Self-serve beer: Trying to replicate Vagabond Wines' success

Will Hawkes

Will Hawkes

23 January 2018

Taste This Beer London boasts beer taps, glasses by the dozen and plenty of tables and chairs – but don’t, whatever you do, call it a bar. 'It’s not a bar, we’re not a pub,' says co-founder Ciaran Gold. 'It’s a beer-tasting venue. That’s a mouthful, I know, but I haven’t thought of a better term yet!'

It’s not the only noteworthy thing about Taste This Beer London, where 32 taps of Belgian beer are on offer. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this Shoreditch pop-up (open until 28 January) is its self-service model, since it’s an idea that has been tried repeatedly in the UK without ever having taken off.

Ciaran Gold
Ciaran Gold

At Christmas in 2016, for example, there was huge excitement about Barclaycard’s ‘Pay@Pump’ system, whereby customers could serve themselves after tapping their cashcard on the base of the beer pump – but little has been heard of it since. Further back, in 2013, The Lazy Fox opened in Fulham with its self-service ‘beer wall’, but despite making a profit it was sold two years later.

Ali Rees knows all about The Lazy Fox, having been part of the company – RPG pubs, now called Tabology – that ran it. He and his colleagues used it to showcase PourTab, its self-serve technology, and - he says - they sold it to focus on honing this application.

More than 100 venues around the world now use this updated and improved system, 15 of them in the UK (including its remaining pub, The Thirsty Bear in Southwark). Rees, though, expects that number to rise dramatically over the next six to 12 months.

'The last 12 months have been a turning point,' he says. 'There’s been a hell of a lot of interest from some of the bigger players, whereas up until now it has been independents or entrepreneurial types. I can’t say [which companies]  they are, but there’s a fair few very actively looking at doing it soon.'

Entrepreneurial spirit

Help yourself: beer Vagabond Wines style
Help yourself: beer Vagabond Wines style

As Rees says, it has been entrepreneurs like Gold, 32, and his Belgian partner Geert Vandenberghe, who run a permanent establishment of the same name in Brussels, who have driven self-service technology. It’s straightforward enough to use: at Taste This Beer London, customers buy a card from the bar, which they can slot into a holder beside the beer of their choice.

A screen – which shows brewer, beer style, abv and IBUs – displays how much credit they have. Glasses are chalice-style, and there are Belgian-style spray rinsers to clean them. Each serving is a third of a pint and costs £4.

That serving size is due to British licensing laws, which insist beer must be served in thirds, halves, two-thirds of a pint and multiples of half a pint. 'It would’ve been great to do free pours, but UK law doesn’t allow it,' Gold says. 'It’s not quite what we want to do but it still works quite nicely. We’re finding a third is about right for people in terms of quantity and being able to taste it.'

The reason Gold is so keen to insist that his establishment is not a bar is because he doesn’t want to encourage the 'lads, lads, lads' culture of some pubs, he says. His average customer thus far has been a late 20s to late 60s professional, not a surprise given the Shoreditch address. Almost as many women have visited as men, he adds.

'We don’t want people to feel pressured, we want them to explore and enjoy,' he says. 'It’s not about getting rounds in or get pints. I’d like to think we’re the equivalent of Vagabond Wines [a wine bar chain in London], which is also self-dispense. We want to show people there’s more to beer than Foster’s.'

Tabology, meanwhile, has found a fertile market in sports clubs. Rees believes more hotels will eventually follow its lead. 'It lends itself to a golf club, a sports club; you’ve got a membership base and you don’t want to have someone manning a bar,' he says. 'I think we’ll see the same in hotels. If you have a B&B and you don’t want to have someone manning a bar… residents can just pour themselves a pint coming in from a night out.'

Tab technology: a thing of the future
Tab technology: a thing of the future

Tabology’s system works similarly to that at Taste This Beer. Customers get a card and buy credit from the bar; there are taps on the table or on a beer wall and the card allows them to pour beer. Customers can also order food from TableTab, an iPad-based system that works alongside the self-service system.

Rees says it has huge benefits for operators. The novelty means lots of free marketing, he says, plus you get 100% yield through the taps; there’s no wastage. He says that customers tend to stay longer and spend more.

'There’s a lot of cross-selling opportunities,' he says. 'People who are having a couple of beers might see burgers scrolling across the screens and they decide to have one… or to play a couple of songs on the jukebox.'

And for customers? 'Once you’ve been to the bar the first time, it’s complete freedom,' he says. 'You pour your own beers and order food from your seats. People say it takes away from the conversational element but we find it enhances it; you're not spending all night getting up and down going to the bar for 15 minutes. You can focus on chatting to your mates.'

A four-tap beer wall costs around £4,500, he says, while a two-tap table set-up with screen to order food and drink is £1,500. 'Quite a lot of that can be subsidised by getting a brewer to sponsor a tap for you,' he says. 'Advertising on the screens can give a return too.'

Rees expects much to happen in the next year. Gold, a former journalist, who only came across the self-serve concept when wandering close to the Grand Place in Brussels last summer, has plans too.

'We’re pretty sure that we’re going to be doing something quite big in the future,' he says. 'We’ve got so many options on the table; we’d love to be here permanently. This is the start for us.'

Could it also be the belated start for self-service beer in the UK? We shall see.


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