Core range vs specials – a retailer’s perspective

Having a strong core range is important for the brewer and it’s important for those selling it because such a portfolio allows the consumer to build a relationship with the brewery and retailer in question. But special and seasonal beers complement such staples in a very effective way too, explains Jen Ferguson, co-founder of London’s Hop Burns & Black.

Ask any independent retailer and they’ll tell you that core beers are the bedrock of their business, as “fridge favourites” and party beers.

Even though we stock more than 350 different beers and bring in from 15 to 30+ new beers a week, it’s our core brews that drive the volume through repeat purchases, six-packs and case buys. Our top five best-selling beers each week will almost always be cores from breweries local to our two South East London shops – the likes of Brick Peckham Pils, Gipsy Hill Hepcat, Villages Rafiki and The Kernel Table Beer. 

It’s the sign of a great brewery if they can deliver a consistently good quality core range and these core beers are ones that customers return to again and again.

Core beers are important to brewers

I’ve been banging on a lot this year about the importance of independent breweries, which are increasingly under threat from the advances of ‘Big Beer’. For many independent breweries, key to their success and survival is being at the heart of their community.

More and more, drinkers want to buy local. Most of us take pride in where we live and provenance plays a key role in our choices at the bar or the bottle shop. 

A consistently good core range offers breweries the chance to cement their place in the community. Drinkers look out for their beers as a touchpoint in pubs, as a dependable signifier of quality as well as an opportunity to drink local and support independent business. 

A gateway to move on from macro

Craft beer still accounts for less than 20 percent of the overall UK beer market, which means the majority of British drinkers are still choosing macro beers at the bar and in shops. I see core beers as hugely important as a gateway to introduce people to independently brewed and/or craft beers. 

Brick Brewery founder Ian Stewart agrees. “An accessible beer and recognisable brand creates a safe zone for the macro drinker who has probably read a lot about the craft beer boom but feels it is a little out of reach. They’re probably not going to dive into a 10 percent pastry stout or funky sour, but they do like the idea of buying local – a beer such as Peckham Pils from our Foundation range, for example, provides this easy introduction.”

But one-off specials are important too…

For us, one off, experimental, limited edition beers are what brings the boys, girls and tickers to the yard. Particularly with our online store, if we can be the first to list, say, the latest Verdant, Northern Monk or Cloudwater special, we win the day. Our biggest spending customers come for the newbies and rarities and stay for the rest of the catalogue. 

These big spenders aren’t buying huge quantities of these specials – they’ll likely choose one or two of each beer before moving on to the rest of the catalogue, creating an important halo effect.

Most of our best-selling breweries have both a core range and a strong programme of specials. Many started with a strong, well-loved core range but have seen how the market has changed and evolved accordingly. 

Gipsy Hill co-founder Sam McMeekin says: “I remember the days of delivering beer to a bottle shop and having customers buy cases of Beatnik right off my trolley. But we saw the market changing in front of our eyes, with many craft customers moving to specials as a

primary purchase, with core as a filler.

“We developed a line up balanced between specials and core to ensure we can stay up to date with what’s wanted by consumers, as well as supporting the indie shops who are at the coal face of changing hearts and minds to craft.”

Breweries doing both successfully also include the likes of Brick and Northern Monk, which now sell their core ranges in supermarkets while reserving specials for the specialist market. Brick, for example, works on a pricing structure for its core range to ensure indies have a fair price and can continue to provide these much-loved fridge favourites.

Can you only do specials?

There are no hard and fast rules in the wonderful world of beer! Some breweries have done very well without a core range. Newcomer Loka Polly in Wales, for example, has targeted the craft market this year by producing a schedule of one-off beers that showcase constantly changing duos of hops. In doing so, it has quickly become one of our most in demand breweries.

Cloudwater also famously made its name with an ever-changing range of specials and seasonals. Recently though, even it has moved to more of a core approach with its autumn/winter range, with “brewed all season” beers joining the list of one-offs.

I have a new brewery, what should I do?

Above all else, make sure you launch fully formed with consistently good beers. The market is so crowded these days that you’ll likely not get a second chance if you stuff it up. Don’t go chasing a huge schedule of specials until you’re certain every one of those beers is going to hit the mark. Get your basics right first – I’d far rather enjoy three rock solid core beers than a dozen dodgy one-offs.

In fact, as much as I love drinking in-demand specials and innovative one-offs, there’s no greater joy than when I order a core beer and it’s been brewed perfectly. I had a pint of Brick Peckham Pale at our local pub the other week and it was so good it brought tears to my eyes. Never underestimate the power of your core!

About the Author
Tim is the launch editor of The Brewers Journal and is a keen advocate of the brewing industry.