State of the Jolly Good Nation – 2019

Well, we’ve called time on the “festive season”, kicked out the stragglers, locked the door and breathed a sigh of relief. Yeah, I’m not really into it. Can you tell?

It is the time of year for reflection and resolutions, so I’ll go with the flow on that…

It has been a big year, a hard year but one of significant achievements – as I come to list some of them now I’m not sure how we managed it all! This is thus a rather large post… grab a beer, grab a seat…

 

The “TL;DR

Growth in 2018

  • 5 weekly routes ⟶ 8
  • 7 delivery zones⟶ 11
  • 12,000 mile2 coverage ⟶ 20,000
  • 5 staff ⟶ 10
  • 2 vehicles ⟶ 3
  • ~25% revenue growth

Achievements & highlights in 2018

  • Built a mobile coldstore direct-draw system in May
    • Dubbed the “Esky Bar” or #GFEB (affectionately known as Pablo)
    • Allowing us to support top-of-game exemplar dispense at over 10 beer events in 2018
    • Highlight: supporting Cloudwater at IndyManBeerCon plus 4th year supporting NZ Beer at LIBF
    • Achievement: bringing top-spec keg dispense to 4 CAMRA beer festivals
  • Installed over 100 lines of dispense – about 75% of it direct-draw, or near enough to
  • Gained HGV operators license
    • … leading to now securing our first chilled HGV
  • Had gas pressure article published by Brewers Journal – we are now “published” 😉
  • Sold beers from some of the UK’s finest breweries – of course! Obvious, but deserves inclusion.
  • Navigated our first direct no-middle-man coldchain imports (Firestone Walker)
  • Still here, alive and kickin’

And we end 2018 in a state of pleased & cautiously optimistic angst… It’s been a good year for achievements, but frankly I’m glad to have 2018 behind us, it often felt like a maelstrom inexorably drawing me in to pull me under. Circling ever closer to the depths. It hasn’t been an easy one – trying to balance and resource business growth it was, for me, a year of long hours and no weekends (and yeah, I know, hospitality industry innit… it’s no easier for many of our customers.) It was a year of hitting limits – mainly my personal limits – and those limits causing delays, customer service issues, things I consider failures. But we have worked through them – expanded the team, and Jolly Good Beer is becoming more of a “we” and less of an “I”. Perhaps the tide is turning, the sea calming, the spin slowing – the grim portal to the dark depths closing. What now… hypothermia? Sharks?

I’d like to focus on four subjects key to Jolly Good Beer – and present a bit of background on these, and then try and think ahead into where we hope these things are going in 2019…

 

People – The Lifeblood of Business

Melodrama aside – the key point in the deep dark watery paragraph above is the growing of the team. One year ago there were five of us – Lee and Peter in the warehouse and driving, Bill in the warehouse and doing some admin, Helen offsite raising invoices, and me doing a bit of all of the aforementioned and everything else. Bill left at the end of March, as he needed to move home to the US – it was sad to see him go as he was an effective and enthusiastic worker. And it wasn’t until he left that I realised how essential he had been… we’d lost a lot of blood… hello additional 30 working hours in my week!

Over the ensuing months we had a very bumpy ride, a couple of recruitment attempts that didn’t really pan out – which is a very high overhead situation for a tiny business (paperwork, training). We were stretched thin, hard up against limits – which caused a whole load of problems as I failed to adequately cover all of supply, sales, support, and accounting (to name just 4 of my jobs at the time). Then we had Dan start taking on some sales & account management load – it was the start of a much needed blood transfusion, I was then also lucky enough to nab Justin with his extensive industry experience – and between them Dan and Justin are taking over most of the customer-facing sales and accounts operation. The next lucky break was Amber – another case of the right person at the right time, well, to be honest the right time would have been April – but we should count our blessings. Amber comes with the right connections and experience to run the procurement & inventory operation fantastically, and you all have her to thank for keeping us in beer over the last 3 months – and for some of the fresh additions too. In the background Helen is continuing to do an excellent job – and helping more on further accounting, Lauren too did a good job tightening up our credit control but has had to take some time out to focus on other things now.

In the warehouse we’ve gone from two to four – with Rik joining in July then Simon coming on late in 2018. We’ve got an additional van and another on the way shortly. Lee, Peter, Rik, and Simon are the muscle of the business – getting the beer organised in the coldstore, picking, loading, and delivering. Rik is ostensibly our HGV driver, we just don’t quite have the HGV yet – and he is also very handy with the tools so has been helping with dispense work as well. Meanwhile Peter has stepped up to the plate, aided by Rik, in generally getting warehouse operations functioning more smoothly.

Finally, there’s still me here of course – and from time to time a bit of Kat dealing with IT and events.

That’s the team right now… we’ve doubled from about five to about ten. (I say “about” because we’re a mix of various time loadings!)

In 2019 in the fairly near future we’ll be looking for at least another driver, HGV preferably, and probably something in more core accounts/finance as attempts so far to outsource that work have yielded fairly abysmal results. It would be nice to see us supporting a team of 15 by the end of the year. Three more in warehouse/logistics, one more in admin, and perhaps another in dispense tech.

We’ve got a long way to go still, and no doubt hiccups will happen – fact of life really. But in 2019 I am hoping to bring our customer service back to where I want it to be. Our people are the key to making that happen.

 

Vehicles – Logistics is What We Do!

Really JGB is a logistics business – a specialist one of course, but ultimately our job is to move physical objects around the place. In a world of massively commoditised logistics operating a quality focused logistics operation has proven to be difficult. “The market”, per se, doesn’t value supply chain quality above supply chain cost. (People complain endlessly about certain courier firms… yet still use them.) So we see a lot of beer being shunted around the place via crappy courier and pallet operations.

I was delivering to a customer recently (I still do the odd delivery run, when resource limits demand it) and they commented how grateful they were that we actually deliver to their cellar, like a proper brewery dray ought to. I inspected for empties and took ours away, for which they were also grateful. The problem, the chap said, was “everyone else just uses couriers”. I’m not sure who “everyone else” is – but it means that at best the beer gets delivered just inside the doorway of the pub, and often just to the pavement outside. In their relatively small cellar they had a pile of probably 3 pallets worth of empty kegs and casks. This pile consisted of eCasks, KegStar, and brewery containers – the latter will be there for who knows how long? Some had distro labels on from far parts of the country. But the thing is these guys keep using these other services. Which kind of goes to show that whilst grateful for better service this doesn’t often extend to any perceived tangible value. I’m hopeful that things generally come around on that front – once the problems of the whole low-grade hands-off courier approach mount to a breaking point as it has for several of our customers. We don’t send brewery containers far and wide by pallet, we actively discourage pallet shipment and direct folk to whatever we think their best local option is – sending only the odd pallet to the persistent so long as it is just smallpack and OWKs, and always next-day-AM. And we never use couriers.

Presently we operate about 8 routes a week with up to three vans a day – in January 2018 that was 5 routes a week. Vehicles are expensive and we need to try and use them as effectively as possible – come February we plan to expand this to up to 4 vehicles running 11 routes a week with all customers serviced weekly. It’s going to be a real stretch to achieve this, and we hope the increased service provision brings the returns needed to make it work. As part of this we’ve extended our geographic coverage as well – a little reluctantly, but as encouraged by both breweries wanting us to get them to these areas and customers in the areas wanting us to get to them. I’ve been saying no to both for at least a couple of years… but it fits our plans a bit better now so we’re saying hello to new customers in London, Bath, Bristol, Gloucestershire, and Staffordshire – also having added Lincolnshire earlier in the year as the craft-beer battlefront begins to penetrate even through the East Midlands.

Refrigerated Vehicle

Taking coldstorage on the road…

This may all sound “big” to some – but the reality is that we’re one of the smallest beer distributors, including amongst the “craft beer” focused end of the industry. JGB operates hand-to-mouth on available cashflow and scant earnings, so growth is careful and conservative. When we take big steps upwards it is generally after months of consideration – in this case it has been about a year since I started mapping out the wider logistics plan we’re now beginning to execute. With our first 7 tonne GVW refrigerated Iveco van all but sat in the yard…

The goal is to have two 7 tonne vans on the road in 2019 and three normal 3.5 tonne vans. The 7 tonne ones will both be refrigerated for coldchain trunking and backhaul operation, which we’re looking to potentially hook up with some satellite coldstorage locations. I’d like the 3.5 tonne ones to be chilled too – but it’s a difficult viability balance between this and payload. The future may be to move these to smaller van-format HGVs as well.

2019 is when we start to do some proper work to solve the next level of the coldstorage problem: coldstorage in transit.

The original Jolly Yellow Beer Van

In 2019 we’ll say goodbye to the original Jolly Yellow Beer Van after nearly 5 years and over 100,000 miles of service.

 

Coldstorage – How Did We End Up Here?

When I started JGB in April 2014 I did two things before I bought my first beer: 1) bought a van 2) secured coldstorage. Back then the coldstorage was in the form on a mere 20 foot refrigerated shipping container. I did my research, I spoke to brewers – this was clearly the correct place to start out.

I never intended to become some sort of a coldstorage crusader. I started Jolly Good Beer with only one motivation: there wasn’t enough of the beer I loved in my area.

It wasn’t until further down the line that I discovered my approach of coldstoring 100% of beer stock was possibly unique in England and maybe the UK at the time (still not sure of that). Faced with what turned out to be a competitive disadvantage in terms of overheads one could easily have chosen to shut down the reefer, move to a shed, and join the status quo. But to me that seemed wrong – I grew up with my mum often saying: if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. A saying I think was inherited from my grandfather. I try to live by that mantra. So it seemed I needed to become a crusader for coldstorage – ultimately this means for beer quality. And I plugged on – two reefers, three… then our current 1500 ft2 coldstore found on a farm. Now we’re trying to work out how to expand that without breaking the bank…

It is now gratifying nearly five years later to see more people in the industry talking about coldstorage, and breweries perhaps starting to take it more seriously. Albeit always sweeping it carefully under the carpet when it comes to the hard reality that enforcing higher standards on this would leave them with reduced or limited sales. The reality is this is business – product needs to be sold to pay the bills. There is still a long long way to go. We should celebrate the folk taking quality seriously, like The Bottle Shop folks for example (thanks for the mention) who made a serious investment in this and are continuing to work to improve things up and down the supply chain. We especially celebrate those at the retail end of the chain launching with, or adopting, better practice – to name a few: The Stoneworks in Peterborough (my number-1 UK bar), Hereford Beer House, The Hopmaster General in Rushden, Kilder Bar and The Paper Duck in Birmingham, and of course Cloudwater setting the example with their Unit 9 and 73 Enid St bars launched in 2018. Yes, I installed 5 of these – I’m blowing my own trumpet just slightly, but without them being willing to try doing things differently, taking a chance on busting the status quo, none of this could happen. I really should mention Magic Rock here to – for they are the first people I saw talking about direct draw dispense in the UK with their taproom (which I have yet to visit) and they’re also responsible for introducing me to an enduring obsession with Perlick taps. (NY2019 resolution for me: finally visit the Magic Rock taproom!)

For me the end-goal here is “cold chain” – a phrase starting to show up more in UK beer. Too often, IMO, slightly abused – but on the other hand it’s fantastic it is now part of the conversation. It is still a puzzle to me that brewers will spend money keeping beer chilled in the brewery but live with the fact that care ends at their doorway. Some of these guys, even those selling the most sensitive styles of beer, will use 2-day pallet services in summer to save themselves 20 quid (on 3000 quid of beer!). When they’re having clear quality issues at point of sale – yet are reporting 20% net profit… but will not spend a trifle more to reduce the danger their beer faces in transit… the mind boggles. We’re back to commodification of logistics again here. Jolly Good Beer is actively working to solve this particular issue and I hope that 2019 sees us setting up our first 100% coldchain connections for UK beer. It seems mad to me that we receive imports from the likes of Amundsen, Stillwater and Firestone Walker fully coldchain to our coldstore but UK brewers don’t have the will to do it even in summer – if they won’t step up to the plate then we will, and we are doing just that…

The Jolly Good Beer warehouse coldstore.

The Jolly Good Beer warehouse 4°C coldstore.

 

Dispense – I Didn’t Expect To Be Here

We seem to have become “dispense experts” – with folk looking to JGB to set the standard and support improved dispense in the UK. This really did happen by accident and I still struggle with the idea of considering myself an expert on the subject, but here we are. There are many good dispense tech folk out there in the UK doing the best they can – they’re mainly limited by the materials and budgets available. The key issue with UK dispense is that as it is almost always “free” (cost: your soul) it has suffered decades of cost reduction to make it just barely fit for purpose in the context of serving low carbonation sterile filtered British lager. I stepped into this industry 5 years ago with a predominantly cask-ale hat on, but was positioned such that we became one of the conduits for a keg beer revolution amongst microbreweries. And brewers putting beer in keg without really understanding the basics, leading to many problems – which as the distributor became my problem. So by necessity I had to understand how dispense worked – so studied it, learning a lot from US Brewers Association sources and Certified Cicerone® material – then building my own dispense systems to get to grips with the parts and practical functionality. At base it’s all physics – gas and fluid behaviours – and I’m lucky enough to have had a reasonable amount of physics in my education covering this stuff.

Bit by bit I learnt how stuff works – I also did the BFBi NCCSIM qualification, completed in 2017, which was important for its coverage of regulatory and safety factors.

Wind forward nearly 5 years and here we are installing taprooms for folk like Cloudwater and having articles about dispense published in The Brewers Journal. It feels pretty weird, with a heavy dose of impostor-syndrome I must admit.

Ultimately it’s only happened because of that outlook mentioned above: If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Working with UK dispense equipment I quickly discovered a lot I don’t like about the materials readily available. And I couldn’t find anyone to do work to the standards I was looking for. And 2018 feels like the year this came to a head – with little left to improve beyond marginal tweaks. The final piece in our particular puzzle being buying 10km of high-grade Gen-X beer line. And beyond tweaks here and there I think there’s little left to improve on the work we have done for Cloudwater this year and I hope it contributes to setting a new sort of standard for UK dispense.

So 2018 was a big year for direct-draw dispense for us, with somewhere over 70 direct-draw lines installed for people and the building and deployment of our own direct-draw dispense mobile unit for festivals and events. And in 2019 we expect to do more of the same!

I’d love to combine all this knowledge and experience and open a bar or two … because it’s not like I have enough to occupy my time already, right? Whether or not that happens in 2019, let alone ever, is impossible to predict – but what I’m sure will happen in 2019 is more of the same: we will help more people do it right, we will spread more direct-draw dispense love in the UK.

Cloudwater 73 Enid St Dispense

Cloudwater 73 Enid St Dispense Install

 

So… 2019….

We have some big goals for 2019, and have the team gathering together in Cambridge this week to try and create some sort of roadmap. I laugh as I type this… “roadmap” he says, this shit is getting serious now, innit. Jolly Good Beer is growing up – 5 years old in April this year.

There are difficult challenges ahead – I believe Jolly Good Beer has a bit more of a journey ahead of it before it becomes a sustainable business. It’s not an easy market sector to operate in, with very low margins – there have been some seriously difficult times in 2018, moments where I’ve come close to giving up even. There’s a personal element to business – a personal weakness perhaps – and the difficult times and heavy workloads can grind you down. We have had (and need to have) some tough talks with some breweries sometimes – and make sure we’re all on the same page and working together. It’s a young and chaotic emerging market niche – with a lot of maturing needed, a lot of experience lacking. In 2018 we’ve seen two distribution businesses wound down (gracefully, as much as that is possible), clearly indicting it was the weakest component of the larger mixed businesses they were attached to. We also saw two other mixed retail/wholesale businesses shut down less gracefully – causing brewers to lose money. I hope we don’t see too much more of this, especially the latter cases – brewers are badly exposed to risk in this, where an individual customer can be owing tens of thousands on a monthly basis. Managing credit control and cashflow is vitally important for all of us, a lesson often learnt the hard way.

In 2019 we will keep building on what we have – do more of the same and do it better. Continue working to make the 100% coldchain dream a reality, that’s become a core goal at the heart of the business. Quality, quality, quality! We’re not here to fuck spiders. Quality beer, quality supply chain, quality dispense. It is all about the product at the end of the day – we do this for the beer. And whilst dispense is really a peripheral business function that we don’t intend to focus on, we’ll continue to do what we can in that space as well – it is a key part of the beer quality equation. Attention to detail from the ingredients of the beer all the way through the supply chain and into the mouth of the consumer.

Also in 2019, by popular demand, we’ll have some more Jolly Good Beer hoodies & t-shirts made 😉

As the apparel says: Warm beer is sad beer, cold beer is Jolly Good Beer!

All the best for 2019 folks – may it treat us all well.