Yep, we’ve made it to a big milestone, our 5th birthday which, conveniently, falls this Saturday 10th August. We’re running 5 days of events, culminating in the We Brought Beer Big Birthday Beer Bash (or WBBBBBB for sort of short) at our Balham store on Saturday. Full details of the events are on our blog here.

It’s certainly been an interesting five years in beer so we thought we’d take a look through the lens of our bottle shop.

Group shot of craft beers at We Brought Beer
When we opened up, we stocked around 150 different beers. The UK scene was exciting but nascent so options were relatively limited compared to today. BrewDog, Thornbridge, The Kernel, Belleville, Weird Beard and Fourpure were pretty common in our fridges. Gipsy Hill were just starting up, Brew by Numbers were putting out some exciting beers when we could get them and Beavertown still had some of their beers in bottles! Larger format 500ml/568ml bottles from the likes of Saltaire, Dark Star, Arbor and Moor were still popular with customers. That said, a disproportionate number of our beers came from the USA, with brands like Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada, Flying Dog, Kona & Anchor being staples. We would often say that the US scene was about 10 years ahead of the UK scene back then.  

This has changed a lot, with 2/3rds of our fridge space now given over to UK breweries, and with US beer being almost non-existent. This is not because American beer has got worse, more that UK beer has got better and our customers have told us they prefer to buy local and buy fresh. It hasn’t helped that foreign imported beer has also gone up in cost significantly simply due to exchange rate fluctuation – why should customers pay more for a beer just because the pound is weak? Why indeed, particularly when better beers are now being produced closer to home.

Oskar Blues Cans
Format has changed a lot too. When we opened in 2014, we stocked around 12 different cans – it was literally all we could get our hands on. And they were all American. How that situation has changed! We now have nearly two full fridges worth of cans, almost all UK brewed, and with nearly every new beer we get in being in a can. This has been one of the shifts we definitely did not predict when we opened up. At the time, cans still had some stigma but more importantly, they were still not an option for smaller breweries due to the huge minimum order quantities on empty cans (several 100,000s) and expensive canning lines. Costs on both have come down and breweries (and more importantly, customers) have embraced the format with vigour. It’s taken some education to move customer perceptions away from the thought that bottle is more premium than can, but when we explain the benefits of cans both to beer quality and the environment, it becomes a no brainer. When we opened our tiny Tooting Market store in 2016, we decided to go full can – partly as a homage to the format, but also because we could fit more into the small space. It’s interesting that it’s really not held back sales. Will we ever see a time when there is no bottled beer? Unlikely, and we certainly hope not. But it’s our opinion that bottles will increasingly become the reserve of quite specific beers, such as Lambics, barrel aged stouts, sharers and the like.
To-Ol Brewery Canned Beer
But what about styles? Surely there hasn’t been much change there right? WRONG!

When we opened up in 2014, if someone poured a beer out that was as hazy as the current wave of New England Yeast Coast pales, they’d have demanded their money back. It just wasn’t a thing, certainly not here in the UK. Clarity was king, big bold bitterness and as much resiny pineyness as you could cram in. Beers like Weird Beard Five O’ Clock, Stone IPA, Kernel IPA (still arguably the best beer we sell), and BrewDog Jackhammer were what people wanted. West Coast is best coast, customers might have shouted as they browsed (they didn’t).

Then, just over 3 years ago, along came a little upstart brewery named Cloudwater, who were heavily influenced by the US East Coast beer scene. Alongside their ever changing ‘core range’, they released into the world DIPA v1.0 – a juicy, hazy double IPA that was like nothing else on offer at the time. This was an IPA but not as we knew it. Gone was the bitterness. In was the juice. Gone was the clarity, in was the haze. It’s no understatement to say that this beer (along with DIPA v2) changed the UK beer scene more than any other over the past decade.  Since then, we’ve seen a craze for haze, with breweries of all shapes and sizes getting into the East Coast style game, some better than others. Now we have breweries dedicated wholeheartedly to this style, such as Verdant, Deya, Brew by Numbers, Neon Raptor, Pressure Drop and Left Handed Giant, amongst many others.

In terms of other styles, Black IPAs never quite took off like we expected, neither did hoppy red ales. Sour beers caught on more than we thought they would and long may that trend live on! ABVs are all over the place. Where most stuff used to sit between 4 & 6%, we now probably sell more beer at either less than 4% or over 7%. Drinking stronger beer, in lesser quantities, has certainly become more normalised with the rise of the double IPA.

Verdant Even Sharks Need Water
Craft beer has continued to become more mainstream in the last 5 years and this we believe is a good thing. Whilst it’s nice to be a niche, there’s so much room for growth in the scene that we are even smaller than niche right now and it would be easier if craft was more mainstream even then it may seem.

When we opened in 2014, supermarkets didn’t have a clue what they were doing with craft. They were still talking in the language of ‘Premium Bottled Ales’ (PBAs) which were 500ml bottles of London Pride, Young’s Banana Bread, Adnams Ghost Ship etc. Nothing wrong with them of course, but supermarkets were not where the new ‘enlightened’ craft beer aficionado went (with the notable exception of those seeking BrewDog which was becoming ubiquitous). That situation has slowly changed – supermarkets now offer a much better range of craft beers, and we’ve definitely noticed this in our sales. When our big sellers go into supermarkets (Fourpure, Beavertown, Kona etc.), we notice their sales slow down in our stores. No major bother, as there are plenty of other great beers we can stock but there’s no doubt that an improved range in the supermarkets hurts the independent sector.

Having done our own research, we’d rate the supermarkets in the following order for craft beer: Waitrose, Tesco (only the big stores), Asda, Sainsbury’s/Morrison’s =, Co-Op. The range doesn’t change regularly so it’s not good for the eternally beer curious but it is a marked step change since we opened up 5 years ago. I’m often asked how I feel about the supermarkets selling more craft. My answer is simple. It’s a good thing because it takes away space from macro lagers and helps widen knowledge of the category. But, I worry that some breweries might be biting off more than they can chew – supermarkets are not pleasant bed fellows and breweries should make sure they are fully setup for the good times and the bad times that can come from working with major retailers (I say this as someone with experience selling to supermarkets). We’ll continue to do what we can that supermarkets cannot – provide great service, knowledgeable staff and a roster of events that emphasise education about the product.

Fourpure Core Range
So that’s our brief look back at the past 5 years of craft beer, at least from the perspective of a small bottle shop in South London. Beer is evolving at lightning pace with new styles, breweries and festivals popping up all over the place. It’s hard to predict what the beer scene will look like in another 5 years time but what we can guarantee – it certainly won’t be dull!