Otter’s Tears, Beers & an Inspirational Indie Business Story
We have so many stunning independent businesses in our Member network & community and many of them have inspirational stories abut how they came to be. I think this is one of my favourites.
It ties in brilliantly with a Member programme we are running this month about the benefits of Blogging for Business. Here Phil of the fabulous Otter’s Tears Beer Company tells his story. Read it to find out why independent business is where the heart is.
It started by accident….
Back then I didn’t even know there were such things as beer geeks (for want of a more suitable description), never mind that I actually was one. Yes, I liked a beer and like most I suspect, went the mild to lager route before I discovered real ale. Even then the options weren’t particularly what you’d describe as diverse. But I tried what I could until in roughly 2005 after filling up on Thornbridge Jaipur, itself a revelation, I began to tentatively explore the rather bleak bottle fridges and took the first toddling steps towards my fate.
A couple of Christmases later, my wife gave me a gift, it wasn’t really meant as a big thing, more of a “filler” present I guess at the time. Rach knew I liked to try new things and thought I’d like it but little did she know, but that gift would turn out to be life changing.
100 Belgian beers to try before you die!
I opened the book and jokingly said to Rach, “you’ll have to let me go to try and find them”, and in that moment without even knowing it, I took a fork in meandering path that led me to where I am today at Otter’s Tears.
The beer journey..
As I started to seek out the beers in the book I was posting pictures of them on Facebook. After a while a friend of mine responded to one such post and said “why don’t you start a blog”?
Now I’m not sure whether that was through genuine interest or simply a plea to get me to stop filling up her timeline, either way it got me thinking, “What’s a blog?” I genuinely had no idea..
I began to do some research, asking friends for help, scouring the web for beer blogs (there were lots) and narrowing those down to those I enjoyed reading. After a while I asked some of the authors to give feedback on the various blogging platforms, before finally choosing WordPress, designing my page and most importantly a name. I made lists, I asked friends to make lists, then checking those lists to see which were already in use. Again, trickier than you might think even for a self proclaimed pun-master like myself.
I settled on Beersay, tenuously linked to Hearsay, with a slight tweak on the meaning.
“Beersay – unverified, unofficial information gained or acquired from various sources or sauces about beer…..probably”
My early days were focused on that 100 beers to try crusade. I’d find the beers, photograph them, sip, stare at and sniff them, scribbling notes which I’d later try and commit to reviewing them with a blog post. The downside of this being, I found I could’t drink a beer without inwardly scrutinising it. Stripping it back to familiar tastes and smells, searching for superlatives with which to convey my enjoyment to readers. I decided then to leave beer reviews to others, but I was hooked on blogging, I’d made so many friends through it and wanted to write more.
As I turned my back on beer reviews my thirst for exploration grew stronger, through my love of Belgian beer I’d discovered a whole new world of taste sensations and destinations and I was determined to explore them. I tried my first real American IPA from Goose Island, back then it was completely different from anything I’d tried before and it hooked me like a salmon on a fly.
Luckily I hit my stride as the British beer scene started to explode. New progressive breweries, the true British craft beer pioneers were opening. Their brewers, tired of just brewing beer for the masses with strong desires to create British beers bursting with the sort of aromas and tastes wowing the American Craft beer faithful, who were years ahead of us.
The likes of Magic Rock, Summer Wine, The Kernel, Red Willow, Buxton and Weird Beard breweries and more, all launched over the next couple of years. Twitter had really started to come into its own too and was the perfect platform for a new breed of beer enthusiasts to chat and share information. You could be drinking a top class IPA and talking to the person that brewed it, in real time, but hundreds of miles apart. The British craft beer community was growing, at a pace and social media gave it a new platform to spread the good word.
Bloggers, through Twitter, Facebook and other social media now had a wider audience, one that the writer knew was reading as feedback was available direct. This community was like a sponge sucking up information about new beers, beer launches, events and gatherings. Then, following the path of the USA, the first European Beer Bloggers Conferences were held in London and Leeds, the two main centres for growth. At EBBC, amateur beer bloggers sat side by side with professional authors and journalists, members of the British Guild of Beer Writers and brewers with a shared passion, friendships were born in these years and in the main have prevailed, but equally importantly peoples aspirations grew, they wanted more from this.
Since the last EBBC I attended in Leeds 2012, I’ve lost count of how many friends that have gone on to build a career either in, or linked to the beer industry. Some have gone to work in breweries, some have started breweries. Bloggers became published authors or freelance journalists and even artists. Beer samplers progressed to attain beer sommelier or cicerone qualifications and now taste brews as a profession, sharing that knowledge with others.
Grasping the nettle..
As a long career in the logistics industry came to a rather painfully abrupt end, I needed a fresh look at options. Beer seemed the most logical answer, not drinking it, although clearly that helped, but a career within the industry would at least give me a chance to do something I know a little about and would hopefully enjoy.
I suppose I could have gone out and hawked a CV around breweries, beer distributors or whatever in the hope that somebody had a vacancy, but the thought of knocking on doors of friends, saying “giz a job, I can do that”, didn’t really feel appropriate. Besides, I have always harboured a dream of doing something for myself and this seemed like an opportunity to take that leap of faith and do just that. So with that in mind, the help, love and patience of the wife and the gentle nudge/shove of some reassuring friends and family, I started to look at opening a specialist beer shop.
What’s in a name..?
After the obvious look at location, planning, suppliers, licensing and such businesslike things, thoughts turned once again to a name. I decided I wanted something different from the norm, thought-provoking even, be that in a knowing smile or a “what the bleedin’ hell does that mean” sort of way. A memorable name that hopefully would get folk talking.
Many people have inspired me to write over the years but from that great bunch of people, nobody made me laugh as much as Simon Johnson, the Reluctant Scooper. He could take a serious subject or equally a nonsensical argument and come up with something witty whilst still getting a point across, be that in a simple tweet or a full-blown blog post. Although Simon passed away in 2013, I still find myself returning to his blog time and again, a memory stirs from somewhere that has me reaching into cyberspace to find the post I’m looking for and it is inevitably one of his.
It was at such a moment that inspiration for the name came to me, although clearly not the credit. The question, “What to me encapsulates the new and exciting buzz that is gripping the beer world, without actually using the words craft?” For the answer, my mind immediately turned to the words of Simon’s “Craft Beer Manifesto” specifically the use of “distilled otters tears”!
“Craft beer is where you find it. Where you find it depends on how you define it.
How you define it? That’s your call.
There will never – never – be agreement in the UK as to what ‘craft beer’ really means.
So let’s just drink good beer and have some fun”
If you’ve not read it, do it now, the original link and the poster our advertising guys Lemon Top created are above. Basically it was a tongue in cheek dig at those waging a war of words back then, over what was or was not craft beer. Nothing much has changed of course in terms of defining the C word, a word I really don’t like, but the words of wisdom in Simon’s manifesto clearly tickled me enough to make it commit to memory, so Otters Tears it was.
How soon is now..
It seems like only yesterday that we were sweeping floors at almost midnight ready to open for the first time the following day, but here I am almost 18 months down the road. Things have changed a lot from my original launch day concept, as we’ve adapted the business to what suits the building and ourselves best, with our current now being to offer a fantastic range of the best beers in the world to our customers for retail and mail order.
The future’s bright, the future’s local…
Looking forward, our biggest challenges I’d say are going to be customer acquisition and loyalty in such an expanding but ever so slightly overcrowded market. We could have the finest shop in the world but still fail if people don’t find and visit us, we need to shine and shine bright to be seen. Loyalty I am sure will follow and by that I don’t mean that everyone who shops here should only shop here. Even I can’t resist visiting other independent beer shops and I own one.
But big business is looking long and hard at the rise in popularity of what it perceives as “craft beer”, multinational supermarket corporations have deep pockets and don’t really care who they crush in the process. My hope is that customers continue to be loyal to the independents who have more than just money invested in their businesses, those that care and are passionate about the beers they sell and the people that make them.
So that’s my story, from when I didn’t have an inkling that I’d ever open my own business, through to the now and beyond. Wish me luck, or better still come and pay me a visit and see what we’ve done for yourself.