The Big Interview: Andrew Morgan, The Bottle Shop
A surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn among Canterbury’s students saw the city’s parliamentary constituency fall to Labour in June’s general election for the the first time in a century.
Though less significant in the greater scheme of things, six years earlier, the student population had done their bit to change the nation’s beer landscape when The Bottle Shop opened its doors.
Founder Andrew Morgan (below) plucked a big cheese from the University of Kent’s real ale club to front the first incarnation of the business in a foodie market in an old engine shed by Canterbury West station.
“It felt like the right space to try to float this concept,” says Morgan, “but genuinely, on day one, I had no idea whether anyone would be interested.
“When we opened the doors in streamed 50 students. It was all hands on deck. They just got it.”
The Bottle Shop, at the time, was very different to anything the market had seen before, neither a shop nor a bar, but both at the same time.
The concept has become commonplace in urban centres in the short time since, both among independent beer and wine retailers, but at the time it was a step into the unknown, inspired by the bottle shops of Australia.
“From day one we had 150 bottles of beer that people could drink there or take away,” says Morgan. “We didn’t differentiate on price. We were slightly more expensive than off-licences but as a bar we were cheaper. I felt that with those two revenue streams every bottle had twice the chance of being sold.
“We’ve got a couple of taps now, a few more fridges but it’s essentially the same place we started out with.”
However, in the intervening years, the former TV documentary maker’s business has evolved considerably and dozens of others of similar ilk have popped up.
The old-fashioned model of a British beer shop was a lifestyle business, high passion for the product, but essentially a way for the owners to make a living without having what you might call a proper job.
Modern beer shops are more youthful and entrepreneurial, no less short on love for beer, but with an eye on growth and the ability to make beer that bit more exciting.
Morgan plays down his own business acumen but, while The Bottle Shop’s expansion may not have been down to some great master plan, its speed of growth suggests he has an instinct for an opportunity and provides a vision for others of how a humble beer shop can become so much more.
There’s now also a Bottle Shop in Margate and another in Bermondsey in south London, in a hipper than hip street of railway arches which also includes a bar, the Southwark and Anspach and Hobday breweries and the Hawkes cidery.
The Bermondsey venue was chosen originally because it provided enough space to service The Bottle Shop’s burgeoning wholesale business, but this has already outgrown the site and moved to a dedicated warehouse out east in Canning Town.
The site, an atmospheric space with a background rumble of trains going in and out of London Bridge station every few minutes, is currently being transformed into a 2.0 version of the bar/shop hybrid.
“What I like about unconventional retail spaces is that, when you walk over the threshold, you immediately have to disarm yourself in terms of expectations,” says Morgan. “And once you do that you can take people to places they’d never normally go.
“There’s a little bit of fear at first but if you give them the footholds they become very malleable to the idea of whatever you want to put in front of them. Those students had no preconceptions. They got it straight away.”
Morgan also took The Bottle Shop out into the world, most notably running beer tastings for members of London’s Southbank Centre arts complex.
“I wrote to them as a member and said I think your beer list is pretty atrocious and as a members’ bar you deserve better. As a member you’re allowed to have an opinion. There was this flicker of recognition from them that the beer thing was getting interesting.”
Events started in partnership with the pre-multinational Meantime, showcasing its beers alongside some from other breweries.
“If they’d done it themselves it would have been a bit showboaty and corporate but we were able to come in with a sense of independence.
“At the time it was a big step forward for us from our place in Canterbury. We saw people coming into the shop from having been at those nights. It was great as an acquisition device.”
Business expansion has since been helped by input from angel investors who came on board after Morgan pitched at a Dragon’s Den-style business event in Kent.
This year has seen a successful crowdfunding push to convert Canning Town into a refrigerated storage space that Morgan hopes will be a game- changer in the beer wholesale supply chain in the UK.
The Bottle Shop has begun importing consolidated containers of beers from lesser-known (in the UK) American craft brewers such as Green Flash, Alpine and Modern Times. The investment means these should get to retailers in a condition closer to that intended by the brewers that made them. “They’re creating a very different product,” says Morgan.
It’s like fresh milk versus UHT, or SD TV versus HD TV. Those brewers are using fragile ingredients in an unbelievably audacious way knowing that the beer will have to be refrigerated because it’s only got six to eight weeks’ life when it’s at its best. British brewers have no choice but to brew something that’s going to be stored at ambient temperature and will have a year’s shelf life.”
Morgan began wholesaling so that the van he sent to pick up stock from London breweries could earn its keep on the way there as well, by being full of beer for pubs and shops across the capital to sell.
“It felt like the right thing to do,” he says. “I was very disillusioned with a lot of the wholesalers who were out there. There was no subtlety, no fine texture. It was all big sausage fingers and an unwieldy, uninteresting thing. Our thing is small batch.
“Bigger wholesalers can’t go down into the same level of detail. They have 90% core stock available all year round, and 10% that’s changing or seasonal.
“We are 95% weekly turnover. Every week is a new week. We give our headline brewery a weekly spotlight and change it the next week.
“It takes a lot more time, effort and risk in terms of stockholding, but for me it’s what makes beer exciting. You want to feel that you’re on this never-ending journey of change.
“I’m sometimes overwhelmed thinking about where we are now compared to where we were when we started, but it’s nothing compared to the reality of the scale of beer that is out there. We’re micro, but micro is fun.”
The craft beer journey is still on a collective upward curve, Morgan believes, with in-venue tap challenges between Danish brewers Mikkeller and Warpigs and the Swedish pairing of Omnipollo and Dugges earlier this year whipping up new levels of social media hysteria among followers.
“In our first year the most popular beers were Hobgoblin, Adnams and Timothy Taylor, but a lot of our customers are now are very knowledgeable about global beer such as Mikkeller and To Øl.
“When we started we said we were the home of good beer, but we’ve realised that ‘good’ isn’t good enough anymore, so we now say we’re the home of world- class beer.”
There’s surely more to come from The Bottle Shop but Morgan insists he still doesn’t know where the journey is taking him.
“It’s going to carry on growing organically, much to the disgust of those who want me to give a clear five-year exit strategy for the business.
“There’s no way five years ago I could have predicted we’d be where we are now. Any prediction I make will be based on what I know now, but what I know next week could be quite different.”