This summer, we had the pleasure of interviewing David Jackson, CEO of EeBria as part of our our new series of long reads on beer sales & distribution. If you're looking for better ways to crack the online market, we suggest you make yourself a brew, get comfortable and drink in the great insights David provides.
Hello David. Could you start be giving me an overview of what you do at EeBria?
EeBria is an online alcohol marketplace. We launched it in August 2013. When we started it was purely a retail business. The idea was to help small breweries to sell direct to consumers all across the UK and for customers to be able to access a huge range of beers. They could get it direct from the brewery in really good condition. That’s where we started and in June 2015 we launched our trade platform, EeBriaTrade.com, doing exactly the same idea but selling kegs, bottles, cans and cask to pubs, bars and restaurants nationwide.
A pub in any part of the country is able to access the same beers as anyone else in the country. For even the tiniest brewery setting up, they are able to get access to that network of pubs and to be able to sell in. Size is no longer an issue in terms of competing with the bigger breweries. Customers have access to the best beer they can possibly get their hands on. So at the end of the day, quality is what shines through.
We now work with over 350 brewers through our trade platform and we have about 80 breweries on our retail site, which is a curated platform. For us, it’s very important that the brewers we have on EeBria are very high quality so if a customer comes to the site and orders a case of 12 beers, they know that they are going to get a set of beers that they are really going to love. When they come back, they will be confident about trying another brewery. Whereas if they get one bad experience, its going to put them off buying from the rest of the list.
It sounds like testing is a key factor for you as it enables you to deliver the best quality beers to your customer.
Absolutely. Quality is the number one factor. When we are curating the beer selection, everything that goes on the site has to go through a blind taste test. In the test, all beers are compared against a set of controls, which are beers of a similar style and ABV to the samples, and are either beers we’re already selling on the site (so of a high standard), and some known less good beers. We do some statistics on the scores to smooth out anomalies and different forms of bias (including across tastings), to come up with a final result. If they are tasting great and score similarly to the good samples, then they’ll get through to the platform, if they score badly the brewery doesn’t get on.
At this stage branding plays no part whatsoever. The decision is purely about the product in the bottle or can. That’s what does the talking at that stage.
Does branding come into the equation at any point further down the line?
It’s purely about the beer but the branding does start to play a part once it gets onto our website. People buy with their eyes so however much we say that a beer is really great, if it doesn’t look particularly good then it’s not very appealing to the customers and it’s just not going to sell as well as other brewers. We may sometimes go back to a brewer who’s done well in a taste test with feedback saying we love the beer and we’d like to get it on the site, but the branding doesn’t quite hit the mark.
In the last few years we’re finding that the branding has come a long, long way forward. More often now, we’re finding that the beer will look good on the outside and we’re hoping it tastes as good as it looks but when it comes to the actual beer we are often let down. Whereas when we started the site four years ago the samples we were getting would look pretty poor but what’s inside the bottle was very good. Most of those breweries have now rebranded and there is definitely a lot more focus on branding by breweries in more recent years.
I’d be interested to know if you focus on different types of products for the trade side as opposed to the retail website?
Not particularly. On both platforms we want to offer a wide range of really good beers. We’ve got more beers available on the trade side than on the retail side but in terms of the styles we have a huge cross section of everything you can possibly think of. Of course, on our trade platform, by far the most popular options as you’d expect are the pale ales and the IPAs at a fairly sessionable strength in the 4 to 4.5 ABV% region. They sell by far the best.
Having said that, when we have a crazy sour from a well-respected brewery, then that will shift very quickly too. But it’s still the 4% pale ales that do the bulk of the work. It’s hard to have a bar that’s just got ten different crazy sours on. You have to have the more normal but high quality easy drinking beers available as well.
In terms of your different business sectors, which one is driving growth the most?
EeBriaTrade is the part of the business that’s growing the fastest since we launched it in June 2015. We’re seeing 30% growth month-on-month at present. The retail site is growing quickly, but EeBriaTrade’s consistent growth is hugely exciting for us!
I’d be interested to know if there is a preference with trade for bottles or cans, or is it very much a bottle business still?
There doesn’t seem to be too much bias from our customers for either bottles or cans. At the moment, cans are growing on our site each month as a result of more breweries putting their beer into cans as opposed to bottles.
I’ve not seeing anything from shops or pubs where they are refusing to buy in cans where previously the beer was supplied in bottles or vice versa. The shops really don’t mind what vessel it comes in. It’s more important what’s inside the package.
In terms of can sizes, is the most popular still 330ml?
Yes, this format is the most popular, but in recent months, we’re also seeing a growth in 440ml. I think that’s a great size and can only see that growing, but I can’t see it overtaking 330ml cans anytime soon.
What sort of beer issues do you come across during your testing?
You would also be surprised at the standards of the beers that we get sent. Historically about one in eight breweries that went through the taste testing actually got on to the site. That average has now increased and about two in eight get through. But it’s still a case of the majority failing.
We’ve had so many issues with beers sent. We’ve had a lot of infected and exploding beers. One brewery even sent us samples that arrived three months out of date. They failed before we even tasted the beers as we know that if a brewery won’t send us in date beers, then they aren’t likely to care what they send to our customers either.
When we send feedback a lot of brewers refuse to hear it, or to listen from a customer’s perspective. They don’t want to believe that the faults existed, and would rather tell us we’re wrong, than look at what might be an issue in their processes.
It’s also regularly the case that a brewer may have just started bottling or canning beer and sent a sample straight out to us. They’ve not QAed it, and they’ve not yet got their processes right. It’s understandable that they want to get it out to market as soon as possible but for people like us, it means we could be ruling out a brewery that perhaps will make the mark after a couple of bottling runs.
Coming back to branding, is there anything out there that you think works particularly well when it comes to selling on the retail site?
It all depends on what the brand wants to do and what their image is going to be. There are a huge variety of different styles that work really well. Obviously, the example that everyone brings up for great branding is Beavertown. Their cans are very striking, very distinctive. Stylistically at the other end, you have Brew By Numbers who have a very clean, very simple style of design. It’s the absolute opposite end of the scale to Beavertown but it also works brilliantly.
What we find doesn’t work is where you have a traditional design that includes cheesy cartoons or joke graphics, or very dated imagery and pump clips that have been done on Microsoft Paint or similar. They are immediate turnoffs for our customers, but sadly we still see a lot of that sort of thing.
You have to match the branding to the beer though. There are some great traditional ales and bitters that just wouldn’t work if you put them inside a Beavertown style of can. People are going to look at that style of branding and when they don’t get what they are expecting inside the bottle or can there is a mismatch. There clearly is still a place for more traditional breweries but their design needs to make some sort of nod to modernity. For example, Redemption, East London Brewing or Dark Star, have all got that classic look and feel to them but it’s clean, it’s well done, it’s consistent across all their beers.
I feel that consistency is another important point. We’ll often get sent beers from a brewery and if you put all of their beers out in a line you’d think we were looking at many different brewery’s beers. You can’t chop and change too much. Once you have a style it helps to stick to it and build around it. It may sound intimidating to say that you need a good design, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. There are a lot of great designers out there who are interested in working with small breweries and it’s worth considering that a simple face-lift of your branding could result in your beers selling a lot quicker.
How important an impact do you think a creative name has on the sales potential of a beer? Does it matter or is it just as effective to just use the beer style name on your packaging?
I’m not too sure about that. When a brewery sends us a sample and it simply says the brewery name and the beer style it certainly shows a certain confidence and a belief from the brewer that these are the styles we are brewing and they are bang on. In an odd way, it gives me a bit more confidence in that brewery.
However, I do think it makes it a lot harder for that brewery to grow that brand. When someone is in a pub and has that nice pint of “Pale Ale”, it could be one from a huge amount of breweries. Unless you’ve got very good brewery recognition along side it, it can be a little bit limiting in terms of how you are able to grow the brand off that. It’s hard for that customer to reorder a “Pale Ale” in another bar, or shop, and get the same beer.
With beers like Beavertown’s Gamma Ray or BrewDog’s Punk IPA, they are product names that have really stuck around and have huge brands built around them. Both are great beers, but would they have been that successful if they had been called Beavertown APA and BrewDog IPA? I am not as convinced.
However, when you have brewers like The Kernel and Brew By Numbers who are brewing with different featured hop combinations, it makes sense to have a different approach to naming. If you had to come up with a new creative name for every single version that you did it could be quite draining and possibly more confusing for the customers. It’s a balancing act. I don’t think that either is necessarily better than the other. It just depends on what you are brewing and what you want to achieve.
And in terms of ABV, how much attention do you think customers are giving to the ABV and are they put off by high ABVs? What are you seeing on your retail channels for example?
Definitely people pay attention to the ABV. In the UK there is the culture of going to the pub and drinking many pints of beer. That’s not something you can easily do with stronger beers, so there are many people who favour session strength beers around 4%.
On EeBria though, as the buyer is generally very interested in craft beer and is buying to drink at home, often as a treat, ABV is less relevant and it’s more about the beer itself. Big Double IPAs, regularly over 9%, and Barrel Aged Imperial Stouts sell very quickly, but they are still a small part of craft beer, which itself is a small part of the beer industry, so isn’t reflective of the whole industry.
Looking again at the on trade side of your business, I wonder if you are starting to see more willingness from bars and hospitality outlets to order purely online. In the past, it’s been common for distributors to think that bars will only make orders via the phone. Have you seen the behaviour changing?
Yes absolutely. Our business is an online ordering platform and there are a lot of pubs that are very happy with that service. Online ordering offers so many more opportunities that you can’t get otherwise.
On EeBriaTrade, we have a number of beer and pub matching algorithms suggesting the right beers for your pub, making sure that the beers suggested will be the most interesting and best value for their customers. When there are over 2,000 products available, like there are on EeBriaTrade, it can be very daunting, so helping to simplify that list and make it appropriate to each individual pub is vital, and something that can’t be done on a printed list.
Six months after launching I spoke to a large distributor who told me it would never work and that 100% of their orders were taken on the phone. I was taken aback by that, seeing how backward parts of the distribution industry is. The same people have been in the industry for decades and there has been nobody wanting to try and do anything differently. We took a totally new approach to the industry and our approach was simply that if we have a bigger range, at better prices, sent fresh and without minimum orders then it’s better for pubs and they will change how they order, and unsurprisingly that’s exactly what we’ve seen.
And finally what do you think is in store for craft beer and craft beer sales in the future, in the next few years and beyond that?
There is no doubt that the craft beer sector is going to continue growing fairly rapidly. The percentage share that it has of the market is still very small and the last report I read on the market indicated that about 8% or 9% of beer sales are going to craft beer. When you then look at the US, they have craft beer sales running at about 21 to 22% of the market, it’s very clear that there is a long way that we can go.
However, what we are starting to see right now is some consolidation in the industry and I don’t think that’s going to go away. There are more breweries that are going to be bought up by the bigger beer companies, the likes of AB InBev and Heineken. There is no doubt that we will see Big Beer Companies getting increasingly involved in buying craft breweries, and potentially other areas of the industry.
We’re also going to start seeing the results of the cash injection into the brands they’ve bought. Camden Town has just recently opened its bigger new brewery following its investment and launched TV adverts. We will definitely start to feel their presence more.
They are looking at other areas, for example AB InBev’s acquisition of Beerhawk is part of that move into enabling them to have distribution routes for their brands. We’ve not yet seen too much movement from the big companies into craft spirits or craft ciders, but as those sectors keep growing quickly I suspect it’s only a matter of time.
We’ll still be seeing a lot of new brewery openings. Last year there was a new brewery opening every two days and I’d be surprised if that isn’t the case again this year. At the same time, we’ll probably also see closures of some of the new breweries who haven’t quite managed to get off the ground. For new breweries it’s increasingly hard to find a niche, or a way of distinguishing themselves, so I’m expecting to see a bit of market pressure impact these breweries. Whilst I think we’re going to start to see more small breweries feeling the pressure and closing, there will be a larger number of breweries which will also go from strength to strength, growing to keep up with demand.
David Jackson was interviewed by Susanne Currid of The Business of Drinks in July 2017.