The market’s insatiable desire for craft beer and cider has given birth to a new breed of fast-moving, bespoke suppliers. Susanna Forbes takes a look at the distribution companies who could sex up your offering overnight
Ten years ago, beer and cider buying for the vast majority of on-trade establishments was easy. Just add it onto the softs order. Or buy it all from one big, national brewer’s list. It’ll turn up. It will be consistent. Job done.
OK, I’m simplifying things a bit, but you get the point. That won’t wash today. The explosion in craft beer and the geekiness of customers has changed everything. Your drinkers want more, and if you want to stand out, you, as the drinks maestro, need to be not just up-to-date but leading the way.
But in this day and age, when stockholdings frighten finance directors and a hip brewery emerges every week, how can you be more nimble than your neighbour?
How about being able to split your case orders? Or dealing directly with the brewery, so you can ensure getting the freshest stock possible?
And if it’s cider you are contemplating, what about a supplier who assesses your needs and brings you a bespoke selection? Or one who wants to spend as much time with your chef discussing food matching as he does with you, the drinks controller?A utopian dream? Hearteningly, no.
Over the last five years, the beer and cider revolution has given birth not just to innovative producers but to savvy sellers too. These are the guys with the Rainwaters and Tom Olivers of this world on speed dial; the ones who are changing the face of the nation’s drinks lists.
Ahead of the curve
While service remains vital and prices still need to be keen, it’s the need to keep up with developments – and the demands of hyper-techy beer lovers – that has changed the beer scene most significantly.
Buying teams are more horizontal in today’s beer suppliers. One person may do the negotiations, but all staff chip in with ideas at venues such as Pig’s Ears. It supplies craft beer to places like Mother Kelly’s, the US-style tap room in London’s Bethnal Green where hundreds of beers stuff the gleaming fridge walls.
‘What’s key for me is how fresh their beers are, and if they can deliver the new stuff,’ says Melissa Guery, Mother Kelly’s manager. ‘They are very convenient and there’s no minimum order.’
Ah yes. Minimum spend… This is where technology comes in. Beer Hawk’s new trade arm allows you to pick’n’mix your order. No longer does Harrogate’s Nordic foodie haven Norse need to carry drinks stock valued at £9,000. While core beers come from key suppliers like Cave Direct and Beer Paradise, director Paul Rawlinson uses Beer Hawk ‘to expand the range, to fill in the gaps in styles and to cover any short-notice stock issues’. As a result, his stock level per line can be as few as, say, five bottles of beer.
Sophisticated websites enable variety too. EeBria Trade connects customers directly with over 200 breweries, allowing them ‘to access a far wider selection,’ according to EeBria CEO David Jackson. This is important for Nick Chappells, manager of Nottingham beer bar Junkyard.
‘We are constantly rotating our 15 taps,’ he says, explaining the need for 40 to 50 different kegs in a week. Innovative touches on EeBria Trade’s website include the chance to select beer preferences, including one for how adventurous your customers are.
Traditional suppliers, too, are also rewriting the rule book. Carlsberg has its inspiring Crafted portfolio, Bibendum has Instil Drinks, and Matthew Clark gathers its craft beer and cider offer under the Boutique Beers umbrella.
The Yew Tree Inn in Cheshire won SIBA’s 2016 Best Craft Beer Bar award for 2016, and owner Jon Cox speaks highly of Matthew Clark, with a sound relationship and a reliable service topping his ‘good supplier’ checklist. But it was the opportunity for his staff to meet dozens of brewery reps at the Boutique Beer roadshow that he rated ‘fantastic’.
Restaurants, too, have the chance to benefit from a ‘merchant-like’ approach with beer. Realising he’d never seen a beer rep when in charge of west London’s Dock Kitchen, Nick Trower spotted an opportunity.
Applying the same sort of service a wine supplier would, Trower’s offer, Biercraft, includes mixable cases and services such as beer list curation. While over three-quarters of his clients are restaurants, Young’s and Geronimo Inns have also signed up.
Cider is rosy
While volume cider brands will remain the mainstay of the hospitality industry, arguably this is the category with the most potential to transform its future.
‘I didn’t have any ciders [on my list]until I met Felix [Nash],’ says John Ogier, co-founder of London’s Michelin-starred Lyle’s. Renowned for his seasonal approach, Ogier says, ‘I used to love Breton cider. But I refused to list French ciders when the UK does so many. Yet I hadn’t tried one that I liked.’ Then Nash came along.
Nash brings the terroir of cider to town, providing customers with tailored selections to sample. As the UK begins to follow the US example – viewing cider in more wine-like terms – varietal and vintage variations start to surface, requiring a more involved and different selling approach.
‘The nature of cider at its best – very seasonal, small batch, of wonderful and ever-changing variation – means that the role of the ‘distributor’ goes far deeper than logistics,’ says Nash. ‘We look to work with [restaurants]across the seasons, finding new offerings as small batches run dry.’
In most venues, real cider knowledge remains extremely limited – a factor that new set-ups such as Dan Heath’s The Cider Box, Alice Churchward’s The Real Al and The Bristol Cider Shop seek to address.
With The Cider Box and The Real Al, in-depth insight gained from growing up surrounded by orchards gets translated into extensive training programmes and engaging customer events. Heath has taken education one step further, enabling the Antic pub group to blend its own cider with award-winning Pilton Cider.
Do it yourself
Frustrated beer buyers can be the most determined individuals. Nigel Garlick set up Left Coast Distribution in Nottingham when he realised the only way to import a beer pallet from California was to do it himself.
He travelled to the West Coast, returning with eight breweries on board. While the focus has moved northwards, to Washington and Oregon, the goal remains the same: to find the ‘younger independents that are going to go places’.
In search of more control and better margins, a number of single-minded beer hotspots have set up their own distribution businesses, with two notable examples being Bethnal Green’s Mother Kelly’s and The Hanging Bat in Edinburgh.
Also exploiting their honed network of connections, a number of modern breweries, including FourPure in London, Purity in the Midlands and Black Jack in Manchester, have established their own distribution companies. Their ranges? Often similarly innovative beers that you would fine emanating from their own breweries.
So what are you waiting for?