Brilliant corners

David Jesudason meets the London Asian shopkeepers bucking old stereotypes and embracing craft

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You may not remember the actor Badi Uzzaman, but for British Asians like me who grew up in racist neighbourhoods in the late 80s, he’s etched in our psyches. In 1989 he was a shopkeeper stabbed during an episode of Casualty by a gang of skinheads, and then five years later he was knifed in Cracker; another racist attack while manning his business. Both of these performances made my heart race when I watched them, because violence in the Bedfordshire market town I grew up in was very real and four decades later I still have the scars to show from being set upon.  

But that was then. Nowadays, everyday life has changed for most British Asians and although these dramatisations were no exaggerations – my friend Jay Patel of Jay’s Budgens in Lewisham, south-east London, slept behind the counter of his shop when he opened it in 1980 after it was targeted by the NF – it’s time the stereotype of the embattled Asian shop-owner was updated for 2022. 

Patel now is renowned for his craft beer selection, stocking an awesome range from breweries in our area (think Villages, Kernel, Brick, Gipsy Hill) and he’s not the only Asian shopkeeper who’s made this canny move. Over in Stroud Green, north London, Jack’s was one of the first off-licences to turn itself into a craft bottle shop. 

Run by Ravi Singh, with his brother Mani, it was opened in November 1988 when he was aged just 26, after he got some experience working in a Victoria Wine shop. In those days, the biggest selling beers were Stella Artois and Holsten Pils, but in the noughties he was one of the first shops to stock Beavertown. Singh was born in Dehli and came to this country when he was 13 years old, his mother worked for Ealing council and his father for the Indian High Commission. 

I tell him about the type of racism Patel experienced and he’s quick to dispel the notion that he would have been afraid. “We never felt threatened by anybody,” he says. “If you threaten us you’re going to get the same back. When people called me a ‘paki’ it was over a dispute, but no one ever targeted us because we were Sikhs or had brown faces.”

It might sound confusing to modern ears, but this is how Singh processed the abuse he experienced and he’s keen to portray the image of the strong Sikh. He’s certainly resilient, as the only thing threatening his business today is a gleaming new bottle shop down Stroud Green Road called Clapton Craft, that opened in 2017. 

“I think they are a competitor,” he says. “They have taken business off us, but we don’t just cater for craft beer [he points to the wine shelves]. We’re good at everything.”


Singh was born in Dehli and came to this country when he was 13 years old

He’s right. Out of all the bottle shops I’ve known this one is special to me; my partner used to live round the corner and I would chat regularly with Mani when I was visiting. Prior to this, it was part of my Arsenal matchday routine when I was at college nearby. Now I live across London I still think about it, especially when I’m meditating; imagining the smell of the carpet and the way the shelves are organised brings me some inner peace. 

Luckily, I have Jay’s Budgens round the corner in south-east London and the much-celebrated convenience store offers an array of interesting beers. As well as being featured in a Noel Gallagher music video and gaining praise for handing out free food to NHS staff last year, it now boasts a huge craft beer fridge with 70-80% of the contents from local breweries, such as Villages, Gipsy Hill and the very close Brockley Brewery.

It wasn’t always like this, because Jay’s Budgens move into craft was later than Singh’s and at first comprised all the usual supermarket suspects. But interesting bottles started appearing at the beginning of 2020 after Jay’s youngest son, Tilak, 26, convinced his father that people would be prepared to spend more than £5 for one can of beer if it was unique. 

After a lot of research and preparation, the move exceeded their expectations. A lot of black and Asian customers started trying new cans and bottles, especially after they introduced the beer fridge in July last year. Now they’re even interested in brewing their own beer.

“From a religious point of view,” says Tilak, who is a Hindu, “it’s tricky. But we’re seeing if we can do an alcohol free one.”

This isn’t a surprise to me, because Tilak is always looking to innovate. In the shop, he has a core range of beers that he supplements with 20% of new lines, which are constantly refreshed. On the day I walk in to speak to Tilak, he’s proudly displaying a beer I’ve never heard of by a newish brewer, Jacob Liddle – Jiddler’s Tipple Everyday Pale Ale. Every new brewer gets a chance here, but it’s the AF products that really excite Tilak. 

“I try to keep them as cheap as possible,” he says. “Just because on principle they’re alcohol-free I don’t want to charge as much. If you don’t know much about beer, it becomes a good starting point.”

The AF range Tilak stocks is a mixture of artisan beers like Edinburgh-based Brulo, but he also supplements them with big beer’s 0% editions. In fact his most popular AF can at the moment is Jupiler 0%, which he predicted would sell well because it was priced competitively and had such a good taste.

And there, in a nutshell, are your two modern Asian shopkeepers: Tilak and Singh know their industry inside out and have used that intel to become craft beer trailblazers. The stereotype of the monosyllabic brown shopkeeper does not live on in anyone who visits these two shops. They may work at opposite ends of London, but they have so many wonderful beers in common.

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