There are dream jobs and then there’s running your own craft beer shop. For James Hickson, owner of We Brought Beer, the dream of running his own independent beer shop is now a cool, refreshing reality. After setting up his card machine, we caught up with him at his Balham-based store to find out how the ambitious, young beer-fan turned a passion for pale ales into a full-time profession.
How did the business get started?
Before we started the shop, I was working for a craft brewery setting up their locations. I always knew I wanted to work in this industry and toyed with idea of setting up my own brewery, but London has 70/80 breweries already. I thought about a bar, but people were already doing that very well. Then I realised no one was doing shops well. I noticed that when I wanted to buy beer, I was having to travel to east London or Richmond just to get beer I liked. I didn’t want to travel for good beer, and I also wanted a place where I could try before buying and attend events about the beer. I thought that if that’s what I wanted then there must be other people out there who want the same. (Turns out he was right.)
Why has craft beer had such a boom of late?
Craft beer is an extension of the foodie revolution that we’re seeing now. People want to spend their money on better things whether it’s craft beer, handmade donuts or artisan pizza. And, of course, it all comes down to flavour. Once you try a craft beer, it’s quite hard to go back to a normal lager that you get in the pub.
Where did the name come from?
It came from an advert I saw in an American craft beer magazine. It was an illustration of a guy carrying a six pack, and it said: “We’re new here, but we brought beer.” It really resonated with me because when you’re new to an area or going to a party, bringing some beer is a great ice breaker. That’s kind of our ethos. We wanted our store to be really friendly and welcoming, not snooty, exclusive or even too trendy.
…And what about the bear logo?
I always wanted to have an animal in the logo, so I asked my designer to create something that was kind of a mascot. He came up with the bear, a fox and a rabbit, but the bear just worked. There’s something just funny about a bear with a six-pack – it’s like he’s Yogi bear who’s just pinched some beers from a picnic.
Has location played a big part in the success of We Brought Beer?
Because what we do is quite unique, I thought we could set up anywhere and people would still come to us. But that’s only true to a certain extent. Being on this busy street corner has meant that we’ve caught a lot of different people. I thought it would just be all beer geeks, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised. Lots of people come in who’ve never tried craft beer and because we’ve got great staff who can talk them through beer before they buy it, they really enjoy it. We’re opening up a lot of people to craft beer.
What have you learned in the year you’ve been going?
Don’t neglect store design. I see some small businesses that have neglected their shop design, they think it’s just important to get your product out there, but it’s important to think about your design. It matters in terms of the flow of your customers. We keep the store very neat and cared for and when you combine that attention with excellent customer service, people feel like they’re getting a much better service.
What challenges did you face when starting out?
Finding the site was hard because good sites don’t hang around long and there’s loads of competition, and premiums are high. As a startup, we also had no track record to provide a landlord. Luckily for us, our landlord really bought into our business plan and took the time to understand what we were trying to do here.
I come from a property background and so knew what I was doing, but if you’re a business coming into retail now, there’s very little advice out there for you on how to get started. There’s been a lot of talk about reviving the high street and Mary Queen of Shops – but since the government’s Business Link disappeared, it’s not very easy to access information on how to get started in retail.
What do your customers love about the shop?
We always get a lot of compliments on how good and friendly our staff are. With 400 beers to choose from, people can get intimidated by that, so we make sure we’re very inclusive and customers get a warm welcome as soon as they come in. There’s no judgment here. We’re not a wine shop – we’ll gladly take the time to help you pick six beers you’ll really like. Some beer shops are dark, beardy. We’re not just catering to beer fans, we’re catering to the whole community.
Are independent shops key for the survival of the high street?
Small high streets do still exist and can thrive, but they need businesses that have the energy to survive. A lot of businesses have been through a rough time in the recession and those that have survived are pretty beat up and tired. If you have too many of those in one parade, you end up with a tired street. That’s why we have our free tastings on Wednesday night. We give away free beer and it gives people an alternative to the pub: a reason to come out and visit their high street.
What do you love about working in We Brought Beer?
Beer is my passion and I get to choose beer, taste beer, talk about beer and, hopefully, if I sell enough beer, pay my bills and mortgage thanks to beer. I also like working for myself and being my own boss. I’m not often in the shop but when I am I enjoy bringing people to new beer, explaining new beer and telling them about new breweries in the area.
Where do you look for business inspiration or ideas?
Other industries are always great places to look for advice on what to do in your industry. I got a lot of inspiration from coffee shops and bike shops. These are places that are selling stuff, but they’re also doing a lot more. I also get inspired by places like Selfridges – they just do retail so well.
How important is social media to your business?
Social media is very big for us because it’s the easiest tool we can use. We also have a weekly email newsletter which we send out on a Thursday afternoon. It’s not very salesy – it tends to be much more content led. We’ll include features on our top picks for the week, 5 best brewery websites, then we list an event that’s going on. We’ve got a blog we updated every few days with news of our tastings and events, as well as features on the best beers to drink at different times of year. We don’t do any PR yet, but we’ve been picked up by Shortlist, TimeOut and even GQ. Marketing to us is all about the free tools available to us online.
What are you most proud of achieving with the business?
Commercially, I’m very proud of the fact that we made a profit in our first year. Whenever I do the monthly numbers, I sometimes think I’ve left something out. On a serious note, I really love coming down here on my day off and seeing people sat here drinking beer outside the shop with their friends. It’s amazing to think these people like what we do enough to come back every weekend and buy beer from us.
What are the plans for your future?
The first shop proved we could sell just beer. The next shops will see how far we can take that by expanding the experience with tastings, cooking with beer classes, book signings – much more than just places to buy beer.
We’re looking to open two more sites in London in the next few years. Once we’ve expanded the brand and got more locations we’ll then look to partner with a brewer to create our own beer. We’ll build everything up from the beer experience. We want to make beer about more than just getting drunk, although being drunk is very fun…