Vessel Beer Shop, Plymouth
Sam and Katie Congdon met in Leeds but both had roots in the south west. They have a mutual love of beer and when the craft beer scene took off they embraced their hobby and decided to make it their profession. Katie talks to DRN.
How did the business start?
We knew we wanted to open a beer shop and when we were visiting family in the south west of the country we noticed there was very little there and we saw a good opportunity.
In Leeds there were craft beer bars that had become well established and new breweries had sprung up. We had Northern Monk just around the corner and Sam even worked in the taproom for a while.
We started planning the business in 2014 and then we opened in December 2016, so we are about to celebrate our third birthday.
We found the venue by pure chance. We were coming back to visit family and we came across the perfect site. It was an Aga cooker shop, which was closing down, and it had a lovely old store front. Prior to that we had struggled with commercial estate agents so we jumped at the chance to go to someone who owned the building directly.
What makes your shop unique for the area?
During the week we have good take- home beer sales and, as the weekend approaches, it flips more towards drink-in sales, and those people may also take some beer home at the end of the night. It’s a nice mix.
We have beers on tap and we have growlers so that people can take home fresh beer. Nowhere else around here offers that service.
We get a lot of customers travelling to us especially for the take-home beer on tap.
What is your competition like?
We are on the main road into town and it is a 10-minute walk into the city centre, but although there are a few other businesses around here it would be good if it was a bit more developed.
We are not on the pub crawl route and we don’t want to be part of that. It is a destination shop and we are near a residential area where people can walk to us, plus we have free parking if needed.
Our main competition is online but really we have a unique proposition in the area.
We would welcome more craft beer venues locally as it would help to create more of a beer scene, and there are plenty of brewers to ensure venues can have a different selection.
How do you keep your customers coming back?
We have two or three events a month where we either talk through a particular beer style, or it’s a meet the brewer or food-matching event.
We now run a beer festival for the area too. The first was last year and we have another at the end of this month. It is in Plymouth Guildhall and will comprise 23 breweries from all over the country, and some foreign ones. We run three sessions, which attract up to 550 people each.
It’s a lovely venue and the first event went really well. It was rated one of the UK’s top 10 most scenic beer festivals in the UK by The Guardian last year, and since that happened I think it has really put us up on the radar of craft brewers in the UK as we are now asked by some of the really popular breweries if we can launch beers in our store.
What sells well?
The thing that gets everyone into craft beer is the hazy, juicy IPAs, and these are a good gateway into the category.
We are finding through our events that people are experimenting more once they have tried a number of IPAs, so we are noticing good sales of some more challenging beers.
We do an event every few weeks called Sour Sundays and this is getting popular. We also have an Imperial Stout event this Sunday.
However, generally the trend is for IPAs in 44cl cans.
There is a bit of interest in low and no-alcohol beers. We have Cloudwater sodas too, and these are doing OK. There is a move towards more interesting alcohol-free options so we are keeping an eye on what’s out there, and lower alcohol too – we always have a few 3% abv and below beers.
We have about 180 beers in bottles and cans and we rotate the selection often. The core range tends to be Belgian and German beers, whereas the UK beers can start appearing in supermarkets, in which case we sell our stock and then we can just move on to another brewer, because we are small enough to do so.
We do our own advent calendars. They always sell out within 24 hours of us posting the fact on social media, but we never stock more than 24 calendars. It’s partly a space issue and also because we select each beer specifically for the calendar and we want them to be fresh.
Some shops use calendars to move short-dated or hard-to-shift stock, but we don’t do that. The beers will be delivered to us fresh at the end of November.
December is our busiest month by far and our turnover doubles. We extend our opening hours for the month and take some time off in January.
What are your plans for the future?
We would like to think about expanding this shop if possible or opening another, but for the moment we are being cautious.
I think our customers like the fact that one of us is always here when the shop is open.
In the meantime, we will look at doing more festivals and more events. We might try to do more outside events, such as collaborations with restaurants, which we have done before.
We are lucky because we have some good relationships with suppliers. I have heard of other bottle shops that have struggled to get beers in quickly enough when they get released, but I think it’s best to focus on ones you can build relationships with and then work on those.
We have a good relationship with Verdant because it is around the corner and also some from our old area Leeds, such as Northern Monk.
One of the challenges for us is that we are very far south west and we are not on the core distribution routes, so we often have to go and get the beers ourselves