The Craft Drink Co does what it says on the tin. A business set up to help promote and sell craft drinks, primarily across the west, south and central England. Founded by Richard Chamberlain it now has around 160 craft drinks products in its portfolio across all the major drinks categories, from soft drinks, beers, ciders, wines, to spirits, and is looking to widen its net into the north of the country. Here he talks to Richard Siddle about what makes one craft drink stand out from another.
The Craft Drink Co hopes to provide the invaluable link between the busy producer obsessed in making the perfect drink, and busy drinks buyers across specialist retail and the premium on-trade looking for drinks that can make a difference to their range.
What is it about the financial world that keeps on producing fresh and exciting talent for the drinks industry? It seems every week a new producer or entrepreneur comes into the market having enjoyed a successful career in banking and finance.
But then if you are going to start up your own drinks company, in a notoriously cut throat, competitive and risky industry, having a good financial mind, but perhaps more importantly, a few savings tucked away, gives you more than a fighting chance.
Richard Chamberlain is one such entrepreneur who, after a good 15 years working for large financial and corporate businesses across banking and telecoms, decided to follow his heart and not his wallet, and enter the world of food and drink at the sharp end – running his own delicatessen and farm shop business – Cotswolds Fine Food – where he had to learn fast the dynamics of running your own business.
He was soon running a seven day operation sourcing food and drink from right across the south and west of the country. It was a steep learning curve, but one he loved, having the freedom to do what he wanted, make mistakes and working out what to do as he went.
“Our focus was all about championing small producers,” he says. “It was something I felt deeply passionate about and loved talking about them to our customers so that they would fall in love with our local produce too.”
He first made the move into local food and drink back in 2004, just when craft and artisan food and drink was beginning to take off in the UK, with more and more farmers markets offering small producers the chance to sell their products direct to an increasingly curious and ambitious British consumer.
Looking back Chamberlain says it was great to be there at the beginning of what became the “craft movement”. Back then, though, it was much more about food than drink. “I think we had one bottle of local gin, a reasonable amount of cider and a few English wines, and that was about it. The craft world has changed a great deal since then,” he adds.
Focus on drinks
So much so that when Chamberlain decided to pass on and sell his delicatessen business in 2012 he knew the time was right to concentrate his new business on the even faster growing craft drinks category and The Craft Drink Co was born in January 2013.
He says his decision to move full time into drinks actually came from realising that many of the craft drinks suppliers he worked with were great at creating the product and coming up with new ideas and recipes, they were not as good at creating orders, and repeat purchases for themselves.
So he started to offer his services to them on an agency basis and give him the chance to drum up business and widen distribution for them. One van soon turned into five, and the number of brands that they were able to sign up grew by the week. Now The Craft Drink Co has some 160 brands on its books, and is supplying over 1,000 sites across a 150 mile radius. From the Brecon Beacons to London taking in the south west, Somerset and Nottingham along the way.
“Craft drinks at that time were not well represented in the retail market and very few had their own drinks wholesale business,” says Chamberlain. “When I started out it was just myself and my car and I would go out door to door talking to independent merchants.”
He says his big break came when he teamed up with Sheldon’s Wine Cellars in Shipston and started to do deliveries and order for them. He soon had to swap his car for a van, and then another and by 2015 had his own 5,000 sqft warehouse. One he is replacing with a new 10,000 soft site from January which he is confident “can give us another three years of growth”.
“I just started at the right time,” says Chamberlain. “I have been able to grow with the craft boom going on all around me. I have been very fortunate to be able to ride that wave.”
But you make your own luck in the drinks industry and the fact The Craft Drink Co has largely had the distribution field to itself shows how ahead of the game Chamberlain was when he decided to focus on the category nearly 10 years ago.
He has certainly played his part in how quickly craft drinks have become a real feature of local, independent retailing with most independent merchants now carrying a selection of local ales, ciders and, where possible, English wines. “Craft drinks are starting to find a home in local retail,” he says with a wide number of outlets from garden centres, local village stores, community shops through to the food and drink markets all looking for new products to stock.
In 2015, he secured a contract to supply up to 160 stores of the Mid Counties Co-op. “We have a good mix of products to offer them,” he adds.
For it has not just been the typical local beers and ciders that The Craft Drink Co has looked to make it name, but “right across the spectrum” of drinks from water, to soft drinks, right through to premium spirits and, where he can, English wine.
“We have gone from a core range of five to 160 and are probably taking on about three new brands a month,” he explains.
The interest, though, is many times that and he says he is constantly being approached by new drinks brands, which on the one hand is encouraging for the sector, but also shows how much duplication and competition there now is.
“We try and put a fair emphasis on all of them but beer and cider are the mainstays. Spirits, though, have really emerged, thanks to gin being the real star of the show and we have seen a number of distilleries start around here – like The Cotswolds Distillery. We have been able to grow with them which has been very important.”
The Craft Drink Co now has a team of 20, of which half are in logistics and the warehouse where it runs six vans.
English wine opportunity
The one drinks area Chamberlain feels it is lagging behind is in English wine. “It is the last piece of the jigsaw,” he adds.
His experience with a lot of English producers is that they feel they can sell more and do better on their own and relying on their own cellar door business. Which is great for those that can, but he thinks there is a growing opportunity to really tap into the interest in English wine and help certain producers with wider distribution across the UK.
“As their production grows they are going to need to do more distribution and that is a great opportunity for us to work with them on a regional basis.”
He adds: “We would really like to work on their behalf, that is our greatest challenge and opportunity.”
He is actually more excited about the potential in still wines than sparkling, as he thinks the price points and volume will be more in keeping with his overall offer. “That is where the future is. Sparkling wine is where the limelight is, but the volume is in still wine. That is where we want to be,” he says.
With so many producers coming to him every week looking for a listing, Chamberlain has had to put in place exacting sourcing criteria.
“First of all the liquid has to be exceptional,” he says. “There is so much competition that as a buyer you have to set a very high bar for any new product.”
The next key factor for him is “integrity” and to only work directly with the producer rather than go through third parties acting on their behalf. “We want to work with the end to end producer,” he says.
That way it knows it can control the quality of the product and how it is made. “We need to know about the entire production process and the ingredients being used.”
Any new product he lists also has to be what he calls “retail savvy”. Brands that have a “wow” factor to them. “We are selling across a wide region so you have to be able to stand up against a lot of competition. They have to look right, have a great packaging, and increasingly they have to be really committed to sustainability. That’s really important.”
Interestingly price is not one of the most determining factors. What Chamberlain is looking for more is value for money. Be it at the super premium, luxury end or entry level. “They have to be very good value,” he says.
Having the right products to sell to the trade is one thing, knowing which customers to sell to is where your years of experience and knowhow come in, he adds. “We are a matchmaker. We look to recommend the right drinks to the right customers. Which means we have to understand who their customers are and their location and type of outlet. Only then can we give them the right drinks to sell.That has become increasingly important.”
Which means Chamberlain and his team spend a lot of their time talking to their customers to better understand their needs and what they are looking for in the producers they want to work with.
That way it can suggest whether a producer might want to do a masterclass or not, or a training session with the staff. “It’s important we are always talking and communicating with them,” he says.
That communication also means having great content about every producer on its website so that it is doing what it can to showcase them.
Chamberlain says the bulk of its business is through the specialist retail sectors, which has done particularly well over the last 18 months. He does, though, have a focus on trying to improve its distribution in the premium on-trade, but recognises “our appeal to the hospitality trade is more niche” but thinks there is a good opportunity still.
“We know the on-trade is looking for more local products so that they can be distinctly different to having big brands. We think we can offer them that and also help them with their sustainability and their ‘food’ miles in terms of where they are sourcing their products from.”
Which means as its own distribution grows around the country it too needs to be sourcing more local products from a wider number of regions.
“Our ambition it so be able to source from across the UK. Up to now our focus has been on central and southern England, but it makes sense to look further up north too.”
Working so closely with producers means Chamberlain and his team are also acutely aware of the soaring costs they are facing right across the board, from the shortage in glass, packaging, cardboard and the knock on effect all of that has on price of production and their margins.
“Prices are going to have to start to rise as their margins are being squeezed.”
In terms of new products Chamberlain is excited about the potential of English whiskies and rums and the number of specialist new distilleries there are.
Gin will continue to grow and innovate and he is also watching the low and no alcohol category closely. “It is going to be interesting to see how the consumer and their behaviour changes.”
In terms of formats cans is the area where it is seeing the most innovation, particularly the move to bigger can formats. “They are great art pieces as well and we are seeing a lot of creative cans coming out. They are also more sustainable too.”
Gifting is another area that The Craft Drink Co is looking at and being able to offer exclusive pack formats and gifting options from its producer partners. “We can help create a demand for that.”
Which is essentially what The Craft Drink Co is all about. Acting as the link between craft producers and specialist retailers and hospitality outlets looking for UK artisan, authentic products to sell.
- If you would like to know more about the Craft Drink Co then go to its website here.