breweries buying beer opinion

Where Can We Buy Your Beer?

The cover of the Beer Map of Great Britain, 1970s.

With (give or take — counts vary) something like 1,600 breweries currently operating in the UK a common complaint is the difficulty for smaller operators of getting those beers to consumers.

Big pub companies, chains and supermarkets dominate the market, buying beer from a chosen few breweries willing to meet their demanding terms. In many regions one or two large players (e.g. St Austell) control many of the pubs leaving a fistful of freehouses to fight over. And, so we gather from interviews and off-the-record chat, new small breweries can sometimes find themselves muscled out by better-established players of more or less the same size.

Yesterday we got involved in some Twitter chat about beer from Devon (there’s a poll, actually, if you feel like voting) and a version of what seems to us to be a common conversation unfurled. To paraphrase:

A: There’s no good beer in [PLACE]!

B: Yes there is — breweries X, Y and Z are awesome!

A: But I’ve never actually seen those beers for sale anywhere.

B: Ah.

In this context we’re beginning to think the single most important bit of information a small brewery can share is intelligence on where we can actually buy their beer, if it’s anything other than fairly ubiquitous.

It might be in the farmers’ market in Fulchester every third Sunday of the month; it might be in the delicatessen in Dufton; the bottle shop in Barchester; or the Coach & Horses in Casterbridge. We will go out of our way (a bit) to find a beer that sounds interesting, or to try something new on our beat, but we need a few hints, ideally without having to email or direct message the brewery. (And sometimes, even when we do that, we get ‘No idea, sorry’, or ‘It’s should be in a few pubs round Borsetshire this month’.)

A daily updated page on the brewery website, Facebook page or Twitter would probably work best.

We certainly appreciate that in the case of cask ale, even if a brewery knows a pub has taken delivery, it can be hard to say exactly when it’s going to go on or, equally, if it’s already sold out. Even so, wouldn’t a quick exchange of info between publican and brewer — a text message or social media nudge — be mutually beneficial here?

But perhaps there are good reasons why this doesn’t often seem to happen.

In the meantime, if you don’t know where your beer is on sale, and can’t tell people who want to buy it, then it almost might as well not exist.

24 replies on “Where Can We Buy Your Beer?”

Interesting post, guys. I find it particularly bizarre with breweries who have a large social media presence, which perhaps gives the impression that the brewery is well established/represented in pubs/bottle shops etc., yet can be barely found on any shelves/taps. As you rightly mention yourselves, open and honest communication seems to be key here.

I admire your optimism about a “daily updated page on the brewery website”, but the beer industry seem to be one of the worst offenders when it comes to websites that haven’t been updated for 3 years, listing beers that haven’t been brewed in living memory, and listing stockists have been closed and/or converted to a Tesco Express long ago.

To be fair, pubs and bars are *almost* as bad at providing up-to-date information online but at least they have to deal with more rapidly changing situations. A brewery, on the other hand, really only needs to set aside half an hour every month to double check that their list of beers lines up with what they actually make, and that their stockist list bears some resemblance to reality.

Perhaps they’re worried that by letting people actually find their product, they’ll be less “crafty”?

One suggestion on Twitter: a list of stockists would just be a hit list for competitors.

One would imagine that a brewery who wishes to be a commercial success might want to worry more about customers being able to buy their beer, than what their competitors might do 🙂

Well it’s a question of how many pints you are going to sell to the people who are prepared to change what pub they go to in order to buy your beer, versus the opportunity costs of time spent preparing the list (most small brewery owners are doing 80+ hours/week IME) to sell a few pints when they could be selling beer by the barrel to new pubs. The targetting thing might be an issue, but in reality any brewery worth their salt will know where the freehouses are in their patch and the tied houses doing meaningful amounts of guest beer. And the trouble is that even if you know you’ve delivered to a particular pub, it could be a couple of weeks before it goes on if they like to condition the beer properly (some breweries are definitely rushing their beer out these days) – or if they’ve cocked up their order and ended up with too much of style X.

A “regular” customer for a brewery might still only have their cask beer on the bar 10-20% of the time, so it’s still a bit hit and miss although I have seen breweries do “permanent” Google Maps of pubs which always have the beer on and in a different colour pubs that “regularly” have them on. That rewards their best customers with publicity and the really determined know where to go, the less determined have a phone number to call o nthe off-chance. But in rural, even suburban, areas there isn’t really much of a choice of “pubs I can get to without risking drink driving/that have decent food/whatever other criterion” – this whole “problem” is really one of town/city centres. But Untappd can work reasonably well for either finding specific beers or getting a more general idea of the places that a brewery sells to.

As a small brewer in the West Country, we supply about 300 pubs (80% + as a guest ale) and bottles to many outlets, as well as numerous wholesalers selling our beer it would be a full time job to have an up to date distributor list (our popular casks can be drank in a few hours sometimes), and the larger breweries would aggressively target our stockists with bulk discounts /retro deals removing opportunities on the bar for small brewers and limiting choice for drinkers. Maybe there is something rewarding about finding a hidden gem that isn’t on every bar? Maybe local pubs should begin to support local brewers as the pubs that do this appear to prosper.

Not sure about Twitter – I tend to follow breweries around the country because I’m interested in knowing what they’re up to, but tend to unfollow again if all I get is retweets of pubs several hundred miles away from me announcing that it’s Tuesday night and [BEER] from [BREWERY] is on the bar.

Website – yes.

We were thinking more like a single update, using a screen-grabbed image probably, listing selected places they know are selling their beer that day/week. That’s how we’d do it, anyway.

Yep, there’s a critical mass of maybe 25-35% where #otb tweets start overwhelming a brewery feed. At least the pubs generally tweet when something goes on so at least you’ve a chance of getting it in good nick by the time you get to the pub, the worst are breweries that retweet Untappd ratings when you don’t know how long it’s been on the bar. Might I suggest that breweries start a separate Twitter feed of the form @BlogginsAlesotb for that kind of thing, it would work much better for more distant people who are interested in the corporate side but less on the minutiae?

Much less of a problem in the days of the tied house system, of course 😉 Even if it was two hundred miles away, you would known exactly where you could get Crudgington’s beers.

I’d say the primary responsibility has to lie with brewers, not retailers. Even specialist off-licences and pubs will in general only promise to offer a wide range of beers rather than specific beers. If you know your beer is regularly stocked in particular outlets, then let people know.

Although it’s cider, not beer, this is a good example of how to do it.

Timely and interesting piece.

In 2017, you can’t even get a pint of Draught Bass (residents of Bass or Bristol may be in a happier position 😉 ). As for any of the CAMRA Beer of the Year winners over the last 30 years…

It’s retailers who need to be doing this, because they are the ones who actually know when a beer is going on sale. A brewer can only know when the beer has been delivered.

But if you want to find out where you can get Beer X, trawling through a long list of pub Facebook pages is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Far better for the brewery to collate the information, although obviously it can only apply to permanent or regular listings, or off-licences regularly stocking it.

So pubs can do it – but they either use proprietary systems or individual websites, or they have to pay £££ to get in the corporate version of Untappd. They really need a database behind it so that unskilled staff, or staff who don’t drink beer, can type in a name and up comes all the details on style, ABV etc. Hardcore beer pubs will be able to generate that kind of thing themselves, but it’s duplication of effort – and you really want something that takes as little time as possible.

Breweries can do it – but it only works for pubs they supply direct and not through wholesalers, and even then they don’t know when something is on the bar

It sounds like this area is crying out for a trusted third party who is interested in good beer and in the fortunes of pubs, creating open-source software for cellar management within a pub, that plugs in to a national database of pubs and beer, without the £££ of Untappd Verified which typical suburban/rural pubs can’t afford. Having a central database means punters can ask brewery-agnostic questions like “is there a mild of <4% from a brewery within 30 miles, at a pub within 5 miles of my GPS location?"

Sadly CAMRA is not that organisation. It should be, but it looks like Cask Marque is getting there – they've just formally taken over the Cyclops beer database, and between that and their Cask Finder app you can imagine them pulling things together somehow – even if it's just limited to Cask Marque pubs when it would be better if linked to What Pub.

But what's needed is a nice easy, low-cost/free app that runs on an iPad or <£50 Amazon Fire tablet, that allows staff without great knowledge to search for a beer, click on something to say it's either on or coming soon, and then it gets beamed up to a TV with a wireless dongle to display something like : (I can recommend the Clueless 21….) If it's feeding a screen in the pub, then staff have an incentive to keep it up to date, and the fact that it also feeds an external database of what's on is incidental.

This is one of the things I found frustrating moving from the West Coast of America back to the UK. It’s not like every bar does this, but in the majority of cases I could check their website and view the current taplist. It was almost like bragging rights, “look what beers we have on”. I loved it, and often planned evenings around what was in where. Back in England, no chance.

It’s not hard to post an update on FB. Though this wouldn’t make it easy to find beer from a certain brewery, it would help.

Don’t even need to bother with facebook; there’s an app for that. Several in fact. Most which will interface with facebook. All it requires is the manager on duty to spend 2 minutes on their phone per change of beer.

A couple of bars I’ve been to have even replaced their black/white/tile/letter-boards with LCD screens reflecting the app info. Generally I despise screens in pubs or bars, but in a high turnover venue it makes a lot of sense.

I can see why a Sam Smiths pub might not bother with this, but for beery free-houses, yes, absolutely – whether it’s on a website or social media or whatever, tell me about your beer!

Even if it’s not updated that often, it at least gives me an idea of what sort of thing I can expect at any given pub when I’m heading for an area that I don’t know. It’s also a good way of signalling that you’re a pub that Cares About And Is Excited About Beer, rather than just seeing it as a thing that you have to serve because some of the diners / football fans / karaoke enthusiasts will complain otherwise.

But nope, most pub websites just seem to say “we serve a range of traditional ales, now here are 5762 photos of the food.”

(Although as noted below, Untappd can also be useful for the practical side of this.)

For real-time info on what’s available where, I don’t think Untappd can be beat. It does need a certain population density though, so maybe only useful in big cities.

At least in urban areas in the UK there now seems to be a critical mass of people on the Untappd app which means its pretty easy to get a good overview of what’s available on the bar across town in real(ish) time (at least at the more beery places) and I think you may also be able to set up alerts to tell you if something you’re after turns up in the vicinity or search for it within a certain radius. You’ll also be able to see where a beer has been on in the past.

I live in West Berkshire, and I am extremely lucky that by far the two best craft beer pubs in the area (not sure that I should actually name them here, but if you live in either Reading or Newbury, you know which pubs I mean!)) are both Untappd Verified Venues, who keep their beer lists meticulously up to date in the Untappd App.

I regularly drop in to one or other pub to sample a specific beer based upon this info.

I am sympathetic that it is harder for the breweries to publish such timely info, but any efforts in this direction would be appreciated.

Here at the Wharfedale brewery in Yorkshire we have created a trail which links the 17 pubs we supply. All the pubs are roughly along the route of the Dalesway long distance footpath. Obviously we have called it the Alesway. Visit all the pubs in 12 months and collect your free T shirt and pint from the Flying Duck brewpub in Ilkley.

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