No matter what role you have in the industry, to outsiders, working with beer always sounds like a dream.
"You’re a brewer? Great, you must just drink beer all day."
"Oh, you sell beer for a living? That sounds awesome – you must just talk about and drink beer all day."
"You’re responsible for what beers appear in bottleshop fridges? People must send you sooo much beer – what a life!"
And sure, there are plenty of good times that come with working in the beer industry as I can personally attest as a beer writer, but there's also a lot of hard work involved – even if nobody wants to believe it.
Cherry Murphy’s role as Blackhearts & Sparrows' beer and spirits buyer might involve drinking a lot of delicious craft beer, but if you're imagining a day filled with, well, nothing more than enjoying beer after beer, you'd be mistaken. As Cherry explains, even the drinking beer part is far removed from the simple pleasure of enjoying a pint with some friends: it involves lot of careful consideration, note-taking, and looking at where a given beer might fit within a Blackhearts’ store.
"I like to try everything because you never know," she says, :"and you do try stuff you’ve never heard of that is just fantastic."
It features a lot of beer too; Cherry says the number of samples she can be required need to taste in a week can range from ten to fifty.
"Sometimes someone will send me their whole core range and older limiteds to get a feel for a brewery," she says.
"It’s really varied too, which is super interesting, and it’s good for my palate to always be trying things. I try to leave a portion of my buying to some lines that aren’t as big or hypey. I really consciously do that, it’s good to get those hype things in but it can become a bit of an echo chamber.”
Although buying spirits is a more recent focus for Cherry, the role of beer buyer is something she's done for close to five years. In that time, the number of breweries has grown significantly. But, while there's more beer to work through and more options to stock, Cherry says there's a fundamental they always return to: whether it's a bottle of lambic, a tall can of hazy IPA, or their own Birra (brewed with Burnley Brewing), their focus is on what tastes good and ensuring their stores can suit many tastes.
"We do always say we’re a broad church," she says, "so we don’t want to alienate anyone or be snobby because good beer is for everyone. Sometimes a good beer is a cheap beer and sometimes it’s expensive, but as long as it’s a good product I’ll range it.
"There are good products at all price ranges and I don’t want someone coming into the store and looking around, feeling intimated and thinking there’s nothing for them at all."
With around a dozen stores, the Blackhearts approach is far from one size fits all too. While some stock a wider range of craft than others, certain stores stock a beer just for locals who visit a given store week in, week out.
"I really like doing that because it makes it a community," Cherry says.
To better understand what goes into the role of beer buyer, we invited Cherry to tell us more as part of our occasional Day In The Life Of... series.
What does being a beer and spirits buyer involve?
Good question! Quite a bit. At the heart of it, it's about products and people. I spend a lot of time working out what I think will sell in stores. Blackhearts & Sparrows is all about a curated range, so I try to be very thoughtful around what I put in the stores. It goes beyond "Will that sell?" and more into "Is this a good product that I believe in and think customers will really enjoy?"
I obviously try a lot of products to make these decisions and talk to a lot of brewers and reps – this is the fun part – but I also do a lot of logistics and data analysis. I also take care of staff training to make sure the whole team is up to speed on all the products we range.
What does a typical day look like?
Most days are a little different and it depends on what projects I'm working on.
Generally, in the mornings I do logistics, answer emails and place orders. I'll take a couple of meetings with brewers and reps to try products and plan collaborations. I often have two to five meetings like this in a day.
In the afternoons, if I'm not too under the pump I like to carve out some time to sit down and taste samples and write tasting notes, which I pass onto all the staff in our stores.
When I tell people I'm a beer buyer I think they get the impression I'm just hanging out at the pub all day drinking pints, which would be dreamy. But in reality, it's a decent amount of research and admin sorry to take the magic out of it a bit there.
How do you decide which products to stock?
I try a lot of beer and look at a lot of data. I'm always looking to stock new and exciting things, but there are also some breweries that I have really good relationships with and I trust that the products they put out will be good. I'm always researching, looking for new breweries, and trying to work out what excites our customers.
To start with, every beer that I bought felt like such a punt. I'd watch to see how fast it sold and try to gauge interest in it. It honestly felt quite personal to start with; sometimes I couldn't work out why something I loved wasn't flying off the shelves.
These days I have a pretty good gauge on what will and won't work and that makes things much easier.
You run a number of events and produce collaborations too – how do these come about and why do you do them?
Events have been a really fun space for us in the past year. I've been really passionate about creating spaces within the beer industry that feel inclusive and welcoming.
I remember going to beer events years ago and it being a sea of men with beards and I would hardly see anyone that looked like me. When I started on my journey in the beer industry this felt really intimidating at times, and I knew I wasn't the only person who felt that way. So creating events that felt like they were for everyone was really important to me.
As for what we create for events and collaborations, often it will be about noticing a gap in the market and filling it. However, sometimes it's as simple as "I love drinking saison and eating oysters, maybe other people will want to come to an event and do that too", or "How good are ESBs! Let's see if one of our pals will make one for us."
What skills or training would someone need to do such a role successfully?
I don't think there is an official path for a job like this, to be honest. I was a chef for ten years, which taught me a lot about flavour, and production of products. When I was a head chef, I learnt a lot about stock rotation, and running a kitchen is quite similar in a lot of ways to buying for stores. You have to think about availability, seasonality and pricing, and try to predict what your customers will enjoy.
My hobbies have always included brewing, making wine and playing around with amaros, which gave me a great understanding of products. On top of that, I read a lot and I'm always trying to improve my knowledge so I can be better at my job.
What's the best and worst part of the job?
The best part of the job is the people. Gosh, there are some nice people. Some of the brewers and reps have become really dear friends.
I feel lucky to work in a job where in meetings we are swapping recipes of what we cooked on the weekend, and bringing each other jars of jams or pickles we made. Someone recently brought me a jar of honey from their backyard bees that I turned into a very tasty cake and it really made me reflect on how lovely and close-knit this community is.
The worst part of the job is some of the people – ha! It happens less these days – which by no means excuses it – but it's a reality that men sometimes say really inappropriate things to me in meetings, or just completely underestimate my beer knowledge or skills as a buyer. It's exhausting and really frustrating.
You can find other entries in this series here.