The craft beer scene in Rotterdam may not be famous (yet), but local Rotterdammers certainly have developed a taste for the crafty brews, as Teun de Waal and Chris de Witte will tell you. Teun and Chris are not only business partners; they’re also best friends and brothers-in-law. Together they run Hop-In beer store located in Noord, one of Rotterdam’s up and coming hip neighborhoods. Since last year I’ve started visiting their store and attending their beer tastings, and have gotten to know them as two young, ambitious beer connoisseurs who are set on helping people discover the wonderful world of craft beer. Last week I sat down with them and had an in-depth conversation about how it is to run a (beer) business and where they think the craft beer scene is headed.
It’s not easy making the right choices
I’m curious about their experiences in running a bottle shop now that they have been open for a year and a half. For example, how do they choose their beer selection? “If you want to stand out you have to make sure you have something special to offer”, Teun says. “We make it a point not to sell the beers that you can find in your local supermarket. Another thing we pay attention to is packaging. As trivial as it may seem, customers, including ourselves, are heavily influenced by the label and how the product looks. Our choices of course also depend on what is available through the distributors who are active in The Netherlands. Fortunately for us the number of distributors is increasing, so in addition to Dutch quality craft beers we are now able to get our hands on awesome international beers from US, UK and Estonia for example.”
“It is still challenging to make the right choice in terms of beer selection though”, Chris adds. “It can happen that a certain beer stays on the shelf longer than we would like and you don’t always know why. Some of our customers are highly critical and are not easily impressed. For others, some beers are too pronounced or ‘out there’. Our goal is to satisfy both demands while still being able to surprise our customers with great quality beers and hard-to-find limited editions, like Hardywood, Crooked Spider R.I.B.A.C.S. serie, the Jopen Don’t Rye This At Home and Moersleutel specials just to name a few. This is what keeps customers coming back to our store looking for new and exciting things to try.”
Of the six bottle shops in Rotterdam, two have shut down this year. Does this make them nervous about the future? They are not worried. “It’s hard to tell why a beer store quits,” Teun says. “Are they tired of it or is it because of disappointing revenues? We try to differentiate ourselves in our own way and are confident that our passion for beer and the fact that we know the local brewers puts us in a good position to keep customers interested. We also try to keep on top or even ahead of the craft beer trends. This year we’ve seen a spiked interest in low-alcohol beers, sessions, craft lagers and Brut IPAs. You have to make sure that you’re ready to meet those customer demands when they walk in the door.” Chris thinks sour beers are going to be big next year. “We’ve already seen Goses and Berliner Weisses making a comeback and I think that will continue to grow next year. Even the classics, like Geuze, are selling really well in our store at the moment.”
Does being friends (and family) get in the way of being business partners? Chris feels it’s quite the opposite. “We’ve know each other since we were kids, so we are also familiar with each other’s positive and more ‘challenging’ sides. That is extremely helpful in managing expectations. We’re also quite different. For example Teun is a more optimistic than I am. I pay more attention to costs and am a bit more risk averse. In that way we complement each other, too. Being 50/50 business partners means we discuss all decisions and split the responsibility. I think we have found a good balance in that.”
Location is key
How do you start a beer business? It usually starts with a passion, but in this case it initially didn’t involve beer. Their parents met through a shared love of wine. Teun’s father was one of the first wine experts in The Netherlands and ran a side-business selling wine. That was their first introduction to fermented alcoholic beverages. Later on, during their studies, their attention shifted to beer. Chris lived near Locus Publicus, one of Rotterdam’s oldest specialty beer bars, where he spent many an hour trying all the wonderful beers Belgium has to offer. Teun had a similar experience when he started working at Café Boudewijn five years ago and discovered there was a lot more to beer than just pils.
Fast forward to 2016. The idea to start a beer business had been in the pipeline for a while and became reality when Teun set up the webshop two years ago. Lacking entrepreneurial experience, he decided to start small, focusing on Dutch beers, especially barrel-aged. The grand plan was – and is – to have a bar and bottle shop, allowing customers to taste the beers first before taking them home. In 2017 the opportunity to rent an inexpensive small space in the gorgeous location of Delfshaven presented itself, right across from Stadsbrouwerij De Pelgrim. It was also in this year that Chris joined him as a business partner. Shortly after they opened, I visited them for the first time, as part of the research for my blog article on Rotterdam beer stores. I was really impressed with their vast beer knowledge and enthusiasm.
A year later they moved to Zwaanshals in Noord. Teun says they immediately noticed the difference. “Location is key. Delfshaven was a great place to start, but it’s out of the center, which makes it harder to attract a lot of people. In the popular Zwaanshals street we are definitely getting more people in the store. This has significantly increased since we moved across the street, so it even makes a difference what side of the street you are on.” Having a bigger store meant they could also expand their shelf space. “Our beer selection has doubled”, Chris remarks. “We are super happy with the way things are going. It has really given us a motivational boost.”
What went wrong?
Every successful business also has its (near) misses or fuck-ups as I like to call them. Has anything gone wrong so far?
Teun: “Business-wise we haven’t had any major disasters yet, luckily. I did screw up once just after starting the web shop. I had forgotten to send out an order and felt so bad that I delivered it myself to Zoetermeer by public transportation. It took four hours… And the fact that I’m really bad at remembering faces can be pretty embarrassing, especially if it’s one of my wife’s good friends who has been in the store three times already. I’ve messed up a few times with that.”
Chris: “I’m always sick with the flu when we are hosting a beer tasting, which is incredibly bad timing. But I show up anyway!”
Their top picks
One of the new ideas they have for the store is to include their personal top picks. Chris loves lists like that. “Customers are also interested in what we like, so we think it would be fun to put our own top 3 on the shelf.”
Only fair to include their current top three here, right? Here goes!
Top 3 Chris
1) De Moersleutel – Barrel Blend IV
2) Hoevebrugsch – 6-on
3) Boon – Oude Geuze
Top 3 Teun
1) De Moersleutel – Sweaty Sheep Shit Shenanigans
2) De Kromme Haring – Fugu / Saison de Klub
3) Magic Rock – Saucery