In food and drink we often talk about the supply chain—the line we draw between the farm and the glass. The truth is, it’s far more complicated, and far more protracted than that.
The beer world is a web containing thousands of people who work to get beer in your hands, and only a few of them brew it, still they influence which beers are brewed, how they are packaged, how they get to the bar and how they are served.
Even a small scale beer scene like Britain’s is full of people you have never heard of, but who influence what you drink on a daily basis. Few of them have had as much influence as Colin Gilhespy, managing director of speciality beer importer Cave Direct. [Disclosure: I worked at Cave Direct from 2013 to 2018.] He has been in the distribution business since the early 80s, when he and his dad were among the first to bring Belgian beers across the Channel. Not just any beers either, but niche, expensive beers Trappists, Lambics and Flemish reds. At the same time that some Californian homebrewers were just waking America up to adventurous beer, Gilhespy and his family were doing the same in the U.K.
I’ll leave the stories to him, but over the last 40 years he has had a huge hand in the growth of the British craft beer industry as it grew from the ashes of 1970s consolidation to one of the world’s most diverse and exciting scenes. From growing the Belgian beer category to helping new British brewers on the way up, he has laid a path for huge change and over the last decade has seen phenomenal growth.
Cave Direct is now the U.K.’s only national direct-delivery beer wholesaler, and Colin’s services to the Belgian beer industry has even won him awards from the country’s brewing guilds. Even so, it’s difficult times to be an importer with Brexit on the horizon, huge competition from macro-breweries buying taps and pushing prices down, and several buyouts of breweries that Cave had built their business on. There’s still a long way to go.
I joined him and sales director Neil Kitching at the Beer Merchants Tap, Cave Direct’s bar in East London where they have just taken delivery of their first batch of spontaneous wort for a blendery project, and where in June they will host their 40th birthday party with the breweries and friends that helped them come this far.
This is Colin Gilhespy and Neil Kitching of Cave direct. Listen in.