ago Robinsons reached new audiences with its bold Trooper Ale collaboration with Iron Maiden. More than 5 million pints of Trooper were sold in its first year and it is now exported to 55 countries.
John Robinson, brands manager and sixth- generation family member, says: “A sleepy Cheshire brewer teaming up with a heavy metal rock band did surprise a few people, but the shopper profile is good – it appeals to younger drinkers right through to retirees and it has really put us on the world map.”
Other recent brews – such as Beardo, Mojo and Dizzy Blonde – also show the company isn’t stuck in the past, while its hi-tech bottling line, which now supplies 60 contract customers, proves the company can cope with different demands.
The success of Trooper led to some frenzied activity on Ebay, where fans around the world have been known to pay £5 for an empty bottle. “Iron Maiden fans are bonkers,” Robinson says, although he admits the brewer has more Trooper-related plans in the pipeline.
But it is this adventurous spirit that helped propel Robinsons on to the radar of the Co-op, which needed an innovative brewing partner for its latest project.
CO-OP SEEKS A BREWER
The first thing to note about the Co-op’s latest beer project is that it coincided with last September’s relaunch of its membership scheme.
The new membership benefits are multifaceted, but as part of this relaunch the retailer particularly wanted to encourage its members to have a say in how the company is run. Kate Flanagan, off-trade and export sales manager, says: “Because the Co-op is owned by its members the relaunch of the membership scheme aims to give something back to them.
The launch of the first own-label craft beer range is the first of a number of projects through the year called Member Voice. It’s all about letting members actually influence what is in the store.”
One of the first Member Voice engagements involved giving 100 members six bottles of wine to host tastings.
The Co-op asked for their thoughts and now tasting notes appear on the point-of-sale material in the retailer’s Holmfirth store, closest to where these members all live.
Of course retailers are always trying to forge better connections with their shoppers, so have the Co-op’s members really been inspired by this relaunch?
Sarah Benson, the Co-op’s beers, wines and spirits marketing manager, says it’s been a huge success. “Members can log in and see what opportunities are available, so it can range from commenting on gluten-free products to giving feedback on pizza toppings.” She adds: “ When we relaunched the scheme we aimed to have one million new members by the end of the first year but we actually got 500,000 in the first month.
“For this beer project we invited members to sample the three recipes and give their comments and we had 400 members reply within just 30 minutes. We capped it at 100, and they tried all three beers without knowing the beer style or brewery name. All sent in their feedback and we selected the comments that we felt best fitted the beer to highlight on the bottles.”
It’s the first stage of a bigger project, which will spill out of the beer category and into other segments of the store. In addition – as Richard Dennett, senior BWS buyer, notes – the hope for the future is that members will be involved at an earlier stage of the beer production.
“Eventually we would like to get the members even more involved in actually choosing the flavours and being involved right at the start of the project, but we are not quite at that stage yet. We are continuing to develop both our own-label and craft beer ranges.”
The project is also part of the Co-op’s continued drive to support local producers, and it already has other key brewers in mind for its next beer launches.
The 100 members who tasted these three beers said they would like more local ales. As a result of this the retailer has identified a Welsh brewer, one in Cornwall and another in Bristol for its next beer projects.
Already this month it has listed beers from two Truro breweries – Wooden Hand and Skinner’s - in 40 Cornwall Co-ops.
“We have been working this way since September last year and we have collated more than 800 hours of member feedback – and we have had close to 4,000 members who have given feedback to us,” says Benson.
This amount of feedback in just six months sounds like a bit of an administrative headache, but it’s an impressive level of engagement from the Co-op’s shoppers, who, let’s not forget, represent a lot of the UK’s super-busy, time-poor impulse shoppers from all corners of the country.
Has the Co-op found a unique way of engaging with those who have little time to shop but seemingly plenty of time to give online feedback?
Only time will tell but for the moment it’s clear that beer is a category shoppers are passionate about, and the Co-op’s beer team is welcoming this with open arms.
CO-OP’S THREE NEW OWN-LABEL BEERS
The three new craft own-label beers are: Golden Ale, IPA and Triple Hop. The beers will go into around 80% to 90% of the Co- op’s estate.
Richard Dennett, senior buyer for BWS, says: “In terms of flavour these beers are very much on trend. Golden Ale and IPA are extremely popular at the moment. We wanted something different with the Triple Hop. It’s my personal favourite but it probably won’t be the bestseller of the three as it’s a more complex beer.
“We also wanted something different with the labels. These are moving us away from where we have been in a lot of other categories but it is where we are going and hopefully it won’t alienate too many people. We’ve used iconic scenes to show it is brewed in Manchester but it’s an important nod to our roots in the same area.”
All three beer samples were sent to the selected 100 Co-op members, and feedback from three– Michael Gibbons, Tom Packman and Sam Dineley – now appears on the bottle labels. These three were also invited to the Robinsons Brewery for a tour and to witness the first production run of the beers before they appeared on shelves.
GOLDEN ALE, 4% ABV (50CL BOTTLE): Hops: Chinook (US) Bramling Cross (UK), Goldings (UK)
A smooth ale with a golden caramel complexion. The perfect beer for a summer garden.” Michael Gibbons, Co-op member, Luton.
IPA, 4.5% ABV (50CL BOTTLE): Hops: Goldings (UK), Cascade (US), Bramling Cross (UK), Target (UK), Bobek (Slovenia)
Good traditional IPA. Voluminous, good body and fruity hop.” Tom Packman, Co-op member, Essex.
TRIPLE HOP, 5.5% ABV (33CL BOTTLE): Hops: Cascade (US), Golding (UK), Bramling Cross (UK), Chinook (US)
A complex but contemporary blend of hops gives this beer a rich and rounded flavour with a subtle and smooth aftertaste.” Sam Dineley, Co-op member, Bristol.