It was at about 11 pm at The Grapes in Liverpool, on Tuesday night, the night before Beer X, that I started to give myself the smallest of opportunities to ponder an important question. “What would we do if we won?”

All photos credit Callum Reid (callumreidphotography@gmail.com)

This was brought about by what I can only describe as a bit of a knowing lean in from a SIBA executive I won’t name, who we’d bumped into in that iconic Liverpool pub.

The Grapes is a beautiful, traditional pub, with over 200 years of history. My pint was Neptune Mosaic, one of the very first New England Pales that I genuinely enjoyed, back in I’m going to say about 2018…

I’m miserly. I think beer should be bitter. I don’t think it should taste like Lilt or Prime Energy Drink or Crayons or cookie batter and be called Joose Loose or Diabetic Incident. My desert island beer remains Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Elusive’s Oregon Trail can be substituted in, I won’t complain. But Mosaic has what so many NEPAs miss. Drinkability! This beer isn’t too sweet. It isn’t only mango and papaya and saccharin. It isn’t chalky or just worty. It has a backbone. It has character. It’s beer wot tastes like beer, even though it’s aroma forward, and unmistakably modern. It’s incredibly good, and was incredibly good in The Grapes where it is an ever-present offer.

I digress. The approach from said person was as people in the shipping industry might say – expedited. I figured at the time the reason for this was far less eagerness to meet us and far more an opportunity to “lose” a chap they were… to use the term loosely… speaking with –  who was, it must be said, and I use the industry term here whilst passing no judgement at all: absolutely mangled.

Was it a tactical offload of said chap? Or did these people really excitedly seek out my group? Or even me?

I’m sure he is a lovely chap, I never worked out who he was. Hi, lovely chap probably, if you read this at any point… Hope you had a good Beer X!

Categorically this is not the man I am referring to. Sorry Dan. I didn’t have a picture of “generic gazeboed geezer” on archive.

Anyway. Perhaps it’s the inherent imposter syndrome that I still really consider a core facet of my personality that meant, even having had two nominations, and even having won before, it was only that slight lean in, followed by the question come statement: “So, the business awards tomorrow?” that finally let me consider that question for the first time.

What would we do if we won?

I dare say, and it takes a lot to admit it. Maybe they did want to speak to me after all! It’s taken me years of networking to start to believe that might be true. It might seem like I find it easy. I don’t. I find it pretty exhausting.

It was really difficult to sleep that night. Even after the Mosaic. And the two pints before that at the Roscoe. And the beers before that at Bundobust.  I was finally thinking about it.

So I went into the exhibition far more nervous than I thought I’d get.

SIBA’s Beer X is a really interesting event. It’s a fantastic trade show, made fantastic more so by the rest of the trade in attendance than perhaps the trading relationships it could lead to. At least in our case.

That’s not to undermine the exhibitors. With Indie Rabble on the way, we had contacts to make. We had fantastic chats with loads of manufacturers, especially in packing and with brewery management companies. But I go to Beer X for the people far more than I do for the business connections.

Amid a shroud of underlying nervousness and inbetween over-frequent trips to the facilities to deal with that, I loved every second of this year’s event. From arrival, the catch-ups with peers and friends, and yes, the face-down I still needed to have with that imposter syndrome every time someone came up to me.

Yes me? Why me? Who cares about me, or Hoppy, or what we’re doing. Where we’re going? Why are we even here? We’ll get found out eventually.

Events like this make me think about why it is I put myself through what I do. As well as running two bars, launching a brewery and working full time elsewhere in IT still, I am now responsible for the income and wellbeing of 7 full time hoppy souls.

I spend a hell of a lot of time introverted, looking at myself and what I should have done better. I definitely feel the weight of pressure now.

Generally speaking it doesn’t matter that people constantly give us plaudits. I know it should. So I pretend it does. And don’t get me wrong, I know when I step back, force myself out of my mardiness and think – that it really fucking does! It’s amazing. I’m so proud. The problem is, I struggle to believe how much love we get, and what we’ve achieved. Cognitive dissonance makes me dismiss the achievements.  It tries to make me not enjoy the moments.

But they really are fantastic fantastic achievements, and as Simon and Garfunkel apparently helped coin (I’d have assumed it came from X factor or something…) – Fake it Til you Make it.

So I did what I do. I have another drink (Having finished Judging, I sought out the fantastic Vienna lager I’d had, and got quite a lot of it), stop, and both literally and metaphorically drink it in. And whatever else I could find. I must admit it’s been a pretty fantastic week.

You’ll know by now. We won. Both awards. We’re both the UK’s Best Independent Craft Beer Retailer (for businesses with more than 1 location), and the Best Independent Online Craft Beer Retailer of SIBA’s 2023 Business Awards.

This comes a week after we found out we were our local CAMRA branches pub of the year. Technically for the third time in a row, but for our new Maidenhead site opened since only June this was it’s first major gong.

What the bloody hell.

OK Dave, you have made it. Apparently. Own that, enjoy this – and now what?!?

But before all that – I’d like to talk a little bit more about what SIBA is to me and to A Hoppy Place.

The Society of Independent Brewers Association are the largest trade body for the independent beer industry, currently supporting nearly 700 brewing members as well as bottleshop businesses like mine. Along with CAMRA they’re the organization I work hardest on getting on the right side of. The reason is simple, I think both organisations bring benefit to my business and support that thing I love. Beer! I get out more than I put in.

There were a few over-arching themes to this year’s event.

In the first instance, knowing that our industry is in decline. Growth in beer prices is just 2% in an inflationary market that might realistically expect 15-20% rises just to break even. This is horrific and reflected in the 82 breweries that closed in 2022 and the probably many more that’ll go this year.

We know our punters are price sensitive too. Which makes the 2% somewhat understandable. But it’s a tough pill to swallow: We’re still in a lot of trouble. We need support that we aren’t getting. I do think SIBA has to look at themselves a little bit on this too, but at least the good news is – that discourse is happening.

However, the strength of our people – our sheer resilience, was so evident at Beer X. There were a lot of tired souls. Hurting, struggling, looking for support they likely wouldn’t get from Government. Stale jokes about warm pints whilst actually introducing tax hikes across the sector overall aren’t enough to stop any kind of rot. We need to keep battling for ourselves. A bit of blitz spirit to our government’s apathy regarding our viability. This was ultra-evident in the room and at the fantastic fringe events. We’re fighting because we’re fighting for something we love. Hear hear!

Unsurprisingly our planet was a big theme too. From the well intentioned but ill advised deposit return scheme to what we can realistically achieve to lower our carbon output. Co2 recovery just one theme with huge positivity made in the progress of that at micro, rather than only macro level. I’m taking that very seriously.

And cask! Glorious cask. As I mentioned already, I judged for SIBA’s independent beer awards, held on the Thursday and a NEIPA (I know what I said before!) won gold in the cask pale category! Imagine! Not a fish gut in sight. Times they be a changin’.

Which was articulately as ever put by Pete Brown whilst unveiling a new campaign for cask relevance and freshness – Drink Cask Fresh…

We need to stop calling cask “traditional”. Traditional means old fashioned. Old hat. Beer wot beer used to be like. For people like me even, checking myself at this point and realizing that perhaps rather than bridge ‘them and us’ with CAMRA and SIBA I might have been becoming a little bit of a stereotype. Note to self… Brew what sells. Sell what sells! And I’m actually very excited that’s NEIPA. It’s an approachable, welcoming drink that can bring new members to the category, new drinkers to beer, and so it has been!

…Not that I can resist sticking in a photo of our glorious local brewery Stardust’s brilliant trad stuff!

Cask grew by 7% across SIBA members, and it’s exciting cask. It’s Verdant pale ales, beers like Chaos more Chaos, said gold-winning cask NEIPA, from nearish neighbours Disruption is brewing, that is responsible for this surprise uptick.

We’re all diversifying, finding new ways to reach audiences and blissfully relying less on old stale stereotypes of tradition applicable more to socks and sandals wearers than under 30s, if you’ll excuse the immediate contradiction of fighting a stereotype with a stereotype.

I think our success in these awards, it’s our second and third win in 4 years, is down to a lot of factors.

Our team, the spaces we create, and the people we try to appeal to. We invest in a lot of training. We want people to come into Hoppy because they know they can have a proper chat with the staff about all of the fantastic drink on sale. Which when you think about it, is a bit of a throwback. That’s what a good pub was! Yet not enough of them remain. There are great traditional pubs around still, but due to the beer tie – far too many of them don’t have that diversity of product any more. That’s why The Grapes was so noteworthy.

Because it had both. Good chat, but only ever centered around another pint of Doombar is only ever going to have limited reach.

A Hoppy Place are working with CAMRA, with SIBA, implementing the training we are, investing in rich media – just look at the amazing photos in this article from our very own Callum –  doing everything we can to give people that ‘proper pub experience’ but with the product to match. Be it keg, cask, can, bottle, cider, wine or spirit, hopped soda, alcohol free, gluten free, a soft drink, anything.

So why do I think we won, then? I think it’s places like ours that offer something for everyone, not something for the very few. I think we give SIBA’s member breweries the best access to new customers who will in turn genuinely evangelise for their business themselves. We’re giving these breweries free sales and access to those potential customers in a demographic that increasingly doesn’t drink beer at all.

Selling beer direct on the internet doesn’t reach those customers. Cheap beer subscriptions don’t reach those customers.

Independent beer business like mine do.

But if breweries don’t engage with us, don’t hear that, undercut my webstore, try to make my direct customers their own direct customers, then we lose that. And those businesses will lose my outlets as customers as well. That’s nothing personal, it’s just business. I need credibility and customers must know we’re charging them what we need to charge to survive, nothing more. That’s what I was saying when I was invited to speak on a panel at Beer X this year.

I hope more breweries will hear my message and realise just how deeply I care about their success, about getting their beer into the 6000 or so freehouses that could take it, of calling out the equipment ties that halve that number at best. Worry more about the pub tie and less about getting that one account from their neighbour. We’re being stamped down upon hard enough by the biggest brewers and by legislation, we shouldn’t be battling each other. We need each other.

As such if I may criticize SIBA for one thing, then it’s something that they acknowledge but maybe can’t change in the short term. Beer Flex. This is their need, to remain viable, to sell beer into those largest tied pub estates, as they earn a commission on these sales which makes up a large part of their operating budget.

These estates are always going to be price sensitive. By baking in a reliance on Beer Flex, SIBA has baked in a reliance in pushing their members to keep those price rises down, to undercut each other to get the sales. I am certain the 2% price rise we have and not the 12% we need is linked in some degree to Beer Flex. Get the beer out the door. Because if those sales don’t happen, SIBA will fail. So you can certainly argue SIBA are responsible for some of the squeeze their member breweries today face. A bit of a contradiction which needs questioning.

The SIBA South East Region’s Andy Parker of Elusive Brewing, backed by Wild Card Brewery asked that question at the AGM.

The motion did not pass, and was hotly debated. It was very close. 3 votes close.

My take is this. If the organization can fund itself without the need for commission on those sales, it can do what it does fantastically well without any possible conflict of interest: Defend the beer industry and it’s supply chain, lobby for change, bring people together at fantastic events like Beer X, and help us all make and sell better beer, in great venues, to an increasing range of people.

So yeah, the beer industry is hard, we’re tired, and there was frustration at points. But if I allow myself to gloat for a moment: I loved Beer X. I allowed myself to love Beer X. We won two bloody awards! Only Wild Card won more than we did. I am so, so grateful to all the kind words we’ve received from everyone. I’m doing my best to hear them and believe them.

Maybe if I try and try, I can believe that I’ve built something that’s actually, um… quite good?

But if I’m being completely honest, I still don’t know what to do now we’ve won!

Think for now I’ll go and get a beer…

Categories: Beer

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