Mitchells & Butlers’ beer and cider procurement manager Ben Lockwood is about to step into a new role as international marketing director for BrewDog. He spoke to Nicholas Robinson of MCA’s sister title, the Morning Advertiser about his thoughts on the trade and the beer scene

Mitchells & Butlers’ beer and cider procurement manager Ben Lockwood’s passion for the sector has propelled him to the top of his game. But what’s next for the man who knows almost everyone in the trade now he’s moving to BrewDog?

Few people will be more connected in the trade than Mitchells and Butlers (M&B) beer and cider procurement manager Ben Lockwood who, as well as being extremely knowledgeable about pubs, beer and cider, is modest about his achievements.

He flatly refutes the idea that he has in any way helped to shape UK drinking culture during his four years as beer and cider buyer with M&B. Yet, it is hard to believe someone who is in charge of acquiring drinks for one of the UK’s largest pub companies, encompassing around 1,600 pubs and no fewer than 18 brands, could not have had an impact on what we drink.

“I don’t think we as a team have influenced what people are drinking, but I would say we have supported the trends and brands in the market,” he says. One example Lockwood draws on is how, throughout his career, both before and with M&B, he has worked with brands such as Camden Town Brewery from when they were small.

Different hats

From the early days, when he was working in a pub himself, Lockwood remembers working with Camden Town Brewery founder Jasper Cuppaidge’s first iterations of the now famous brew. So, on moving into his current role, one of the first things the drinks buyer wanted to do was stock the brand. “But it was so small at the time that we could only have it in 10 of our sites at once because there wasn’t enough. But now it’s in more than 300 of our pubs and we’ve been on that journey with Jasper.”

Camden, however, is just scratching the surface of the number of beers and ciders Lockwood is currently in charge of procuring. Within cask, there are at least 80 seasonal products a year, 40 on craft cask and, outside of that, a core range of lagers and ciders, as well as packaged products, that can change depending on the venue and trends.

But it’s not a simple task of choosing a brew and rolling it out across all 1,600 pubs because each brand has its own criteria and needs. “It’s a broad range because you have to have different hats on,” Lockwood says. “You have to have your Toby Carvery hat on, your All Bar One hat and a Nicholson’s hat on too.

“In our Castle pubs, it’s not always all about ensuring we get exclusives but making sure we’re not last. I don’t mind other pubs having the same brand because that can sometimes help with sales but we need to make sure we’re stocking beers and ciders that keep people coming into the pub.”

Lockwood’s ethos is founded through his experience in the trade, both working behind the bar and also in head office functions. His passion for the on-trade began at a young age, as he explains: “I was running pubs for a bit and was the deputy manager at the Conservative Club in Wakefield when I was 18. I had two or three bar jobs at the time and if anyone asked me to look after the pub I would skip college for the day and do it.”

At 21, after a stint with a pubco in Northamptonshire, Lockwood moved to London to begin his career in pubs “properly” and landed a job at the White Horse in Parsons Green, which lasted four years. “That’s where my obsession and passion for beer started,” he explains. “It was a pub with loads of taps and loads of beer in the fridge.”

Front runner for craft beer

While working at the White Horse, Lockwood was in charge of training, recruitment and the beer range. But the pub’s offer was very rare for the time because 12 years ago, craft beer was in its early stages. “If you go back to those days, there was only the Rake (London Bridge) or the White Horse if you wanted to educate staff on craft beer.

“We did four or five beer festivals a year at the White Horse and people would book to come up from all over the UK and this was years ago too. We also took the staff to Belgium once or twice a year, which led to one of the most fun things I did, which was taking a van with empty casks to Belgium and knocking on brewery doors to fill them up for us.”

On the move

After three years at the White Horse, Lockwood moved on to a position at Nicholson’s Pubs as assistant brand manager in 2010, where he worked to make the brand iconic for its cask ale and beer. “They wanted people to think that’s where to go for cask. We moved beer from being 11% of the drinks sales mix to 20% within 18 months.”

Lockwood stepped into his current role in December 2014, but is about to leave for a job with BrewDog. This will be a long way from his current job, “procuring the optimum drinks supply for all of M&B’s brands”.

One of the aspects of the job Lockwood enjoys most is pushing the brands stocked by M&B to come up with bigger ideas, whether it’s the style of product or how it is activated. “When I was in marketing, we launched a pale ale with St Austell and served 17,000 pints across 80 pubs a week – it became their second biggest-selling beer.

“The most exciting thing in keg beer was the Sierra Nevada tap takeover last summer. In the Castle pubs, there are four rotating guest taps and we had this idea about giving all of the volume to one brewer and asking them for ideas on the back of that.

“Sierra Nevada had some beers that weren’t in the UK and the head brewer came over a few times and sold 100 tickets for a meet the brewer, who is Steve Grossman – a real icon.”

Low and no-alcohol uptake

To a certain extent, everything in pubs for Lockwood comes down to the beer, even when asked about challenges to the on-trade. “Moderation is a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity, because people don’t want to give up the social side,” he says. “But there are so many brewers bringing out new beers with a lower ABV or no alcohol. We’ve just taken on Big Drop in Castle. We’ve even got St Peters Without and put it into all but one of our brands. I think we were one of the first pubcos to have a gluten-free beer four years ago too.”

Lockwood is not only optimistic about the wider trade’s future, he also sees M&B’s future being a fruitful one, led by “some of the best people in the industry”. While he will miss the team he has worked with for so long, Lockwood has left things in good shape, saying the ranges across some of the sites he looks after have been mapped out until September next year.

Before he departs to a new role at BrewDog though, Lockwood has some advice for whoever might replace him: “Be passionate about the category you’re responsible for. Immerse yourself as much as possible in it and challenge suppliers in a collaborative way to be the most innovative that they can.”

At BrewDog, Lockwood will be taking on a newly created role as international trade marketing manager. He has admired BrewDog since its inception, he says, as well as its growth in recent years, including the acquisition of Draft House, launching its own spirits brand and wanting to get more people passionate about craft beer.

By the time this interview is published, modest Lockwood will be preparing to depart the UK indefinitely to start a new journey and make a name for himself in a new market.