OLN discovers how Beer Hawk has become successful enough to feather its nest for the future and its plans to target the retail trade with a variety of beers…

In 2012 good friends Mark Roberts and Chris France both learned that their wives were pregnant. This is wonderfully exciting news, but comes tinged with a dose of dread when you start thinking about the cost of childcare, nappies, formula, clothes, college fees, ponies and so on. So they did the only sensible thing there was to do: jacked in their high-paying jobs and gambled everything on a risky venture that involved selling craft beer online. “We had a few interesting conversations,” laughs Roberts. “But we are still here.”

What convinced the pregnant wives to endorse the decision was the groundwork Roberts and France had put in. “They were very supportive when they realised we had done our work on the opportunity and the marketing rather than two blokes saying ‘wouldn’t this be a nice job?’.” Beer Hawk was formed and the decision has proved to be extremely astute – the online retailer has just moved to new 12,000sq ft premises in Wetherby, West Yorkshire, so it can increase its storage capacity tenfold, the team is now 40-strong and sales are soaring. 

It all came about because Roberts and France couldn’t buy any decent beer in the retail trade. “Prior to this I was marketing director at Laithwaite’s Wine,” says Roberts. “There were businesses doing great stuff in the wine market, they were pretty well established and it’s competitive, but in the new and exciting world of craft beer four and a half years ago there was nobody bringing interesting beers in and delivering them to consumers. If you were lucky enough to live near a great local off-licence it was great, but most people had to put up with traditional beer aisles at supermarkets. 

“Chris and I were drinking lots of interesting beer out and about in pubs and bars, but at home we were switching to wine. The beer we could get at home was boring compared to what we could get when we were out.”

Big break

They moved into a tiny office and set about building up a range of beers from breweries they loved. Sales were slow initially, but they got their big break partnering with the East Coast Mainline train service, which is now Virgin Trains, as passengers built up loyalty card points to spend at various retailers and Beer Hawk was chosen as one. “Almost overnight the brand had been exposed to 2.2 million people and sales went through the roof,” says Roberts. 

He says there were bumps on the road, but the business is now highly impressive. It keeps growing so they have now moved into their fourth warehouse, allowing them to list 800 beers. 

The company’s strapline is “hunting out the world’s best beers”, so a hawk seemed an appropriate logo. The company sources beers from 25 countries and sells to shoppers across the UK and Ireland. 

It has now expanded to sell to the retail trade – a service that does not come with a minimum quantity requirement. “Craft beer and a variety of beers can be a real footfall driver for independents,” says Roberts. “That’s how they can beat the multiples, by having a varied and interesting selection of craft beer. What stops them is the time it takes to find the breweries and get the range together. 

“The number of breweries in the UK and the world is growing rapidly. The craft beer market is growing massively, but it has become more difficult to work out which are the really good ones. It can get a bit confusing for the average consumer or retailer.”

That’s where Beer Hawk comes in. Its team includes beer sommelier Maggie Cubbler, who attends beer festivals and visits breweries to recommend new brews for it to stock. But the main point of contact for anyone looking for advice on how to build a range is Patrick Gengler, who goes by the bizarre job title of beer sherpa. The idea is that buying beer is your Everest, and Gengler will make the epic climb a bit easier by helping along the way. 

Just like shoppers, retailers can pick and mix and order mixed cases from Beer Hawk’s extensive range. All they have to do is prove their trade credentials and then they benefit from a trade price. 

This allows them to build up a broad range of craft beer without needing to devote too much space in their storeroom to it. They can just reorder the ones that sell and this allows them to constantly refresh their ranges with new offerings if they so desire. “It’s a very different proposition to a wholesaler,” says Roberts. “You don’t need to order four cases of each beer. We want to enable retailers to have a more varied and interesting range without having to carry as much stock.”

Online drinks retailing and craft beer are two burgeoning industries, and by marrying them it sounds like the only way is up for the soaring hawk, and they may need to move to another warehouse before long.