Ian Clay, owner and Managing Director of James Clay, enjoys mountains life having spent a great deal of youth climbing, mountaineering and skiing in the Alps – ascending Mount Blanc and the Matterhorn are among a list of notable achievements.
It was during this period that Ian first appreciated the relaxed continental drinking culture and had his eyes opened to a world of beer flavour. The disappointment from being unable to enjoy the same culture and flavours back home turned into an opportunity. Before long Ian decided he wanted to open a bar. He had no money, no industry experience but ambition and a burgeoning passion. The Moorings was up and running within a year.
"Whilst running The Moorings it soon became a challenge to find new and interesting drinks for our customers." says Ian "At the time there were very few world and speciality beers available in the UK. Having Kriek fruit beer on draught in Sowerby Bridge in the mid 80s was a turning point. If one customer ordered a Kwak with the iconic glass and wooden stand it caused quite a stir and wouldn't be long before more were quickly ordered."
In 1980, Lindeboom became the very first beer James Clay imported after an unlikely introduction to the beer by a local Dutch builder. "It became a cult beer in the local area and we used to keep at least 10 cases in a walk in fridge at the pub for take outs on a Saturday night!" says Ian. At the same time there were a few continental beers in the UK, namely Warsteiner, Duvel and Chimay. Holsten Pils was the first premium lager to really take off, annual sales quickly showed the potential for imported beers but, overall, the imported beer sector was very fragmented and the future uncertain.
By the early 1990s Ian, joined by Andrew Armstrong, established the new import and distribution business working from spare space at the pub and a single delivery van. “The challenge was always to revolutionise the UK drinking culture through quality and authenticity”, comments Ian. “There was a growing demand for world classic beers and it became increasingly clear one pub couldn’t quench it on its own.”
"At the time, we were predominantly selling wines alongside Lindeboom and a few classic Belgian beers, but before long it was clear that we should focus on beer and the range started to grow." comments Andrew, “The mission was to introduce people to the world classic beers: beers with heritage, a story and, above all, great flavour." The leading Belgian beers were added - Duvel, Chimay, Liefmans, Timmermans, Kwak and De Koninck. The obvious next step was German beers with Schneider Weisse being first quickly followed by Erdinger. "I can still remember the first keg of Erdinger being sold at the North Bar in Leeds, quite a milestone for us." Anchor was the first American brewery we imported, followed a number of years later by Brooklyn Brewery and Goose Island.
"The most rewarding aspect has been developing a range of beers that provide choice to new generations of bars and beer drinkers," adds Andrew. "It is always interesting to see the reaction as someone drinks a Belgian Lambic, a German Schlenkerla Rauchbier or an intensely-hopped American IPA for the first time."
A lifetime’s dedication to beer has led to many accolades for the James Clay team: Notable milestones include Ian Clay and Nigel Stevenson being awarded the Chevalier de Fouquet (Knighthood of the Brewers’ Mash Staff) by the Belgian Brewers' Guild for their work promoting Belgian beers.
"Back in 1990, when someone asked what do you do for a job and I said ‘import speciality beer’ the reaction would be largely disinterested; but today people always say 'wow what a great job!'."
Ian and many of the team still regularly visit many of the breweries they represent: "Seeing the brewery in action let’s you feel their passion for the beers they brew. Trying new beers is something of an ‘occupational hazard’. The ones that make it through have been researched, finely filtered and are beers we are immensely proud to introduce to the UK.
Today, James Clay is the hub for the specialist beer sector within the UK with an established and growing network of national and regional distributors. Together, we ensure the brands we represent have the best possible route-to-market coverage and national exposure.
The company employs 30 staff and distributes over 400 different beers (a number which continues to grow). Ian Clay is still the Managing Director and Andrew Armstrong is the Logistics Director, with the company consistently experiencing significant year-on-year growth.
The vision for the future of James Clay? "Simple - to carry on searching and sourcing great beers and helping more people discover the great flavours beer offers."