A lifetime?of passion

18 February, 2011

I’ve tasted 2,000 beers over my time,” says David Smith, OLN’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner for 2011 who retired from his job as beer buyer for northern supermarket chain Booths at the end of last year, after 40 years’ service.?The award was the latest in a series of accolades Smith has won over his career, including several gongs and shortlist nominations in the Drinks Retailing Awards.?Smith started out with Addisons, part of Yates’s Wine Lodges, straight after leaving school, and was introduced to the world of drinks buying there.

He recalls: “I probably first came to like beer when I was a youngster. My first decent beer was Worthington’s White Shield, a bottle-conditioned beer which is still going – I was probably about 19.

“I think the passion really came when I was working at Addisons because it had draught Bass. That is where I started to get my first taste of good beer.”?After three years with Addisons, Smith joined Booths, initially working in head office and then buying his way through a smorgasbord of categories – from confectionery to tobacco to jams and marmalades – before taking over the beer section.?“Beer and cider has been the passionate side for me, I think I was given the job because I liked beer,” he says. Once in the beer department Smith set about transforming what was “quite a boring range – although I shouldn’t say that because Edwin Booth was buying it at that stage”.?Building Booths’ range?He brought in the supermarket’s first five bottled ales, including Hartleys XB, Newcastle Brown Ale and some Sam Smith’s beers, all in returnable bottles on which customers could collect a 7p deposit.?“That’s when I could see there was an opportunity out there. We got a great following, and sales were really good. It was a time when I think everybody wanted to start looking for and drinking quality beer.”?Gradually he worked on the range, building it up to the 200 British bottled beers Booths sells today, alongside brews from all over the world.?He believes Booths was the first supermarket to have a bottle-conditioned ale under own-label – but the brew’s big launch, to which Smith had invited the nation’s top beer writers, did not go exactly to plan.?“The beer was absolutely fantastic, but inside two weeks it changed and I wouldn’t have put it on my shelves. It was an absolute disaster,” he remembers.

Smith pioneered cider well before Magners sparked the category’s revival in the mid-2000s.?He says: “Cider has a lot of baggage, but there were quality ciders out there and I saw an opportunity to build on the success of bottled ale by bringing in a good range of ciders. At the last count we had 60 premium ciders. I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but we were ahead of the market.”?As a very modest man, blowing his own trumpet is one thing Smith is not good at – although he’s keen to thank Booths and the Booth family for all the support they’ve given him over the years – so it is good that others in the trade are keen to sing his praises for him.?Jo Theakston, marketing and off-trade sales director for Black Sheep Brewery, says Booths has worked with his brewery in a way no other multiple has, including sending in-store sales teams to learn about brewing for a day to give them the authority to sell beers back on the shop floor.?“He’s definitely one of the good guys and one of the old school, and he’s been fantastically loyal to Black Sheep,” says Theakston. “He has had a massive commitment to premium bottled ales. If you look at the range he had, the way he laid it out in-store and the position given, it was streets ahead of any of the other multiple retailers.?“His approach to suppliers has been to work in partnership with us, rather than treating us as if we are selling a commodity.?“He’s a great man, I can’t speak highly enough of him,” Theakston adds.

OLN columnist Zak Avery, who runs Beer Ritz in Leeds, says: “From the point of view of an independent retailer working in Booths’ heartland, there’s no doubt that beer consumers were aware of the sterling work Dave did in assembling a great range of beers for Booths, many at impossibly competitive prices.”?Smith boosted Booths’ reputation as a retailer that was serious about beer by supporting beer festivals organised by local brewers, and for the past five years the supermarket has been running its own beer and cider festivals. But getting the message out to consumers hasn’t all been about range and training – Smith has never been afraid to cut prices to draw people into his section, and controversially ran a lot of 99p or £1 beer offers.?“A lot of people don’t like that, but it does bring people into the category for the first time, and gets people to try them – and then they come back,” he explains. “I have also used that as footfall driver to get people through the door – where you can’t compete with the Stellas and Foster’s of this world, we have used £1 beers to bring people in to shop with us.”?British beer is flourishing?Smith says the culture of beer drinking and brewing has changed fundamentally in the time he’s been at Booths.

“Now there are a heck of a lot of passionate people involved in the industry, who are brewing very good beers. That is the great thing about the industry, there are a hell of a lot of good people who want to carry on the tradition of what has been happening for many years.?“This is an industry that has always got people who are going to knock it, and it will get a little bit more difficult going forward, but I do think the British beer side will continue to flourish.”?Smith’s favourite beers are British: Coniston Bluebird bottle-conditioned and Timothy Taylor Landlord, a preference he shares with Madonna. His plans for retirement include golf, fishing, and looking after his one-year-old granddaughter and new Labradoodle – although he hasn’t completely ruled out returning to the trade as a consultant, and admits he has already received some offers.

From his long career, he is most satisfied with the role he has played in bringing people into beer, and of the relationships he has built up with suppliers.

He says: “I am proud to have set a lot of people along the road to all the beer out there, and to be known and to be quite successful. I think that in a small way I have started a lot of people off.

“I have always liked to work with the trade. My motto is to treat people as I want to be treated myself, and it has always worked. As much as I have loved working for them, there is a world outside Booths and I have always wanted to work with people to get the best out of them for Booths and also from the suppliers’ point of view.”

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