London-based distributor Cave Direct has revealed its plans to open a bar—under its Beer Merchants retail arm—complete with its own sour beer blendery in Hackney Wick, East London. Taking residence inside a vacant former warehouse on Wallis Road, right by Hackney Wick Station, the 3,000 square-foot site will feature more than 20 taps plus a selection of cask beer.
The bar will also serve as a “school of excellence” that provides lessons on beer serving and cellar management for Cave’s wholesale customers. The new venue will nestle up in an area that is already home to breweries like Crate and Howling Hops, plus Mason & Company, a craft beer bar owned by The Five Points Brewing Co. This news follows the opening of Beer Merchants’ bar and bottle shop in Manchester in April 2017.
Founded in 1979 by the father of current managing director Colin Gilhespy, Cave Direct has built a reputation as an importer of beers from all over the world. In particular, it’s known as the supplier of rare Belgian Lambics, including those from Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen.
WHY IT MATTERS
As an increasing amount of UK breweries seek to sell directly to consumers, either via their own bars, taprooms, or online retail, existing bars and distributors are looking for ways to evolve in order to meet the needs of a changing industry. This challenge is perhaps greatest for distributors, who in the UK continue to see their margins squeezed as beer prices continue to increase at both ends of the chain.
Cave Direct saw the need to move into retail way before the current beer boom, initially opening a bottle shop in 1985. That store closed in 2003, coinciding with the launch of its online retail arm, Beer Merchants. With the increasing popularity of taprooms here in the United Kingdom, distributors are also looking to grab a slice of that pie. Other examples include Cave Direct opening its Manchester bar amongst breweries such as Cloudwater and Track Brew Co., along with competitor The Bottle Shop opening its bar on London’s Bermondsey Beer Mile in 2014.
“We’ve been very careful about choosing a site to make sure we offer something unique to the area,” Gilhespy tells GBH of the bar’s location. “Hackney Wick is going to change completely in the next few years with thousands of homes being built, so there is going to be a huge market for everyone to tap into.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of this development, however, is Cave Direct’s plan to open a “sour beer blendery,” somewhat in the vein of a traditional Belgian Geuzestekerij such as Tilquin or Oud Beersel. The company plans to purchase spontaneously fermented beer from both UK and European producers before barrel-aging—and, eventually, blending—to produce its own range of sour beers. Of course, this project will take a number of years to reach fruition. In the meantime, the bar will be focusing on selling the brands it distributes such as Kona, Paulaner, and Lervig.
“The landlord was really keen on getting a brewery in there,” Gilhespy says of the decision to open the blendery. “We have a few avid home brewers in the company, but short of tying up with a brewery, we didn’t have the expertise. However, where we do have huge knowledge is Lambic. We’ve been importing it since the eighties, and the idea of bringing those traditional pub-geuzeries back to life came up.”
He continues: “We’ve spoken to the breweries we work with in Belgium—Lindemans, Cantillon, 3 Fonteinen, Tilquin—who were interested to hear our plans, and some are happy to have us come and learn from them. I think there is a misconception that they don’t like new producers coming to market. They want to see their historic methods preserved, but we will, of course, be very careful to respect their provenance and brewing heritage they have nurtured.”
Gilhespy also points out that, with the bar working as a training facility for its customers, he feels that it will improve existing relationships as opposed to adding any tension. The blendery itself will only be producing around 5 hectoliters (4.2 barrels) a year, initially—a relatively miniscule amount compared to the breweries around it.
Cave Direct is undertaking a round of crowdfunding, and hopes to raise £50,000 ($65,000). Although investors won’t have access to any equity in the business, customers will be able to invest between £50 and £1000 ($65-$1300) in return for a gift card to spend at the bar worth double the amount they invest, plus a 5% discount on beermerchants.com for life.