Bottle shops give us access to beers which are not available in supermarkets and allow us to buy single bottles for a variety of different brewers which purchasing directly doesn't enable us to do. As such there are a number of challenges faced by these stores which aren't normally considered. I caught up with Kev Thorley from Cambridge Wine Merchants for a chat.
Created in 1993 by two friends Cambridge wine merchants have now become one of the largest independently run wine merchants in the country. They stock wine, spirits and beer and provide wholesale services as well as supply some events. As such there are a number of challenges that face the company which I hadn't previously considered. Fortunately I managed to grab some time with Kev Thorley who is part of the logistics team and more affectionally known as 'the beer guy'.
With the craft beer movement becoming increasingly popular and the demand for the products growing, having bottle shops really helps people gain access to the products. How does this movement and demand for craft beer affect your buying policy? "We like to think we don't follow trends, but instead provide products based on their taste and we aim to have something for everyone. We like to have a range with lots of variety, where we support local brewers such as Elgoods and Oakham as well as getting great beers from further a field, Moor beer Company and Thornbridge, and from more established breweries such as Sam Smith and Harviestoun." Fantastic sentiments and from the different stores I have visited this is definitely something they do very well. Each store seems to have stock tailored to what sells well, with some different beers available for you to try if you are feeling experimental. Also the different stores seem to hold different stock so it's good to go and have a look in some of the other stores as well for new things.
Cambridge Wine Merchants are also in a fortunate position in that they are building a new bigger warehouse where they can store more beer at its optimal storage condition, and a fleet of vans to help with the logistics of transportation and delivery. But by stocking so many different brewers products on the shops shelves maintaining supply from each of these separate brewers must be very difficult even with this logistical team, what sort of things have helped you out as a business? "By having the London and Bristol brewers being willing to work together and share pallets has made things much more cost effective. Meaning we can get their beers to the customer for a better price and therefore, help them to sell more beer." It's great to hear of brewers and distributors really trying to help each other out. One of the things I believe is a real strength of the craft beer scene is the fact that everyone seems to chip in together to assist where they can. This makes things so much easier as well as meaning we can get our hands on a wider range of products.
To try and gain access to a greater range of breweries and products, keeping an eye on what / who is up and coming must be very difficult as a buyer. How do you predict what stuff from smaller guys is going to sell and in what numbers? "Beer festivals are wonderful things where we can go and get to meet people and lean about the products. We like to help out the up and comers who are good people selling great beer. However, it can be difficult at times as you have to get in there early, as when the breweries are growing they can reach the limits of their facilities capacity quite quickly. So they might want to supply you, but just unfortunately can't." "I have also been approached separately and unless they can supply us with a product in a bottle we just can't but from them. It's horrible saying no but sometimes we just have to." It seems like very open working relationships are key to the success of brewers and suppliers as well as the need to be able to supply the product in bottles. However, if the product is good enough to sell I would start out by targeting pubs and selling them casks and kegs before expanding to bottling.
Chatting with Kev was a great insight for me into the work that goes into independent shops stocking craft beer. It is a delicate balancing act which is underwritten by the need for sensible economics. I really have gained a much larger appreciation for all the work that has gone into making it much easier for me to buy brews from smaller breweries, as well as trying stuff from breweries I hadn't heard of before. I would urge you to go and support your local bottle shops as they are putting in enormous amounts of time and effort to ensure you get your hands on beer that is really exceptional, and are offering choice that is not available anywhere else. Without them the craft beer revolution wouldn't be where it is today.