This is the transcript of a newspaper article by Jeff EVANS produced in the Beer Section of the November 2007 edition of What’s Brewing which is published by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).
His proper name is Jayesh Patel although everyone calls him Jack. But it may not be long before he adopts another name and becomes known simply as The Beer Grocer.
Jack runs a Londis franchise on the outskirts of the village of Goring-on-Thames in Oxfords hire. When I pull up outside, there is nothing to suggest there is anything to differentiate this Londis store from any other, nor is there when I step through the door and find myself faced with the usual array of convenience goods, newspapers and lottery tickets. Jack's colleague at the till is busy serving a steady stream of locals with their pints of milk, loaves of bread and tins of soup, but Jack himself is hard to spot. I just pick out the top of his head, bobbing around at the side of the shop as he lavishes his attention on the reason for my visit.
Westholme Stores is a business that has been transformed in the past year. After running the shop for 18 years, Jack had been worn down by having to compete on unequal terms with the major supermarkets and was looking for something different, an area in which he could outperform the big guys and hopefully bring in new punters. He found what he was looking for on the internet, in an article that raised the question of why little corner shops didn't think more about stocking a good range of interesting bottled beers. Jack latched onto the idea and didn't just pay lip service to it. He went whole hog and revolutionised his business in the process.
"Before then I only used to stock cans" he reveals somewhat embarrassed. Putting such a shameful past behind him, he doesn't even bother to identify the brands. Now he's a champion of bottled beers, with an enormous selection of more than 600 ales and lagers. Fuelled by Jack's new found passion, it is growing day by day, and shelf by shelf is eating its way relentlessly through the shop. I was gratified to hear Jack mention my own Good Bottled Beer Guide as an inspiration, but the truth is that he's drawn heavily on the work of several beer writers to put together such an inspiring range. He admits he's not much of a drinker himself, and so has devoured plenty of beer books to get the knowledge.
Jack's range covers the whole gamut of British independent breweries, with unlikely offerings (for Oxfordshire) from the likes of Durham, Mauldons, Wagtail, North Yorkshire and Little Valley. By encouraging distant breweries to band together and make joint shipments, he can bring in beers not normally seen in this part of the world. His Scottish selection is growing rapidly, for instance, and a cross-section of East Anglian beers is collated for him by Iceni Brewery. All this is supported by Jack's inclusion in the Londis beer supply chain, which provides beers from regional breweries and has now expanded to allow in local beers, delivered directly by small producers. Wholesalers like Beer Paradise and importers such as Pierhead help Jack with the foreign selection, which means you can find all the usual Belgian suspects the Trappists, Abbey beers, Witbiers and more - plus some less obvious imports such as Caracole's Troublette and Pierre Celis's Grottenbier. Jack stocks a couple of Kolsch beers, some great German pilsners, a sprinkling of Scandinavian offerings and an increasing selection of American brews. If your taste is for the Far East, then Japan, Vietnam and Thailand are all represented. French ciders form another sideline.
The Londis business format is a loose one. Retailers run their own businesses and opt in or out of the central supply of goods and services Londis provides as and when they deem appropriate. "Goring is using beer as a feature to bring people in from far and wide, and we applaud it," says Londis beer buyer Len Hooper. "We couldn't say to everybody, that's what you should do, but we want stores to have areas that they're famous for. Some stores do it with wine, but he's taken beers and really driven it."
To support his brave venture, Jack has been actively promoting his beer range, with adverts in beer festival programmes.
He's also looking to market his business as part of a visit to Goring itself, which is a historic, very attractive, riverside village slap bang on the Ridgeway and Thames footpaths, with a handful of cosy pubs in which to complete the day out. It is well served by train, so makes a pleasant excursion from London or even further afield.
"We've had people here from all over," says Jack.
"They come to stock up on beers they can't get anywhere else and then go and spend some time by the river."
Perhaps he deserves a tourism award as well as a pat on the back from beer lovers.