London Beer People #5 & #6: Stephanie Palgrave-Brown & Phill Elliott - Caps & Taps

Interview & Photos - Matthew Curtis

Like many areas of London, Kentish Town has become a hub for great beer. Following the arrival of Camden Town Brewery under the arches at Kentish Town West station in 2010 a thriving beer community has steadily developed. 

Recent arrivals have included Camden Town’s second pub; Daughter, a new branch of the Clapton Craft bottle shop chain, and Caps & Taps, another craft focussed retail outlet. The store is headed up by owner/founders Stephanie Palgrave-Brown and Phill Elliott, locals who’ve been a part of the Kentish Town scene ever since Camden first tapped a keg of Hells Lager. Through their bottle shop, they’ve gone from being partakers to operators and influencers.

Caps & Taps is wholly focussed on quality & variety and the first thing you’ll notice when you wander in through its doors is a long row of fridges. For too long London’s beer sellers have been complacent about refrigeration, so it’s great to see these guys investing in looking after their beer. As well as stocking the UK’s most recognisable craft brands you’ll also find a ton of great beer from the US, Belgium, Germany and more. There’s even a carefully considered selection of wines and spirits – something I feel a few bottle shops take for granted.

I caught up with Stephanie and Phill to find out their motivations behind launching their own beer business, and how they got into beer in the first place. 

Disclosure: Stephanie and Phill are friends of mine and together we help run a monthly bottle club at The Duke's Head in Highgate whom I also work for. This has, of course, totally influenced my decision to run this piece. However I'm happy that it gives you guys a look at what a couple of good people are doing in order to start and secure their journey in beer.

So, you guys have just opened your own bottle shop, Caps & Taps - why now and why did you decide this is how you wanted to enter the beer industry?

Stephanie: I think we've always thought about running a pub at some point, but when we visited New York in April 2014, we got our first taste of bottle shop culture and we got thinking. A while later, we were in a position where neither of us had a secure job, so we thought we'd go for it!

"As we've seen with the sale of small breweries in the last few years, craft beer drinkers care about the provenance of their beer, but I think that extends to bottle shops as well. People want to know their beer is cared for the whole way."

Phill: We wanted to open a small business and jumping into a pub or bar with crazy long hours didn't seem the way to go with just the two of us. Also we love so many different beers and it would be impossible to sell everything we wanted to in any other setting apart from a bottle shop. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced when setting up your own business?

S: Not having a clue what we were doing! Although that's actually probably a blessing as we could take risks without really understanding how risky they were.

P: We've learnt so much in the last twelve months and if we started again we would do everything differently. Neither of us had any experience or knowledge in the industry, or running something like this. You can read up on things but you just need to do it to learn it.

Why Kentish Town? What about this part of London made you want to call it home?

S: I've always had family around the area and so spent most of my Saturdays in the Kentish Town McDonalds opposite what is now Daughter. When Phill moved to London we spent a lot of time in Camden, and as we got older we've moved away from the tourists, and kept ending up in Kentish Town for all its great pubs and, of course, Camden Town Brewery. 

P: I've lived in North London for about 7 years. We moved to Chalk Farm around the time Camden Town Brewery opened, which then dragged us towards Kentish Town and all of the great pubs in the area, which led us to consider moving here. Then when the time came to look at shop locations we looked around Archway, Holloway and Highgate, but Kentish Town just seemed right.

How do you feel Caps & Taps fits into the beer scene, both locally in Kentish Town and in London as a whole?

S: As I said previously, we've gravitated towards Kentish Town because there's always been good beer here. Pub wise we've got The Southampton Arms, The Rose and Crown and Pineapple. Oh and Tapping the Admiral - that's got a pub cat as well. But, although a few offies have a fairly decent selection, there was no independent shop offering the selection that we do. As we've seen with the sale of small breweries in the last few years, craft beer drinkers care about the provenance of their beer, but I think that extends to bottle shops as well. People want to know their beer is cared for the whole way.

P: Kentish Town has always had a decent beer scene, especially when Camden Town Brewery opened in 2011. From the likes of The Southampton Arms all the way to Quinn’s, which whilst a very traditional Irish pub has an amazing Belgian and German bottle selection at great prices. However we've always enjoyed beer at home too and found Kentish Town needed a real dedicated bottle shop.

How did you guys get into beer in the first place?

S: Pound a pint in the student union. Then one of the guys in the Motor Club got me to sign up to the Real Ale Society (I was sold as soon as he said it came with free beer and a discount card) and I discovered beer could have flavour.

P: I used to drink a lot of "real ale" at home and at University. It was the cheapest beer at the already cheap Wetherspoon’s. It also tasted of something, which the mass lagers didn't. When I moved to London I really got into Belgian beers and had several trips to Belgium for cheap, boozy holidays. 

What really excites you in beer at the moment?

S: It's great to see so many breweries expanding and moving into new premises this year. It's heartening to see that these breweries, some only a year or so old, need to expand production, but it's the space they will then have for experimental brews that excites me. Redchurch intends to keep its original site and install a coolship for goodness sake! I think we'll see these newly expanded breweries come out with a lot more one off, experimental beers this year.

"There is nothing better than recommending a beer to someone and seeing them coming back repeatedly and buying six packs of it."

P: I'm excited about the amount of choice the beer drinker now has, it makes it tough for us to then decide what to stock out of all of the possible breweries from London, UK and the world. But when I find out a new American brewery is to start exporting I just can't wait to try the beer and hopefully stock it in our fridges. 

How do you think you'll make Caps & Taps stand out from other bottle shops?

S: I hope that we make the place stand out! For now at least, it's just me and Phill (and on occasion our friend and sometimes employee Rahul) and we only buy beer in that we know to be awesome or think is going to be. We've probably tried a good 80-90% of what’s on our shelves. Also, it's all still quite personal, so if someone wants a specific beer, we will try to track it down and (if feasible), stock it.

P: At the moment it's just Steph and I as the only full time staff so customers get to know us quite well, plus we have tried most of the 450 beers we sell and people like that we can offer honest opinions about what beers they would like. Also we have got about 7 fridges so most beers are cold and ready to drink straight away which people seem to love.

What's the best thing about coming into work at the moment?

S: We get to chat about beer all day. We've got a great range of customers from brewers themselves, to people who've just caught the craft beer bug. And it's always a good feeling when a customer comes in and enthuses about a beer you recommended last time!

P: We are always at work if we have our phones on us, and I really enjoy getting weekly beer lists from suppliers and seeing what new beers are coming in, or that are back in stock. Most suppliers are first come first serve and you've got to be quick to the get some of the fun limited stuff! There is also nothing better than recommending a beer to someone and seeing them coming back repeatedly and buying six packs of it.

What are your plans for Caps & Taps in the Future? Where is it going?

S: First we need to find room to squeeze in a few more beers. We're also going to work on a schedule of events. We've held some meet the brewer events last year, but we'd like to get a wider range of events in. We're currently planning a beer and sausage roll pairing evening, for example!

P: Our focus in the shop is to grow the number of locals who own a Caps and Taps growler and to increase the number of events. People keep asking us about our second site which we think is a bit premature, if we ever had another site I would want to stay in the Kentish Town/Camden area and focus on onsite consumption instead of just a clone of our shop elsewhere in London.