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Raise a glass

James Brown has what must be one of the most enviable of job titles: he is Head of Beer Tasting at Beer52, a fast-growing and innovative online beer-ordering service.

The idea behind Beer 52 is a simple one. For £24 a month you are sent a mixed case of eight craft beers, from independent micro-breweries. 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.

As well as giving the consumer something new, this is a service that really helps the small brewers. There are over a thousand micro-breweries in the UK, who, despite having a world-class product, often produce only on a very small scale, and sell only locally. They don’t have the marketing budget to compete with the major brands, or to get onto the shelves of the big supermarkets. But this way, they don’t have to.

Design in Action

According to James Brown, who is also Beer52’s founder, the company’s origins lie in a road trip he’d taken 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 drunk anything.’ He thought: why not turn this new-found passion into a full-time job?

Getting a business like Beer52 off the ground is all about the details, though. And in this, James had some highly specialised help.

The model for Beer52 was hammered-out during a Chiasma residential workshop, which was focused on the artisan food and drink sector in Scotland, and the question of how design could be used to help it grow, without losing the unique nature of the produce that was being sold. The event brought entrepreneurs together with designers, academics and food producers, to collaborate and develop innovative ideas. 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.

The Chiasma event was run by Design in Action, the Dundee-based Knowledge Exchange Hub, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The idea of Design in Action is to help businesses ‘join the dots’ – developing new ideas and new ways of doing things, by coming together with academics, designers and other creative types. Design in Action focuses particularly on five key sectors: food, information communications technology, wellbeing, sport and rural economies.

Design in Action - Who are ‘we’?

We started off as six universities funded by the AHRC to do something new. Now ‘we’ can include you too. We are a growing network of business people, academics, designers and creatives who want to find new connections and new ways of doing things. The 5 key sectors we are looking at are Food, Information Communications Technology, Wellbeing, Sport and Rural Economies. The project is led out of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at the University of Dundee.

We are funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The principal partners are: 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

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, in fleshing-out his original concept: ‘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 is Design in Action’s Business Partnership Manager, 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’s 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.’

Success brewing

And the signs are that Beer52 has found just the right recipe for its customers. The speed of the company’s growth has been phenomenal: after the initial Chiasma event in April 2013, Beer52 was launched in August, through an offer on the discount website Groupon. It broke Groupon’s UK sales record, selling-out in 48 minutes, and it is now the largest craft beer club in the country, with over 2,500 full-paying subscribers throughout the UK. As James Brown says, ‘we became a million-pound business in three months.’

And that growth looks set to continue, after Beer52 raised £100,000 through crowdfunding, at the end of last year, to help it increase membership and make improvements to its website (‘when customers can’t touch your products before they buy them,’ James Brown says, ‘your website really has to be beautiful’). One investor put up £30,000, and will now receive free beer for the rest of their life.

So raise a glass to Beer52. And if the job of being a beer taster appeals, they’re currently advertising for an intern to do just that…

Article by Matt Shinn

For more information on Design in Action, go to www.designinaction.com

Find out more about Beer52 on their website

Find out more about AHRC research in the Creative Economy.

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