Tim Sullivan was not sure the image and reputation of the original Hofmeister was right for Cobbetts, his craft beer shop in Dorking, but on giving the new version a taste he was convinced… and so now are his customers.  

It was not exactly a mid-life crisis that lead Tim and Helen Sullivan to open up what has become their successful Cobbetts craft beer shop and micro pub in the heart of Dorking, but it was when Tim turned 40 that he decided he needed a change in career.

Up to then he had enjoyed being a contract window cleaner working on some of the biggest projects in central London. The idea, though, of spending the next few years working on the side of skyscrapers held up by a few ropes, in all weathers, was starting to wear a bit thin.

“Abseiling down those high rises is a young man’s game. Dangling by a rope, 25 floors up, was starting to lose its appeal,” he says.

Helen Sullivan’s job working in the accounts office of a university hospital was not quite as dangerous, but she was also ready and willing to give a new career at go.

They had both become interested in craft beer thanks to their local community pub in Carshalton, The Hope, that had been voted CAMRA Pub of The Year. It was the time spent talking to the owner, Roger Molyneux, and other members of the People’s Pub Partnership that help run it, about the beers they stocked and where they sourced them from, that was their inspiration for wanting to start up their own craft beer shop.

Leap of faith

This was 10 years ago, in September 2010, when craft beers shops were pretty thin on the ground, but over the last decade the Sullivans have helped make their store in Dorking a real destination venue.

The move to Dorking, he says, was to take advantage of lower business rates, but to also be situated in a thriving town with a strong local community.

“It was a leap of faith, really,” says Sullivan. “Dorking was also one of those towns that claims to have most pubs per head of people. It also has a big local CAMRA branch and is a beautiful part of the world.”

It’s why it has also had great success with the tiny micro pub - with seats for only 12 people - that they opened up in the summer of 2014 at the back of the main shop. It might be small, but it has been a big calling card, attracting craft and ale drinkers for miles around.

It’s also proven to be a great testing ground for craft breweries as they are able to serve their beers as they are meant to be, at the right temperature, by draught, in a pint glass.  

Introducing Hofmeister

Fast forward nearly 10 years and that’s where Hofmeister comes in, or at least Spencer Chambers, who along with Richard Longhurst was responsible for bringing the brand out of hibernation and relaunching it as an authentic Bavarian Helles lager. Chambers also happens to be a local Dorking resident and was keen to get the brand into the store - and the pub.

Sullivan admits that initially he was not sure the Hofmeister name was the sort of beer that Cobbetts wanted to be associated with. His vision was all about discovering and championing good local and independent craft beers and breweries. Stocking any of the major high volume, mass produced beers you see down the supermarket aisle was never part of the plan. The Hofmeister he remembered was the 1980s and 1990s version that, along with a number of other mass produced lagers, had done so much not to give beer a good name.

Chambers certainly had his work cut out to get over that hurdle, as Sullivan explains: “When Spencer first came in with the idea of selling Hofmeister I was more than slightly reluctant. I was dubious about whether people would accept the brand at all. If you are of my age, or older, then Hofmeister was one of the wave of not very good lagers that arrived in the 1980s.”

Chambers persisted and Sullivan decided to give the new Hofmeister a taste, and was quickly won over. But he still had to convince his customers, so agreed he would take on a few samples and give it a go, on the basis that if it did not sell, he would have to pull it from the range.

There was also the issue of it being a lager, which is also a “dirty word” amongst some craft beer and ale drinkers, added Sullivan.

Winning over customers

He needed not to have worried. As soon as his regulars gave the new Hofmeister a go it has proven to be one of the Sullivan’s most popular products across its entire range.

“It’s a completely different product,” says Sullivan. “The fact it is actually brewed in Bavaria to the 500 year old Germany purity laws has really made a difference.”

That said he still had to twist the arm of some customers to even give it a chance. “We have quite a few customers who love their German lager, and some of them were reticent about trying it. So I simply said to them that if they taste it, and don’t like it, we would give them their money back. We have not had to hand back a penny.”

Most tellingly it has proven particularly popular with a German customer they have, as well as some locals who have spent part of their lives working or growing up in Germany. “They have all tried Hofmeister and really love it. Our German customer not only likes it, but he keeps coming in to buy it. That tells you something.”

Then there are his younger customers who don’t remember Hofmeister from the first time round and they buy straight into its authentic Bavarian imagery.

Sullivan says the glassware, both the tall thin glasses and larger stein, have also made a huge impact, particularly when selling it on draught in the micro pub.

“Look the part”

“They just look the part and we do drink with our eyes. Having the correct glassware with a beer makes a big difference. It probably adds an extra 5% to 10% to how much you enjoy it. I love their tall thin glasses, and the tankards are next level. As soon as you serve a pint in one of those, then a customer has enjoyed it before they have even tasted it." 

This was particularly the case when the Sullivans had the chance to trial some of the new Hofmeister Weisse beer on draught in its micro pub.

“We took on three kegs and the whole lot had gone in just two days,” says Sullivan. “That’s pretty good going,” he adds.

The main seller, though, is the original Helles lager that is sold in bottles. He is looking forward to taking on the 5 litre mini kegs. “They should be a big hit.”

He is also going to give the new Hofmeister 0.5% low alcohol beer a go and has found increasing demand from his customers for a good quality, low alcohol offer.

“More and more people are asking for low and no alcohol beers, so we normally have a few decent ones available. It is all about finding the right taste profile, but technology has moved on so much now that the quality has really improved.”

Gluten free beers are also increasing in demand, he adds.

Taking on new beers

The Sullivans are understandably very selective about the beers they list at Cobbetts. For it to work it needs to be a beer its customers can’t find on discount in a major supermarket.

“Customers are coming to us for beers they can’t find elsewhere. That’s half the fun. They will come in and say: ‘What’s new?’ We look out for smaller independent craft beers and breweries. We take a lot on recommendation. As we have been here for 10 years now we get a lot of people approaching us and lots samples dropped off. If it sells we take it on, it if doesn’t we don’t sell it.”

It also works closely with local breweries in Surrey to produce exclusive beers, like the Collusion beer it makes with Surrey Hills Brewery. “We have been doing that with them for seven years now.”

2020 was a mixed year with the Covid-19 outbreak shutting down the micro pub side of the business for so much of the time, but its retail sales and new online arm, which it fortuitously started just before the March lockdown, have done particularly well.

Sullivan says he started doing local online deliveries initially, but has now signed up with national couriers to offer a nationwide service and is now able to supply Cobbetts’ beer range to craft beer lovers all over the country.

Advice for others

Sullivan says the success of Cobbetts shows you do not need to have had retail experience to give a craft beer business a go. You just need to have the drive and will to make it happen.

“It’s difficult to give specific advice as everyone is set up differently. The key is to be true to what you think, stick with beers that you like, but you also know your customers are going to like. That would be my key piece of advice. Listen to your customers.”

Final word

Ultimately, he says, it is all about what sells. What works with your customers. Like with his experience with Hofmeister.

He admits it was down to the persistence of Hofmeister’s Spencer Chambers that he finally gave in and tried it. That’s when the quality of the beer shone through.

“But as I said to Spencer. I might like it, and I am prepared to give it a go and if it sells we will keep it on. If it doesn’t then we will have to take it out. But it has been an ever present on our shelves since we first took it on and that’s hard to do. It’s been a good beer for us to have.”

* You can find out more about Cobbetts in Dorking at its website here.