Long time coming

Following the opening of Brewdog’s first Bottledog outlet last year, news that Oddbins has unveiled a dedicated beer store in London lays open the possibility that we shall soon see national chains of beer shops, a scenario inconceivable when the idea of specialist beer retailing was pioneered four decades ago.

When Muree Squires set up The Offie in Leicester in the early 1970s, he did so against all the odds. His concept of a beer-led off-licence was bred of necessity. The pub he leased had just been sold by Bass and he needed to continue to work in a field he understood. For draught beer, he exchanged bottles. But opening a beer shop wasn’t a move encouraged by the brewers of the day, who took some persuading to release stock and often only played ball if it was convenient.

“We got what we could,” Squires said. “We used to ring up breweries and, if they were delivering in the area, they’d drop us off a couple of dozen bottles”. Despite his best efforts, his shop could only offer around 40 beers, mostly English bitters.

Still open, The Offie stocks around 500 today.

Things had not really moved on by the time Martin Kemp and partner Rob Jones took over an off- licence in Hoxton, London, in 1982.

The Two Brewers was, like The Offie, ahead of its time in offering a good choice of bottled beers but, with a change of name to The Beer Shop, it set about expanding the selection and adding foreign brews.

In those days, though, there were few beer importers. It took detective work in delicatessens and food fairs to discover anything exotic.

“Someone who was importing Spanish food might be importing Spanish beer as well, so we’d get an interesting beer off them,” Kemp said. “The Danish Bacon Company wholesaled a beer. It was a lot harder than it is now.”

Predominantly, then, British beers filled their shelves. “I suppose we had about 60, which was a lot at the time because breweries didn’t put their beer around. Regional breweries just stuck to their areas. I remember going to Manchester and bringing back some Holt’s beers.”

Such efforts paid dividends, with word of mouth drawing customers in. “Most of our trade was with people from the City but we used to have people come from Luton,” said Kemp. “We also had some people from Los Angeles. They said they’d come over for the weekend especially for The Beer Shop.”

One aspect of The Beer Shop’s trade was draught beer – take- aways of its own Pitfield Brewery ales – echoing a move by Alan Greenwood, who set up the first of 13 London-area Beer Agencies in 1974, and the co-operative that opened The Ale Shop in Leeds in 1978. Home-brew supplies also augmented the business.

The Beer Shop eventually closed in 2005. Kemp now runs The Reindeer, near Newmarket, which he describes as a mix of micropub, antiques/collectors’ centre and bottled beer shop. He stocks 250 beers.

The success of The Beer Shop inspired a few other London businesses to latch on to beer, but it’s remarkable that there were still only half a dozen specialist retailers in the capital 10 years ago.

Since then, the numbers have grown significantly, following a trend that now sees more than 200 beer shops across the UK. And it’s not simply an urban development. In some respects, the concept

is even more fitting to a rural environment.

Teddy Maufe identified this when he set up The Real Ale Shop on his Norfolk barley farm in 2004. It seemed an ideal way of re-establishing the link between what grows in his fields and the beer in drinkers’ glasses.

Such diversification has played a major role in the growth of the sector. Numerous breweries now have an onsite shop selling their own beers and a big selection of others.

One of the first was Hogs Back in Surrey. Similarly, when Tucker’s Maltings in Devon opened its facility to visitors, a beer shop was an obvious add on.

The sector has also been swollen by existing retailers spotting a winning formula. At first glance, Jack Patel’s Westholme Stores in Goring-on-Thames is a simple Londis franchise.

But step over the threshold and, alongside the groceries and newspapers, you’ll find a selection of 600 beers.

It was Patel’s response to the supermarket price squeeze. He needed to find a corner of the market where he could excel.

Throw in farm shops, garden

centres, garage forecourts and even motorway service stations, and you’re now seldom far from a wide selection of interesting beers. Oddbins, by its own admission, only recognised the potential recently.

“Having championed the local beer category for the past couple of years with an emphasis on our branches stocking beers local to each branch, it was becoming evident that we were not giving our customers access to the best of the range,” said managing director Ayo Akintola.

“A customer at our Pimlico branch would not have access to the awesome beers stocked in our Bristol branch and vice versa. So in summer last year we trialled moving beers around the country and the response from our customers was nothing short of phenomenal.”

The conclusion was that the company needed to open a dedicated beer shop. If this performs well, there will be more. When a national chain latches on to an idea, even 40 years after its conception, you know its time has come.

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