David Jones of Yorkshire’s Bier Huis gives Nigel Huddleston an insight into how to be a successful cider retailer
The rise of beery bottle shops has been one of the most notable drinks retailing trends in recent years. Yet surprisingly few of them make what appears to be the logical progression to embrace the wonderful world of small-scale cider as well.
Bier Huis in Ossett – a West Yorkshire market town in the orbit of Wakefield – is a rare exception. David Jones gave up a job with ITV’s global division – “making sure different territories got the programmes they wanted in the format they needed” – to start the business 11 years ago. “I was looking for a change,” he says.
“I was working in London and living in Yorkshire and I quite fancied working for myself closer to home.” Inspiration for the Bier Huis came from a visit to York and the beer shop House of Trembling Madness – these days merely Trembling Madness – where Jones realised there was a need for a specialist beer retailer nearer his own patch.
Cider was added into the mix from the get-go. “I’ve always loved cider but even great beer retailers like Trembling Madness tend only to have a small selection of ciders,” says Jones. “We thought it was something we could make a song and dance about.”
Bier Huis has a prime spot adjacent to a town centre car park and Ossett’s market place. It operates a hybrid format, with both beer and cider available to drink in or take away. The cider range features Yorkshire producers including ’Udders Orchard from Huddersfield and Pure North from Last of the Summer Wine location Holmfirth, alongside smaller producers from south and west England, such as Cider Bus in Somerset and Snails Bank in Herefordshire.
Renowned Welsh producer Gwynt y Ddraig also features strongly, along with boutique ciders from France, Italy and Spain. Bottles are all displayed with flags of their home counties or nations, style descriptions and suggested food pairings. “Cider’s a good chunk of the business – probably around 20-25% of revenue – and we’ve definitely got one of the biggest selections outside of its heartland,” says Jones.
“Cider’s a great drink and there are plenty of different styles, tastes and origins to go at. It’s always been important to me, so I thought I may as well make it important to the business as well.
“We knew there was a market locally for cider but also an opportunity to change people’s habits from stickily sweet fruit ciders to some of the decent stuff.
“It’s pretty much driven by quality and it’s pretty much all made from 100% juice. I think Sam Smith’s Organic is the only one we do that’s made from concentrate and that’s because it has such a strong local following. It’s still a nice cider: 5% abv, sparkling, refreshing, not too dry and not too sweet.”
The ability to offer customers a sample or sell them a pint as they sit in helps broaden understanding, but Bier Huis also takes the cider message out into the world. It runs cider bars at a local racecourse and offers that facility to customers for weddings and other events. “You need to show people something different,” Jones adds.
“I was at an event the other day where someone had converted a lovely horse box into a beautiful bar and they’d got bog-standard beer and gin in it. Why have you crafted this beautiful horse box and put rubbish on? He says: “If we do a wedding bar with German lager and great cider, people are surprised and we usually get additional business from doing them. It’s always been our way: marketing while making money, instead of marketing by spending money.”
There are also frequent ticketed cheese and cider tastings which have achieved somewhat legendary status among the customer base and pack 20-24 people into the shop. Jones says: “We’ve got a great cheesemonger and the cheese element allows us to charge a bit more than a straight beer tasting. Everyone loves seeing how the ciders and cheeses work together.
“We’ll get them to try things they wouldn’t do normally, with a variety of Spanish or French, something fruity, and a perry, dry or medium-sweet cider. They’re possibly my favourite events out of all the tastings we do.”
Social media has proved another form of free marketing. The Bier Huis feeds feature the usual shots of new products but also show something of Jones’s personality, whether it’s trips away in the name of beer and cider “research” or his regular appearances for Wakefield Trinity’s physical disability rugby league team.
The Bier Huis investment in cider, hundreds of miles from south west England where selling the stuff is so much easier, has paid off. To paraphrase the baseball movie Field of Dreams, there’s an element of “if we build it, they will come” at play: you can’t be a success in cider unless you give yourself a chance of being such. But it just might need a bit more effort than more mainstream drinks categories. “People think we sit behind the till and it all just happens by magic,” says Jones, “but there’s a lot of graft.”