Creative Collaborations: How Beer52 grew from good idea to great business through research
Great beer should sell itself, especially when it gets delivered to your door.
But even the most alluring business ideas can benefit from some expert help turning them into reality – and the success of Beer52 illustrates what can be achieved when academics and entrepreneurs work together.
The idea behind the firm was a simple one. You pay £24 per month and get eight beers delivered – or £29 for 10 beers – on a monthly plan billed every 28 days.
As you try each beer, you get to discover the story behind it, you’re encouraged to interact with the brewers via social media, and if you particularly like what you try, you can order more from Beer52’s online beer shed.
And it's proved very popular – the firm claims to be the “UK's most popular craft beer club” and currently has over 12,000 members.
The idea behind it all came about on a beery road trip the company's founder, James Brown, took with his father, from Edinburgh to Faro in Portugal.
“Along the way we tried all kinds of craft beers that we came across,” he says, “and I got a real taste for them — before, I’d just drink anything.”
James decided to turn his new-found passion into a full-time job. But knew he would need some expert help to get going, which he found on a residential workshop focused on the artisan food and drink sector in Scotland.
The event was run by Design in Action, the Dundee-based Knowledge Exchange Hub, which, although now closed, was in many ways a precursor to the Creative Industries Clusters Programme.
Design in Action were supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and brought entrepreneurs together with designers, academics and food producers, to collaborate and develop innovative ideas.
The principal partners were:
- The University of Abertay
- The Glasgow School of Art
- Gray’s College of Art at the Robert Gordon University
- Edinburgh College of Art at the University of Edinburgh
- St Andrews University.
Teams that were formed during the event were then able to bid for funding of up to £20,000, to help with the process of commercialising their ideas: Beer52 received one such award to develop a prototype.
Design in Action emphasises the fact that, given the right environment, great new ideas can be sparked in unexpected ways. And James Brown’s experience with Beer52 seems to bear this out: “I’d actually gone to the Chiasma event to pitch for something else,” he says. “I had the idea for Beer52 in the car on the way up there.”
But James, who has a background in online marketing, then found the input of designers and academics enormously helpful: “Having the chance to test the idea, with people from different backgrounds, was invaluable. Beer52 wouldn’t have existed without it.”
According to Brian McNicoll, who was Design in Action’s Business Partnership Manager at the time, the contribution of design and academic research to Beer52 was very much in fine-tuning the business model which it is based on.
“It involved thinking about the different kinds of customers who the service might be aimed at, about how regularly the orders should go out [as the name implies, Beer52 was originally planned as a weekly service, about how the beer should be packaged, and about how the website should look. And it involved examining the research evidence for all of this, showing what works.”
Then there are the little details, like the snacks that are included, for free, with every delivery (“people in the UK really love their freebies”). There’s the emphasis on the social aspects of subscribing – visitors to Beer52’s website are encouraged to give subscriptions as presents, for example, as well as to discuss the beers they like with other subscribers.
These things, together with a constantly varying mix of beers, with different flavours and from different kinds of breweries, are designed to keep people interested — to make the process of sampling craft beers fun.
The aim of Beer52 is to build up a culture of beer appreciation, among people who might not currently know any better.
As James Brown says, “we launched Beer52 just at the right time — when there was a real trend towards authentic, locally-sourced food and drink.
“We’re not just trying to find real ale enthusiasts and give them beer — we’re trying to reach people who are like I was — bored of the same old stuff, and willing to explore something new, given half a chance.”