A young couple are inspecting the shelves at a smart new off-licence in East London. Despite a bewildering selection, they know what they want. The man, tall and bearded, selects a bottle from the shelf. “This is good,” he says, turning the bottle in his hand so his partner can see the label. “We had it at the pub the other night, do you remember?”
Wine? Not this time. The bottle is filled with beer, and the off-licence is Clapton Craft, which opened barely a month ago.
A renewed interest in craft beer has seen breweries open up across the country (London alone has more than 60 now, albeit many of them are tiny), enabling pubs to liven up their offering, while supermarkets and convenience stores report a booming trade in bottled real ale.
But Clapton Craft is by no means the only independent to open on the high street specialising exclusively in beer. Other new openings include Beer Moth in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, The Bottle Shop in Canterbury and Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green. Meanwhile, Brewdog, craft beer’s eternal sullen teenager, has opened a bottle shop in Kings Cross, London, with two more to follow this year, while Oddbins, better known for wine, reports craft beer sales growth of 456% over the past three years.
It’s this booming interest in good bottled beer that led Tom McKim and business partner Will Jack to open Clapton Craft. “Will had the idea for quite a while to have somewhere where you could buy beer from a keg, but it was while we were working at Borough Wines in Stoke Newington that we decided to take the plunge,” says McKim. “We were selling more and more beer - there seemed to be a gap in the market, a divide between what you could get at the pub and at home.”
Like many of those driving the bottle shop phenomenon, McKim doesn’t believe it will have a negative effect on pubs, although given that Clapton Craft offers keg beer to take away in growlers (beer jugs), plenty will disagree. For Scott Davies, co-owner of Beer Moth, it’s more a case of drinkers wanting higher quality beer at home as well as at the pub; as with wine and cheese, modern consumers increasingly only want the best.
“People have always drunk at home,” he says. “You can’t have a barbecue without a few beers, for example, although as beer gets more expensive it’s probably easier to buy from a shop. I think the real trend is that people are drinking less, but better.”
Diverse customer base
You might imagine that the regular customers at Clapton Craft and Beer Moth would be a middle age, middle class male. Both McKim and Davies insist their clientele is far wider than that. “We get younger people, real ale drinkers, a lot of women. It’s hard to pick a typical customer,” says McKim.
“Without old-fashioned things like quality and integrity, the c-word doesn’t mean diddly”
There is an element of fashion, of course, and this worries some of the more experienced heads in the trade. Few know or care more about craft beer than Zak Avery, co-owner of Beer Ritz, a Leeds bottle shop that preceded the current boom by a good few years, and one of the country’s most well-known beer writers (having won the Guild of British Beer Writers’ Beer Writer of the Year in 2008). He fears that in the current excitement over craft beer, not enough attention is being paid to quality. “Craft beer is perceived as being this new and exciting thing that is going to change the world, but without old-fashioned things like quality and integrity, the c-word doesn’t mean diddly,” he says. “There’s going to be a big shake-out over the next few years at all levels - production, distribution, retail, consumption - and then the brave new world of post-craft beer will be upon us.”
A growing understanding of beer among consumers will help in this respect. Drinkers are increasingly savvy about their beer: McKim says pale ales - many highly hopped with American and Antipodean varieties - are his biggest sellers, but adds that people are more and more keen to try other things, from IPAs (essentially stronger pale ales) to sour beers.
The new bottle shops are certainly innovative. While Clapton Craft fills growlers, Brewdog (which sells 42% of its beer in the off-trade) sells home brewing equipment at BottleDog, and Beer Moth has a cellar space set aside for regular tasting events. It’s proof that beer lovers like to get involved in the brewing process - and they do. There’s a passion and commitment here is reminiscent of the world of indie music.
It’s a point not lost on Davies. “We always wanted Beer Moth to be like a record shop, really,” he says. “The number of people we get with Piccadilly Records bags coming into the shop … it’s amazing really. It’s quite nice in the UK because the breweries are of a certain size where you know the brewers’ names. You can come somewhere like here and speak to them. You’re on the same level.”
It’s no wonder bigger operators like Oddbins are getting involved. They’ve launched their own range of craft beers, made in collaboration with independent brewers across the UK. “Consumers are increasingly looking for local products with provenance and distinction,” says Oddbins MD Ayo Akintola. “Our customers are seeking beers with a great taste and it is the local independent brewing community that is meeting that demand - not the big multinationals, which produce bland lagers.”
Would Oddbins ever consider opening a shop devoted purely to beer? “I would never say never,” says Akintola. But it’s the success of Brewdog, with two new BottleDogs opening in Glasgow and Manchester this year, that surely provides the most optimism. If you’ve got the bottle, this could just mark a new dawn for the independent off-licence.