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It's nice to be writing about a small business that's both local to me AND is accessible nationwide via the Internet and mail-order too.
Www.realale.com (yes, that's the shop's name) was set up in Twickenham, Middx in 2005, and as far as I can see is doing rather well, and deserves to be.
It's a small corner shop at 371, Richmond Road, TW1 2EF, which for those that know the area, puts it a few hundred yards onto the 'Twickenham side' of Richmond Bridge.
For those that don't know, or do but wouldn't dream of even attempting to park in the area, (and I'm assuming that if you're buying a quantity of beer that the local buses aren't really an option) then worry ye not, there's always the good old Internet and the Lughole/Telephone System Interface.
As you can see from the shop's name, this isn't so much a shop with a web-site but a web-site with its own retail outlet. Or maybe it's either. I know I had difficulty in deciding whether it should be categorised under On- or Off-line shopping, so I was more than happy to let Ciao decide that one. How about that? From suggestion to categorised in 90 minutes! I hadn't even written this much when I got the e-mail.
On or offline, you'll feel like you get personal service from the small clutch of people that work there.
So where are Realale.com coming from?
Well, don't expect to find beers at the same prices that you'll get in any large Tesco or Morrissons. I don't suppose they could even buy them wholesale for the price they retail at in major supermarkets. No, what Realale.com sensibly stick to is the stocking of more esoteric brews, including ciders, perrys and some wine along with quite exotic and unusual bottled beers from all around the UK and abroad too, lest Belgo-philes et al feel left out.
I once had this conversation with Nick Dolan who runs the place (Yes, you've got an approx. 1 in 3 chance of talking to the MD), when I queried why a certain brewery - Hogsback from Surrey I think it was - didn't feature on their racks. He said that as a general rule, if you could find it in a supermarket, then he'd not be able to get a good enough price to sell it too, besides which there'd be no point, as people would tend to include it in their weekly shopping at Sainscorrisons. He's obviously doing a bit better on the wholesale front these days (that was last year) as Hogsback is now 'on the menu'.
REALALE.COM AS A SHOP
As I said before, this is not the easiest place to stop near, if coming by car. There is a handful of metered parking places in the vicinity, but what puts me off, is that approaching from Isleworth and failing to find a space leave me no choice but to end up in the Richmond town-centre snarl-up before recovering my equilibrium and coming back for a second kerb-crawl - there ARE places you could do a U-turn but the closer you get to the ramp of Richmond Bridge, the less likely it is that you'll be able to. H37 buses run past on their way from Richmond to Hounslow, and St. Margeret's mainline station from Waterloo is only half a mile away, but who wants to lug a crate of beer either onto a bus or half a mile on foot?
There are ways around it, especially if you know what you want in advance, and with a web-site at your beck and call, this is easy. Then you just ring them on 020 8892 2986, ask them to get the order ready and stop on the 'double-yellows' for a quick and legitimate bit of 'loading'.
Another way, and it's one I like doing, since it gets you some amused looks, is to park for free about ¾ of a mile away by Richmond Lock, remembering to check the tide-table otherwise your car could be a boat by the time you get back, and walk there with a folding porter's trolley, courtesy of Homebase. Nick and friends will gladly tape a box on for greater safety on the way back - I know, I've done it!
However you arrive, you get friendly service from people who not only know their subject but LIKE beer. I've lost count of the number of times I've taken a pint of real ale back to a bar because it was 'on the turn' only to be told by the young lady behind the bar, obviously hired for certain other attributes* (the kind that comes in matched pairs), that she'd take my word for it as she wouldn't know what it tasted like in the first place. Thus, I get another drink, but the by-now foetid barrel lives another day for serving less fussy drinkers.
(* Yes, I've heard of the equal opportunities act, but I also know what an ad for 'bar staff with good social skills' REALLY means)
Inside the shop is a treasure-trove for the beer-o-phile, with a wall and a half entirely given over to dozens of different and sometimes rare beers. To be honest, a Booth's supermarket in the north west of England can come close to a selection like this, and even has some 'cross-over' of stock from what I remember from my last visit to their Windermere branch, but they're 200 miles away, if you want to get to their nearest store from where I live.
Entry to the shop is level, which helps with getting wheelchairs in (and my trolley out). It's only a normal width of door though, so some beer drinkers might need to ease themselves through a bit at a time.
The major difference when it comes to making a personal visit is that you don't have to buy 12 of anything, whereas by mail-order you do. If you can get there, it's much more like a local off-license and I'm sure some of those within mere walking distance treat it as such. You won't however be coming away from here with 2.5 litres of Woodpecker and 20 No.6.
Upon my last visit, which to my shame was AFTER a pub lunch, and therefore I was in a silly mood, resulted in my buying a Belgian 'Kriek' beer, infused with the flavour of wild cherry stones (excellent, at last I've found a beer that my wife likes!) a bottle of New Forest cider AND their perry, and something with a very long and complicated name that evades me for the moment. I do however remember that it was VERY VERY strong, and it gave me a headache**.
**(OK, a hangover, although the lunch might have had something to do with it too).
The shop's hours also tend to reflect those of a typical off-license, opening around lunchtime and closing before pubs do. They're a bit variable but the web-site contains the actual schedule………errrr, that's the web-site that's the same name as the shop - oh let's not start that again!
If you peruse their web-site, you'll find that they can supply cases of (mainly) beer in a variety of ways. Me, I've subscribed to their monthly club case, a selection of 4 beers (three bottles of each), with tasting notes, for £27.10/month. If you sign up for a year's worth, you get a 13th delivery for nothing. Being heavy, delivery to most of the UK costs a further £6.50, with some hefty prices hikes for 'Highlanders and Islanders' - yes, even the Isle of Wight costs more. In the case of the Hebrides, it nearly doubles the cost of the case, so I couldn't recommend this service then.
Personally, I live just outside their free delivery radius (damn!) but I escape the £6.50 delivery charge by arranging to pick it up - my job nearly always takes me to the area at least once in the week that I receive their e-mail telling me my order is ready.
That's another thing; they're great communicators, always leaving e-mails and sometimes backing these up with phone messages.
As a further example of the personal service you get, I got a phone call from Nick himself minutes after signing up via their web-site. It was a Sunday, and he was doing a bit of 'database housekeeping', so he thought he'd give me a ring as he spotted my sign-up coming in!
To be honest, I don't always get through the 12 bottles in a month - I'm more of a 'let's go to a decent pub' person, but the boxes do seem to have a habit of arriving at opportune moments, like when I'm about to descend on friends in Dorset for a couple of days and don't want to arrive empty-handed, or when I can't think what to get my younger brother for his birthday. Of course, I don't want him being led astray, so he doesn't get all 12 bottles!
On the subject of presents, they also have a selection of celebration packaging, including such things as two beers and a commemorative glass - they'll even put 'Happy Birthday' stickers on existing packaging for you; OK, it's not Macy's gift-wrapping department, but it's a nice touch.
As well as my monthly case, they also have 6 cases per year deals and so on, all with some kind of incentive, but to my mind, a 13th crate for free is the best incentive there is!
Off course, you can also use their web-site to make up a mixed case of anything in stock, using the usual basket>checkout>pay system.
I wouldn't necessarily agree with all their choices, and I'm coming to the conclusion that the downside of the upsurge in minor breweries is that there are just so many 'proficient' pale ales around these days, that you tend to get blasé about them. However, they do put some cracking beers together, and it's to be expected that there'll be some that you don't like much. I'm sure single malt drinkers will be able to identify ones that they hate, but at least they provoke a reaction, unlike inferior brands.
Being a 'club member', i.e. someone that subscribes to a regular delivery also gets you 10% any other purchases.
Stop Press - Oh joy of joys, I'd clean forgotten about my 'free' 13th case, until I went in for my pre-Christmas only to come out with two cases. Yes, it really has been a year!
Don't just take my word for it, their web-site has commendations from all over the country, so clearly, it's not just locals, but those that use the mail-order service that like the place.
A most entertaining and informative review. I would have given you a "very helpful" only but I was so amused by the tide tables bit that I think you deserve better, I needed cheering up! I already own a trolley...