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30 April, 2010

Things have been a little odd round here lately – there’s been a certain loss of perspective on my part. I don’t mean in the psychedelic, Alice in Wonderland style, where everything is physically out of proportion, but I have been suffering a bit from something that I’m going to christen Niche Retail Syndrome, which I define as going to ever-more extreme lengths for ever-diminishing returns.

Anyone who works in drinks retail will know that apart from the hours and the money, it’s the best job in the world. And if you pay more than a cursory interest to what you sell, you start to get a bit of a craving for something other than what you see everyday. I’m sure somewhere there are people who are ferociously passionate about cheap cans of commodity lager, but after a while selling the same beers, wines and spirits, you naturally get a bit itchy for a change.

In my case, this itch, this attack of NRS has manifested itself in an odd way. I find myself going to greater and greater lengths to try and track down unusual beers to stock at the shop. After merging with our sibling wholesale company, Beer Paradise, I am in theory allowed to pick up the phone and order mixed pallets of beer for delivery to them – if I know that the beer is good, and it will sell, then I have carte blanche to do so. In some senses, this is a more interesting way to wholesale beer, as from retailers and ordinary walk-in customers, the question always seems to be: “What’s new?”?Hearing people ask: “What’s new?” one too many times is what has sparked this attack of NRS. Suddenly, I find myself on the phone to a retailer in Chester who comes to Leeds every couple of months. We set up a beer-swap operation, whereby he brings me beers that we can’t get hold of, and I give him beers he finds it hard to acquire.

The latest arrivals were eight cases of beer from Purple Moose brewery in Porthmadog, Wales. Knowing we have been asked for these beers, we leaf through the customer order sheets. Just before Christmas last year, Valerie called and asked about them, so, excitedly, we call her and she reserves a bottle of each, to be collected in a month. A bottle of each? In a month? It’s a good job we didn’t get them in just for her – they’re selling well and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

But what will be next? One of the more interesting pubs in Huddersfield also takes part in this beer swapping. A few times a year, he takes a van down to the south coast, stopping at breweries en route. Our last booty from him was from Dark Star Brewing (I should have ordered twice as much) and Harveys of Lewes (we’re still selling it). And the amount of coaxing I had to do to get a selection of Italian craft beers was wearisome, to say the least. When they arrived, they were such rarities that people tend to buy them according to their scores on beer rating websites – the sales pattern correlates very tightly with rating by the international beer geek community. When sent a catalogue of Danish craft beers that I know little about, I find myself doing the same. What have I become? Why don’t I go the whole hog and print out their ratings on bottle collars?

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The campaign name There’s A Beer For That may have got cynics like me trying to think of things there wasn’t a beer for, but broadly speaking it was a force for good.

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Is blended Scotch overshadowed by single malt in retailers?

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