Small Beer: Have I got booze for you?
More than four decades since his parents sold their house to kickstart a cask beer empire, Small Beer Wholesale Managing Director Rob Eastwood is ensuring people are still drinking to the family name
It all started with a five-pound note. A humble fiver offered by a pub’s landlord as a thank you for picking up a couple of kegs of beer from a brewery.
To some it might have been a simple favour, but it turned out to be a lightbulb moment for Tony and Judith Eastwood that would change the course of the family business forever.
Previously, Small Beer had been the name of the cask beer empire that had spawned three off-licences and two pubs in the Lincoln area, but thanks to Merv at the Jolly Brewer, wholesale was the future.
“That’s kind of how wholesale started,” says Managing Director Rob Eastwood (pictured top), the second-generation owner of the business that he now runs together with his wife Karen, who is commercial director.
“I don’t remember the exact date but around late-’81 and early-’82, the Jolly Brewer became the first pub outside of its own estate that my parents sold beer to when the landlord, Merv, asked them to chuck on a couple of extra for him on a trip to Everard’s Brewery.
“It was only a fiver, but they started doing more of that throughout the 80s and my parents had about 10 staff doing wholesale deliveries of cask beer for pubs by the end of the decade.”
More than 40 years on and Small Beer is now an exclusively wholesale business, but there are echoes of its past all around its two-depot site in Lincolnshire – and not just because there’s booze wherever you look.
Step into the adjoining office and two large pub name signs adorn the wall, taken from each of Small Beer’s first pubs. A large portrait of Queen Victoria might draw the eye initially, but it’s the detail of the sign emblazoned with Golden Eagle that carries more significance as two characters in the corner represent Tony and Judith.
That legacy extends to the team too. Of course, Rob’s been around the business his entire life – albeit as a toddler when it first started – but the beer buyer, Neil Robinson, managed one of Small Beer’s off-licences back in the late 80s. While the company has moved with the times to prosper, the history remains important to Small Beer.
“We’re 42 years old now and we’ve come a long way since my dad, who was a town and country planner, and my mum, who was a social worker, decided to open their first shop,” Rob says.
“My dad was the classic beer, glasses, sandals CAMRA member of the 70s. He was chairman of the local CAMRA branch, knew a lot of guys and loved drinking beer. His best mate from university was a similar character. He lived in Newcastle and had taken the plunge to sell his house and buy an old off-licence to turn into a cask beer off-licence.
“The 70s was the revolution of keg beer, when keg was killing cask.
But CAMRA started in the early 70s and my dad and friend caught on the wave of it. After seeing his mate do it, my dad said to my mum, ‘why don’t we do it, Jude?’.
“They lived in the last house you passed coming out of Lincoln on a particular road, so they put it on the market to see what would happen. They put it on the market before nine o’clock, then by 10 past 9 a solicitor drove past who had always wanted to buy the house, so by 10.30 it was sold. It’s crazy, but must have been meant to be.”
Armed with the equity from the sale, the family transformed a former greengrocers into an off-licence, using the cellar to store the beer. There were soon queues of Lincoln locals bringing squash bottles, ice cream tubs and anything they could get their hands on to fill up with cask beer and take it home to enjoy that evening.
“My parents had two kids when the first shop opened – my youngest sister arrived in the mid-80s – and they’d put us to bed at night and run the shop between them while we were upstairs asleep,” recalls Rob.
“I basically grew up in an off-licence, which as a kid was quite fun because I could play among the barrels. I remember every Friday night being able to go in and get a drink, chocolate bar and a packet of crisps as a treat. There was a life pre-Small Beer, but I don’t remember it.”
While there remains a nod to Small Beer’s beginnings, the wholesaler is now far more than simply cask beer, with Belgian and craft beer, cider, soft drinks and bar snacks becoming an important part of the business. Another growth area has been wines and spirits, which now makes up around 18% of overall turnover, aided by the Trentans Vintners branding to distinguish between the beer, and wines and spirits side of the business.
In a world that is increasingly dominated by price, being an on-trade specialist has put the Unitas member in a good position to avoid the race to the bottom and it’s become increasingly evident post-Covid that retaining the breadth of range has helped the business bounce back quickly.
“As a regional wholesaler, you don’t need a USP but it does make your life easier because it helps you stand out a bit more,” Rob explains.
“We all sell crisps, Carling, Coca-Cola, fizzy water and Smirnoff vodka, but if that’s all you sell, you spend your entire time talking about margin and price. Whereas if you have a USP in a particular sector or category, then you’re in a situation where you have something to shout about above your competitive set.
“We’re reaping the rewards post-Covid because a lot of our competitors who never did as much as us have withdrawn a bit because they’ve either lost their market share for those brands, don’t have the passion or don’t want to get into cask beer again, or they’re scared they’ll lose money on it.
“We’ve created a cask beer black hole because people come to us wanting more. Their route to market used to do 40 beers a month, but now they’re only doing 12 and that doesn’t satisfy the need for transient guest beer, which is what drives the category within cask beer.
“I remember one customer calling me in Norwich during the pandemic and saying, ‘please go back to doing what you were doing when you reopen’ because he knew he wasn’t going to get the same range without getting 27 different deliveries from 27 different brewers.
That’s why we exist to sell beer like that and it’s worked well.”
Small Beer’s regular customers cover most of the east of England, from Ipswich at one extreme right the way up to the likes of York and Darlington going northwards. But as renowned beer specialists, Rob does find his team’s attentions are often drawn further afield too.
“We’re a national craft beer and cask beer business, so we supply St Austell Brewery and Fullers Pubs in London, as well as CAMRA beer festivals and Punch Pub beer festivals,” Rob says.
“So we have a national reach, but it’s for the stuff they can’t get locally or can’t get without boat loads of admin, logistics and cost. So Stonegate can come to us and say, ‘the Dog and Duck in Exeter would like a beer festival’, then the Dog and Duck will contact us and give us a brief, then they’ll choose the beers they want from a list we provide and we’ll send it to them.
“What that stops Stonegate doing is listing 24 different brands because there’s no point putting Doombar or Greene King IPA at a beer festival because that’s what people drink all day. It needs to be something like quiche-flavoured stouts or something in its very nature of a beer festival.”
Although a quiche-flavoured drink might not be a top seller, recent years have seen the proliferation of quirky tastes in beers grow.
Rob says that while those interesting flavours might make an interesting conversation point, the biggest-selling beers are all packed full of hops and lighter in colour.
Adapting to the latest trends is a wholesaler’s modus operandi, but when asked to sum up what Small Beer’s secret to success is, Rob makes the formula sound much simpler.
“Our philosophy is that we put the customer right at the heart of what we do and put the right brand on the right bar,” he adds. “It’s pretty easy really and we’re no revolutionary. We’ve kept our heads while a lot of other people haven’t post-Covid.
“We’ve managed to maintain stability and that has yielded growth for us because we’ve had enough people and enough trucks and stock to satisfy enough of our customers. We’ve largely been a pretty good filter to our customers to problems such as Brexit, the driver shortage, fuel pricing, a lack of glass and other things. It doesn’t sound that sexy, but there’s been a lot of hard work and effort gone into that.”
There was nothing sexy about picking up an extra fiver on a trip to a brewery all those years ago, either. But as Small Beer’s history suggests, it hasn’t half been effective.Alcohol beer Robert Eastwood Small Beer Ltd