Every month we dive into a different company that we think is special, inspiring, simply interesting or has a super fun product (or a combination of). This month, we found that in: Hopping Borders!
Why Hopping Borders we hear you ask? Mainly because we think the product is incredibly cool (and tasty): specialty beer! The average adult Dutch person drinks a beer with friends or colleagues from time to time (we do so ourselves at our womibos). But the world of specialty beer, we are often not so familiar with. That's why this month we take you inside the speciality beers of Hopping Borders.
We interviewed Dennis den Bak, one of the four owners. Read on, because we asked him all about it! (Or scroll straight down for Dennis' golden tip for a tasty specialty beer).
Let's start right away with an introduction! What does Hopping Borders do?
Hopping Borders imports speciality beers from more than 26 European countries, in total from more than 60 breweries. Although we also sometimes import from countries far outside Europe, such as South Korea or Argentina, we concentrate on Europe.
We then distribute the beer we import ourselves all over the Netherlands to our customers: local businesses such as a speciality beer shop or the pub on your corner. But also an occasional Gall and Gall, Taprooms and some Mitra.
Every week, four of our own buses drive all over the country to supply our customers. So we try to get the beers and non-alcoholic beers that come in here back to our customers as quickly as possible as well.
When was Hopping Borders established?
Officially, we established Hopping Borders on 1 January 2019. The company was formed from a merger of two other firms. Namely Brit Beer (with three owners, including me) and New Beer Frontier (with one owner).
The merger actually came about because both companies had a small portfolio of customers, but nevertheless constantly bumped into each other and also had the same customers. We then said to each other: why not join forces?
That way, two separate portfolios became one big portfolio and we could offer our customers even more different beers.
Did you know each other before that?
Not directly. The main reason we merged is that we are in the same market. You run into each other quite often, such as at customers' premises or during events.
It actually happened quite naturally.
Brit Beer was founded by two friends of mine, who are big fans of English beer, which was almost impossible to get in the Netherlands. So in 2017, the first beers came here by truck from England. And in 2018, I came around the corner and joined the company.
Sometime in 2018, the first contact was with New Beer Frontier and that went incredibly smoothly. We were both looking for a larger space and two people are from the Hoeksche Waard, so that was an immediate point of contact.
So Hopping Borders was born in new premises. And we kept that up until November 2020, because then the next move already came.
You must have grown enormously if you have to move again within a year!
Yes, it's great fun and we are proud that we are growing so fast, but sometimes it goes too fast.
That may sound contradictory: because who doesn't want to grow? But you also strive to provide a certain service to your customers and handle everything neatly. Fast growth makes that kind of thing a bit more difficult.
It is sometimes impossible to keep up. You unintentionally drop a stitch here and there or forget something. We correct all that nicely, but of course it's not ideal. Both for our customers and our staff.
The demand for specialty beer is growing enormously! That is also the reason why we had to move so soon. Fortunately, we took our current premises on growth, so we expect to be able to stay here for a while.
On the one hand, specialty beer is still so new. And on the other hand, you don't know what's coming your way. That means you might also hit the ceiling sooner than you thought. Anyway, that's future music and nobody can predict that.
Have you always been an entrepreneur? Or did you also work on payroll before this?
Originally, I come from the shipping industry, where I was active for about 25 years. I had a good job, but due to some rot, I was out on the street. Then you think, "What now?"
You start looking for work and you hope you find something that suits you. But often you are too expensive and have too much experience.
Fortunately, then my friends came around the corner with Brit Bear, which I was able to join. It was a really great opportunity for me to start something with friends, but of course that is no guarantee that the business will succeed.
You have to make a living out of it. That's difficult at the beginning. And even now: it's not a fat pot. We get out what is possible, but it is not a fat salary. It doesn't have to be. What we can get out of it is already very nice.
We can pay our staff, equipment and resources. Of course, you have to deal with loans and some financing, but every firm has to deal with that at the beginning.
The rule of thumb is that after about 4-5 years, you are out of finances and can fend for yourself, and I think we are already fairly close to that, maybe sooner than planned.
That's quite something to be proud of! Do you have one specific thing you are most proud of?
Pfoe, that's a tough one. But the first thing that comes to mind is the team. I am really incredibly proud of the whole group we have. Spread across three offices in the building and our warehouse: wherever we sit, we are 1 team.
But above all, we are also a close-knit team. I am most proud of the cooperation among ourselves and the fact that you are willing to do something for each other.
Especially also because it has brought us to where we are today. Really young and not so young, lady or gentleman: it doesn't matter. We do our bit and we really do it together. Shrugging our shoulders if we have to.
If something needs to be done at the weekend, they also want to come. For example, at a stock count or to help with moving. And then we might not even have to ask them: they're already doing it. I love that.
But of course there is much more to be proud of. For instance, that we have everything well in place and that the name Hopping Borders is now an established name in the industry.
How nice to hear that you are so proud of your team (I'm sure your colleagues will agree)! But what about the little dog I keep seeing passing by on your Instagram?
Haha, that's Gus! He belongs to one of our owners. Every now and then he comes over here with his female. Coincidentally, his lady is also the one who keeps track of our social media and posts photos and videos.
That's actually how that has grown a bit. Gijs likes to stick his nose in everything, which resulted in some very funny photos and videos. That's how he became our "house dog" to put it that way.
We also notice that our customers respond very nicely to this. He has been along to a customer once, although that appointment was more to talk about the beers and about Hopping Borders and deliver some at the same time.
I saw that you also organise tastings. Is that an idea that arose separately or did you notice that a certain need arose among the target audience?
Well, that's a bit of everything actually. We started importing the beer and delivering it to our customers. Those customers also have occasional consumer tastings. So that's how the idea of doing something for our customers here is born.
That's how you roll from something you try and which is fun to do, to something more professional. So we organise a monthly tasting. With enough applicants, it goes ahead and otherwise we move it up a month.
Then it doesn't really matter who comes. We set it up here and pour some beers. If it's fun and we like it, we'll do it again. And that's basically how it's been so far.
You obviously have a certain target group with these kinds of tastings, but sometimes we also just have an evening with friends and acquaintances and then it's just fun to do.
The turnover we generate from this is not groundbreaking to say that it becomes our focus, but it is a nice extra.
Within specialty beer, you also often have festivals where we can be found regularly. That's the bigger audience for us. And also actually one big tasting in that sense. That's really the only chance for consumers to taste and purchase beer directly from us.
As soon as it's all possible and allowed again, we'll be right back there, of course!
I don't know anything about beer (personally), but what about all those beautiful and colourful cans you have in your range?
That's actually quite simple. It's a whole experience, besides taste of course. Just compare it to your can of Amstel or Heineken for example, it's completely different visually. You would buy the can, by way, just because it's so beautiful. And you do. It's different, it's hip, distinct, special.
But also: we are seeing a trend in the ratio of cans to glass. These days, beer is increasingly sold in cans. And that also has several reasons:
And how do you choose which of these beautiful cans to include in the range? Do you also taste them yourselves?
In the beginning we did taste them, but at a certain point it is no longer possible because you get so much in.
If a brewery comes to us and we want to know if it's something, our purchasing department polls through our Facebook group of about 400 customers to see if they want to order that beer. This allows us to tactically place our orders with brewers based on our customers' reactions.
It works very well for us. That way you find out in time whether something will be purchased or not, but you also know well in advance when you need to order more because there is so much interest on Facebook.
How nice, such a Facebook group with your customers! That way they really have a say. Is that, you might say, also what makes Hopping Borders unique?
Well, not so much. I think the most unique thing about Hopping Borders is that we try as much as possible to answer our customers as quickly as possible. Emails, WhatsApp messages, et cetera: we respond almost immediately.
But I also think our flexibility is really something that makes us unique. If our customers know that we are going to Amsterdam on Thursday and place another order on Wednesday evening, they can often still join us.
We try to listen carefully to our customers, be as flexible as possible with deliveries and not keep them in limbo for too long. If we deliver and something is not there, we deal with it immediately.
So customer contact is very important to us. With that backward growth, we have also had phases where we didn't always have time for that, but it is our aim to make time wherever possible. We always get right into it.
That rapid growth, that might be your wildest dream as an entrepreneur. But it must have also brought challenges. How have you dealt with that?
Constantly shifting gears and seeing where you need to intervene to make sure everything keeps running smoothly. Think hiring a new delivery driver and buying a new bus to make sure you can run more trips.
We are also trying to stage our customer service much better. We now have an ordering system that we have to look at critically, whether it's still good enough for the whole thing: aren't we running out of time somewhere or spilling time because of an inefficient way of working?
So we are constantly scrutinising everything to make sure the customer knows exactly what is happening.
What is the most memorable thing you guys have done? For example, the best assignment or order you guys have ever had?
There are several anyway! But if I have to mention one, it is that one customer ordered an entire pallet from us. Normally our customers order about 5-10 boxes. But this particular customer had as many as 60 boxes in one go.
That really took us by surprise. It was a gigantic order for us.
Of course, you often have nice orders from a customer, but this was an outlier.
But also the milestones we experienced: Is this our building? Is this really that big? Are we really going to complete this?
You're just barely pinching yourself then.
Now you also have a lot of customers from the hospitality industry. How did that go for you with corona?
Some of our customers are happily starting to order again after a long period of silence. Because that means they are still around and have survived the corona crisis. And of course we are really very happy about that.
For us, oddly enough, the corona crisis has gone quite well. We did not know what to expect, but at least this was not in our expectations.
We all really trembled at first, because we immediately saw 30 per cent of our turnover taken away by the closure of the on-trade.
But the webshops and beer shops that were allowed to stay open started ordering twice as much. People could no longer go to the pub or taprooms, so purchases at the shops and webshops doubled. That was for during the first wave, in March-April 2020: so very stable months for us.
We also had months after that when it was a bit of a search. What is the government going to do? What is the hospitality industry going to do?
Now we notice that the on-trade is stirring again and reporting to us, and so a lot more kegs of beer are going through. (Thank goodness!)
You have a 010 number from Rinkel. How does Rinkel's fixed-to-mobile solution make your lives easier?
Telephony is an essential part for me. I am also almost certain that it will always exist. After all, it is the most direct way (apart from visiting someone) to contact someone. Whether you're in Twente or Limburg.
Moreover, it is more personal than WhatsApp or e-mail.
We chose Rinkel because mobile is the tool today. I also see it at home: I still have a landline phone there, but that is only because my alarm is switched on. No other calls are made on it.
You also always have a mobile with you. I can often be found in the warehouse and when I walk there, I would otherwise not be able to answer the phone if we had had a landline.
Do you have any golden entrepreneurial tips to pass on to our customers?
We once had a customer who started a new business where we could co-finance a piece. We did. Unfortunately, that business eventually went bankrupt and we could whistle for our money.
It wasn't a shocking amount, but it was certainly unfortunate. Especially as a starting business, you actually need all your pennies.
That was a good lesson for us and also a good tip to pass on to others: You can only put your money into something once. Then put it (especially in the beginning) into something that you are sure will pay off or that it will not involve any risks.
We all have risks: starting a business is also a risk. But if you know in advance that something has more risk than planned, do it at a later date and not right at the start of your own business. After all, it brings a lot of headaches that you don't want: a (starting) entrepreneur already has so much on his mind.
For anyone who does take an interest in speciality beers, is there a particular type that is very much in demand right now?
We have one beer, from brewery Kinnegar from Ireland: "Big Bunny". That is the beer that is popular throughout the Netherlands.
Big Bunny is one of the beers that we can order a whole pallet of, so to speak. A pallet contains around 64 boxes of 24 beers (so 1536 beers!). We can have that alone coming here monthly, because it's also gone in no time.
It is well received everywhere and I think that is the beer that comes in constantly. It's also on the menu at some on-trade outlets.
And now of course the key question: do you have a tip for anyone who would like to try a special beer?
From our point of view, the Big Bunny is a very good one anyway.
The tip in itself is: if you want to start, be well informed. There are an awful lot of types of special beer, which also makes it easy to pick just one, which turns out to be far too strong afterwards.
In general, the beer style Pale Ale is accessible. That's 4-5% (low alcohol), you don't walk away from it right away and it's not that intense in taste either.
But the tip: start with a normal alcohol percentage. Pale Ale or IPA. Just relax and enjoy!
Or join a tasting session! That's an ideal way to immediately discover what's a bit your taste.
Co-owner Hopping Borders
Dennis den Bak
Joined Brit Beer in 2016
Founded Hopping Borders in 2019
Together with 3 others
Previously worked in maritime industry for 25 years