Interview with HonestBrew's Craig Willmott

Over the last few years we have all seen the number of craft beer breweries dramatically increase and their share steadily grow.

But there was a rather telling comment in this year’s Brewers Manual revealing that more of their listed breweries closed than opened in 2016.

One of the key areas for this statistic is the increasing problem of gaining distribution and finding new routes to market.

As the established breweries expand, hire sales teams, do deals with Distributors and pub chains, smaller breweries can tend to get shut out, forced to focus on local markets.  They are pushed to create more innovative ways to establish their brands or move into managing their own outlets.  Not easy, whatever way you look at it.

This month, The Business of Drinks is introducing a series of in depth interviews with some of the newer distribution channels in the market place. People who are creating new ways of bringing great craft beer to the public such as Craig Willmott and his co-founders at HonestBrew.

If the issues raised above and in Craig's interview sound familiar and you are having problems developing your sales and finding routes to market, then we encourage you to get in touch with The Business of Drinks.  We are here to help breweries create more focussed sales and distribution plans.  We also offer templates and on-going coaching on Sales Planning, Sales Process development and Marketing that will help you improve your sales for the longer term.  

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Hello Craig! Can you start by giving our readers a quick overview of what you do at HonestBrew?

We are an independent online retailer who buys beers from the best breweries in the U.K. & internationally, and deliver their beers direct to our customers.  We have three main channels; subscription, shop and trade/events.

What would you say is your criteria for a winning beer at HonestBrew?  What’s the type of thing that you think goes down really well with your customers?

The first thing we look for is independence, making sure that the breweries we work with are not owned by any big players.  When it comes to the actual products, it’s very much the whole package from the beer itself to the branding and story.

Beers go through several stages of testing with our Cicerone trained taster as well as going out to our team to get their opinion.  If the beers pass that part of the test, then the next bit is looking at the packaging, the story behind the brewery and the story of the beer.  Our customers are very engaged with the beers that we sell.  They want to know what type of brewery it is, who are the people behind the brewery and anything unique about it.  When it’s made even easier for us by the brewery who are doing an amazing job already themselves, then that is all part of the winning formula.

It’s very much about engaging and (to a degree) identifying with the product rather than just drinking it as a beer and forgetting about it.

Are there any types of brands or particular brand stories that appeal particularly to your customers?

Generally, the stories and brands that appeal the most are those who demonstrate a dedication to the product as well as the overall craft beer industry.  What also helps is some specific points of difference demonstrating character, innovation and creativity.

Take Boundary over in Northern Ireland who have quite a unique setup.  They’re a co-operative brewery and I think that strikes a chord with a lot of our customers who are really keen on supporting communities.  That’s what Boundary is all about.  From another perspective, Beavertown is a particularly eye-catching brand that’s quite trendy.  They come across as a fun brewery making fantastic beers and they put on awesome events which in turn make people feel part of something.  Magic Rock are also benefitting from quite a similar approach.  And then you have other breweries like Five Points who are not just supporting their community but who are environmentally friendly sourcing 100% renewable energy.  They also support their staff members by paying the London Living Wage.

For HonestBrew, we’re all about presenting the entire package to customers keen on learning more about the growing world of craft beer.

How many breweries submit their beers to you on a monthly basis?  

It’s not constant, but it can be anywhere from five to twenty-five in a month.   Over the past few years, we’ve had over a thousand breweries send us samples.  Despite the volume, we believe it’s important to send feedback. For us it’s a process.  The beer may not be right this time but with feedback, the brewer has a chance to work on this and that.  Oftentimes when we receive samples a second time we’ve been able to say that’s bang on and we’ll definitely list them on the site.   The feedback process enables us to help more breweries make the step to go online and sell their beers.

And out of that one thousand breweries, it is possible to say how many actually pass muster?  How many are you now listing for example?

At the moment, we’ve got between 450 and 500 beers listed in our shop.  We usually have around 60 or 70 breweries.  We’ve had a lot more in the past.  Some might just stay online for a short while and then we stop as we can’t get it again.  We worked out the other day that we have listed over 2,000 beers in total to date. 

And that’s not just local beers? That’s a global mix?

Yes, we do stock beers from all around the world. Many of the beers we stock are from the UK which is testimony to the fact that brewers in the UK are brewing so many fantastic beers at the moment and I’m sure that there are still plenty out there that we have never heard of.

In the UK, do you have a wide geographic representation of breweries.  Are they predominantly south east based or from further afield?

You do have a natural concentration of breweries where more people are living for example in Manchester, London and Bristol, but there are so many others all across the country.  To point out a few we list, there’s Fyne Ales in Scotland, Wylam in Newcastle, Wild Horse in Wales, Verdant from Cornwall and Time and Tide down in Kent. Breweries outside the more populous areas often tend to be the more interesting ones, engaging with their communities as they are first and foremost dependent on local customers.

What would you say are the errors that brewers are most likely to make when they submit their beers to you for review?

An immediate red flag for us is anything trying to sell beer with sex or sexist imagery.  That’s a big no no and something we’re very much against.  When it comes to brewing, the things we see most commonly are oxidized beers and beers that are not properly bottle conditioned. We also see beers that are just a bit too experimental. They may have too much essence in for example and we’ll think it tastes a little bit over the top.  We want to make sure that our customer is getting the absolute best product but we also want to reflect the brewer's art in the best possible way.   If we’re not happy about it and let it pass, it’s not going to reflect well on either them or us.

So, coming back to your testing process, it sounds like you spend a lot of time on that part of the beer selection.  

Absolutely.  We do blind taste testing for example, where we have four or five beers and no branding indicated.   All we have is the beer in the glass.  We don’t know what it is or who brewed it. When we take on new staff members they all become familiar with this form of blind taste testing.  We will judge each of the main criteria for example, appearance, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel and finish.  And then after that we’ll look at the aesthetics, the brands design and the look and feel of the packaging.  We will go through all of these points in any assessment.

What do you think is the most important element on the can design?  Is it the name of the brewery brand, or is it the name of the drink?  And should the name of the drink be a straightforward title like stout or pale ale, or should it be something like ‘Mariana Trench’?  Do you think a creative name adds to its sale ability?

I think it does.  If you want to hone in on the can or the bottle, I’d say the most important thing is probably the images or the lack of images, basically the design of the brand, then secondary would be the name.  For instance, you are looking at a supermarket shelf or online on your computer scrolling up and down, the first thing that always catches your eye is design.  These days simple design is trending and being easy to the eye to look at.  Not too busy or haphazard, just aligned to one theme.  A clean design.  Then secondary comes the name of the beer and if that grabs more interest then you are on to something that’s quite good.  Image and design and then name and then everything else follows on afterwards.   With that first eye-catching thing, you give people more interest to read the name and then to learn about the brand and the brewery and the people behind it.

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Do you think people have a keen eye on the ABV as well?  Do they care a lot about the alcohol content when they are buying a drink?

That’s a perception thing as well.  We had a bottle recently on our site that was 18 percent ABV, I think it was Almanac from the States.  I remember watching people at a Pop Up we had in Old Street recently and people pulling it out of the fridge and looking at it and thinking it looks interesting and then when they see the ABV going woah and putting it back on the shelf straight away.   And that can be the same thing for some people if they see a 7 percent ABV, they’ll just immediately think that it’s not for them.   The job for people like us is to communicate that beer isn’t something that you sink five or ten pints of all the time.  Beers can be shared, especially some of these larger bottle formats that we are seeing now.   They have been produced with sharing in mind.   So that’s just another part where perception is a barrier to purchase.  We need to work harder at explaining these products to our customers.

In terms of beer styles, are you still seeing that most people are going for Pale Ales and IPAs on your website or are people starting to experiment more? 

We are definitely seeing a broadening of tastes over the past couple of years that we have been running.   The main beers that people go for on our site are still Pale Ales and IPAs.  However, we have noticed there is an interest in trying something new and finding out what flavours you like and what you can pick out.  From this base of curiosity, we’ve seen customers willing to try a wider range of products such as Rye beers, Kolsch, lagers, that kind of thing.  I think trying something new is part of the whole ethos of craft beer.  That’s also lifted up sales of all the other beer styles to a degree.  As far as the changing of trends, there are always new gimmicky things going on and they are fun.  We love the North-East style IPAs that have come out that people are really crazy for that are quite juicy and sweet and then something else will come along and take its place quite quickly.  Those types of trends generally swing quite massively.  But then there are more enduring trends of what people like particularly such as the Pale Ales. 

And what’s your take on craft lager?  Some people are saying that it’s one of the ‘sleeping products’ at the moment that could potentially grow much further in the future? 

I’d say good luck to competing with the big boys in the on-trade. Quietly though, I wish that that would happen sooner rather than later.  Speaking to some craft brewers that we work with who have some fantastic craft lagers and pilsners, they’re producing a much better product and just as consistent as any big brewer could produce.  The problem is when it comes to competition at the taps that’s the point you have to hit.  Yes, it’s a sleeping giant, but if you manage to compete against the bigger players who are throwing millions at lager in terms of marketing, you are doing well.  It’s having to convince the average lager drinker that it’s worth paying a pound more for their pint and 50p more for a bottle or a can.  That is a strong mindset thing when you come to the market.  I think there is a perception that you have of lager lovers, that they are just looking for a cheap drink to swill.  If you can manage to turn that perception around then there is the potential to open the floodgates.  But it’s going to be a tough march against the big boys that will be difficult to crack. 

And finally, it would be interesting to hear what your view is on the Craft Beer industry for the future?  Where do you think the industry is going?

I think we’re still at the very beginning of the craft beer movement in the UK.   The market is still so small in comparison to the beer market in general.   It’s only 10% of the market, if that, in sales at the moment.   So, there’s a lot more growth to be had.  There are going to be brewers who do incredibly well quite quickly like the Cloudwater’s and Beavertown’s.   There will be others who will steadily develop and grow naturally, for example Burning Sky and Pressure Drop. Others are sure in the short to medium term to go up for sale in order to progress. But whatever happens, the industry is still in its infancy and there is still much work to do with the drinker on their perception of beer and what they might enjoy.  You’re going to see more beer in restaurants and food & beer pairing.   For example, there are food pairing sessions coming up at the Great British Beer Festival this year that you just would not have seen five years ago.

Craig Willmott was interviewed by Susanne Currid of The Business of Drinks in July 2017. 

You can visit HonestBrew at www.honestbrew.co.uk

If the above issues resonate and you are having problems developing your sales and finding routes to market, then we encourage you to get in touch with The Business of Drinks.  We can help you create a more focussed sales and distribution plan.  We also offer templates and on-going coaching on Sales Planning, Sales Process development and Marketing that will help you improve your sales figures for the longer term.