Sunday, 12 December 2010

The ever-fragmenting beer-world

Just over a year ago, the other side of his 50 week reign as beer writer of the year 2009, Pete Brown complained about fighting within the beer industry. I could see why he felt it was a problem, although some weeks later he then accused us bloggers of becoming complacent and boring. I notice that in that post I was number 7 in the Wikio rankings. I'm now 13th which is simply due to a much lower number of postings this year. I could blame Pete for confusing me and creating my reduced frequency of blogging, after all, one minute he wants us to stop arguing about the issues and the next he wants us to start again. I'm kidding of course, I've just been busy and now I am trying to ramp up my blogging frequency.

I've always been more interested in writing about the issues surrounding beer rather than writing about a specific beer and how awesome it might be. I do sometimes think about writing a bit about beer and food matching; I think I could be quite good if I only put my mind to it. But, the things that are bound to get me most fired up are the various issues surrounding beer, beer drinking, brewing, pubs and the way various people perceive all of this.

This post was inspired by the piece in The Publican by Caroline Nodder which seems to be somewhat scathing about the current phase of modern brewing. BrewDog are of course named, and as much as I don't wish to be labelled as another BrewDog fan club blogger, they are going to feature in this post a little as well. Tandleman posts in response to Caroline too.

When Pete complained about the beer industry fighting with itself I understood what he was saying. At the same time I felt a little worried that some of the issues he claimed we shouldn't be fighting about were the very issues I myself was concerned about. We all have our own perspectives on these things and being able to discuss them is no bad thing. So its good that he later said, we should tackle issues again.

This is the thing; we have to be able to be open, we have to be brave enough to discuss what we feel about our own view of the beer world. Caroline of course does that with her attack on the beer geek world, I don't agree with her particularly, but perhaps I'll come back to that later, as certainly there are some points to pick up. To me, and this is the key thing, it highlights a broadening of the beer industry in a most exciting and provocative way, that can only be a good thing, providing we can all learn to get along rather than feel the need to get the digs in.

BrewDog has had a go at SIBA1 earlier this year. I'm with them all the way. It is perhaps something that comes out on this blog from time to time; the fact that I have a suspicion that the organisation has matured into something that is less than entirely useful to the micro-brewer. SIBA, as one commentator has put it to me, the Society of Increasingly Bad Acronyms. It would seem the club likes things the way they are and new comers are not particularly welcome, especially if they seem to be having some success. Even worse if they question what is happening.

So it seems to be the case across the industry. BrewDog find themselves in a fight with SIBA, the beer geeks run hot and cold about them and many ask why they want to be as big as they are getting anyway. This comes from the same people who support similar larger breweries who would fail were it not for the tie system. Or the same people who fight for the survival of long since milked-to-death brands that would be better off left to pass into history with dignity. The same people who fight to keep pubs open despite the fact that it is obvious that the market is shifting and some will inevitably shut as a new wave of Indie Beer Bars open up in Sheffield, London, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

I love cask beer and I love the old fashioned country pub. I don't particularly care for the type of pub that manifests itself in town and city centres. Some are still good I'll grant you, but it takes an exceptional one to impress me. The reader might like them, that's fine, good for you, but beware of hanging onto a bygone age that has a limited future. There is a danger, and it worries me, when observations are made about the beer world having too much reverence for the very substance that we care about. Is it really just a low down drink that shouldn't be described with passion? Is it really just a middle of the road drink suitable for the common man only? Does it only deserve to be found in seedy places, so low is its self esteem? Are we, the writers who care about it, not allowed to use whatever language we want to describe it to the very people who we believe should be able to understand it well: educated intellects with refined palates who may well like home-made scotch eggs, but would never dream of putting ketchup on them? Or perhaps we are too scared that we might actually end up being bettered?

Of course the vast majority of beer made will be made by the large brewers. I don't care about that. Some of them actually prove to me that they care as much as I do, and I hope I give them a nod when I think they deserve it. Even if it is not by making great beer, but caring about me the beer drinker - although normally caring about the beer drinker does result in better than just acceptable beer.

This brings me to promotion of the product. Many beer communicators complain about the way that beer is promoted. Perhaps it is done in a sexist way, perhaps it is silly childish puerile fashion that undermines the seriousness that beer deserves. Or perhaps, as BrewDog does, it is brash and sensationalist and sometimes even offensive. The fact is, it is not good enough just to brew great beer. I know many brewers who brew beer better than me but are stuck because they can't, or perhaps don't want to promote more than they do. If they are happy that way then great, leave them be. However, building a brand is about making a good product and telling people about it, somehow and in the most cost effective way. BrewDog might well be sensationalist with their marketing, but they also make beer that is good, and because they don't actually spend much on advertising their brand, they have more money to spare to make the product good. Why do we hate that so much?

What of the brewers that want to make bigger waves? Like BrewDog, perhaps like me? Are we somehow wrong to want to get our names out there? I don't think so. Publicity stunts are the best and probably only way to do it. I bet many in the music industry hated Richard Branson when he started Virgin Records, but look, whatever you think of the brand now, it probably wouldn't be where it is without the occasional record breaking balloon flight.

What is wrong exactly with making the strongest beer in the world? Or for that matter any other gimicky product enhancement. Every industry does it, like for instance, putting bubbles in confectionary? Why do we think we shouldn't have a bit of exciting diversification in the beer world, we don't have to believe it will ever become mainstream, but if it adds interest then why should we be scared of it?

I like the increasing diversification and the challenging of perceptions that we are seeing. I like the fact that some regional brewers are scared that at least some of the "breweries in sheds" kick out some good stuff and are taking part of the market share. It is also good that some long established brewers understand this and don't join in with the try-and-kick-the-new-idea, but instead go for the I'll-have-a-bit-of-that-too approach.

So, by all means lets have the discussions, it's good. The sparklers argument and the cask verses keg argument will continue for ever I suspect. The best way to describe a particular beer is perhaps a more important one but we will never agree and choosing between good quality and imaginative beer descriptions, accessible beer tasting notes or simple and condescending pictures of noses, eyes and mouths I'm sure will divide us for some time to come. What we expect from a pub or bar, how to market beer and many more important discussions should take place. But why do we have to have a delineation across the beer world and keep falling out over it? We're on the same side are we not? Are we not all beer enthusiasts in some way or another? There is another type of beer drinker, I call them pissheads.

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1There is background to this on the BrewDog blog.

34 comments:

Ed said...

I'm a beer enthusiast and a piss head myself so I wouldn't go for that delineation either!

I couldn't find any reference to SIBA in your Brew Dog link - am I missing something?

HardKnott Dave said...

Ed, sorry, you are right. I've changed the link to the more appropriate Publican story, in which there is a link to the background information about why they dislike SIBA.

Ed said...

But surely "certain Scottish SIBA members" and "SIBA" are very different things?

HardKnott Dave said...

Ed, Surely the members of an organisation are what make it?

But besides that, perhaps you are right about the piss-head delineation. I suspect I am too, it's just that I prefer to have my beer taste of something when I get pissed.

ZakAvery said...

I agree with everything you say Dave, the only thing I'd take issue with is "...the market is shifting and some will inevitably shut as a new wave of Indie Beer Bars open up in Sheffield, London, Aberdeen and Edinburgh".

You make that sound like a cause and effect thing as though (as I pointed out on Tandleman's blog) drinking or talking about Moor JJJ is doing a disservice to Old Hooky. We, the drinkers, are sophisticated enough to be able to enjoy both of these. Either I want an Old Hooky, or I want a JJJ - they're not competing for space on my shelves or on my palate - I want both of them. Crap pubs are closing for a variety of reasons, but I don't believe that it's because great 'niche', 'craft', or (god forbid) 'boutique' beer bars are opening.

And as for pissheads, well, like the plurality of making space for both Old Hooky and JJJ IPA, we can also enjoy getting drunk on nichecraftboutique beers, can't we?

HardKnott Dave said...

Zak, totally, that's my point. Beer is good, and diverse, we should embrace that.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

Frank's Hot Sauce is the correct dip for a scotch egg, not ketchup.

Whorst said...

I'm a bit of a piss artist myself. I take pride that I can drink you geeks under the table with a style and ease.
There are not many that can hang with me. HardKnott Dave probably has some stamina, but even he would probably shit himself when in company with the West Coast legend that is Wurst. Lets face it, you're writers, not proper beer drinkers.

HardKnott Dave said...

BUL180, Franks Hot Sauce may well be good for a Red Neck's mass produced scotch egg, but for my home made Cumberland Scotch Egg your sauce would mask the delicate nutmeg and mace spices in the sausage meat.

Whorst, this sounds like a gauntlet has been thrown down - I trust you will be coming back to our Kingdom sometime?

Phil said...

we have to be brave enough to discuss what we feel about our own view of the beer world

Don't complain when I slag off beers you like...

why do we have to have a delineation across the beer world and keep falling out over it?

...but don't slag off the beers that I like!

I found this post incredibly tendentious and one-sided (as pleas for open-mindedness and tolerance often are). I mean, who has actually said that beer is or should be a middle of the road drink suitable for the common man only or that it only deserve[s] to be found in seedy places?

I believe good beer should be available to ordinary people in ordinary pubs, and I would like to see town pubs becoming less seedy places (I've seen it happen). I think it's a complete fallacy that the people "able to understand" beer are "educated intellects with refined palates". Unless you're adopting the Meantime model of selling incredibly sophisticated versions of beer as an elite luxury good, in which case it's a self-fulfilling prophecy - you can bet that anyone able to pay £15 a bottle on a regular basis will have a tremendously refined palate, or at least think they have.

HardKnott Dave said...

Thanks for your comments Phil, there is perhaps a fine line between slagging off the beers that others like and having a constructive discussion about it.

I think there is a lot of good beer readily available in many pubs. There is also a lot of rubbish beer in very many more pubs.

However, perhaps I have failed to get across what I mean by people who appreciate good beer. I am not in anyway suggesting that the poor uneducated masses, if indeed such a demographic exists anymore in the UK, can't understand good beer.

There does seem to be an underlying feeling from some sectors of the beer world that beer should not have an upmarket sector. Meantime for instance is proof that upmarket beer can happen. What's wrong with that? Is it overpriced nonsense? Of course I don't think so, but if you do then you are entitled to that view. If that makes beer more accessible to more people, including posh people who have more money than sense, than in my book that is good.

The premium end of the beer market is never going to be mainstream, if it were it would not be premium anymore. A bit like BMW really - I remember when someone who owned a BMW was very well off. Now BMW are incredibly ubiquitous and so have lost their prestige. (Or perhaps everyone is much more well off than we used to be) If the motor world didn't appreciate Ferrari because everyone should have access to some sort of car then it would be an odd world.

So, let us carry on slagging of the beers each of us like, but increase our understanding of each others perspective.

The Beer Wrangler said...

As the craft beer world grows, the organisations, (like CAMRA and SIBA) need to grow with it or else they will become sidelined. Brewdog have done more to raise the profile of Craft Brewing in Britain than anyone else. Over here in Canada they are probably the best known modern craft brewer and are introducing a new generation of North Americans to British Beer

StringersBeer said...

With you on Cyclops Dave - it's really patronising. Will BD be getting their beers "Cyclopsed" now?
Since: "As you well know Enterprise Inns are the biggest customer of SIBA DDS, and they have [...] announced that [...] all ales that Brewers wish to be listed with them must be Cyclops accredited."

HardKnott Dave said...

Stringers, I suspect they will have to be Cyclopsed. I do hope they give James a sedative, whatever you might think of him, he doesn't deserve that sort of treatment fully conscious.

Phil said...

I am not in anyway suggesting that the poor uneducated masses, if indeed such a demographic exists anymore in the UK

Have you been in a Wetherspoons lately?

can't understand good beer

Good. Have you been in a Wetherspoons lately? (They're selling all those beers to someone, and it can't all be visiting tickers.)

Meantime for instance is proof that upmarket beer can happen. What's wrong with that? Is it overpriced nonsense?

Much, much worse than that - it's overpriced good beer. I work part-time (not by choice) and I really resent being told that I can't afford to buy a good bottle of beer. The drift towards premium products at premium prices strikes me as a very bad thing.

HardKnott Dave said...

Phil, they are premium products at premium prices. The ingredients cost more, the processes cost more.

Meantime condition all their beers for a minimum of one month, the cost of owning enough stainless steel, and the space to locate it, is significant by itself.

All markets are going to have a premium end to it. Why should beer not be the same as other markets?

You are effectively saying that it IS a middle of the road drink suitable for the common man only. Where we came in. This discussion is going to go round in circles.

Really good beer really does cost more.

Tandleman said...

"Really good beer really does cost more."

I'd have been happier if there was a couple of qualifiers in that sentence. I've had plenty really good beer that doesn't. And plenty of not so good "premium beer" that does.

Phil said...

You are effectively saying that it IS a middle of the road drink suitable for the common man only.

Where do you get "middle of the road" or "common man"? What I'm saying is that it's possible to brew some mind-blowingly wonderful stuff without going down the ultra-premium route, and without charging punters an arm and a leg. I think great beer at affordable prices is a Good Thing - and for the idea to get about that great beer goes with silly prices would be a very Bad Thing, particularly if we care about the numbers of people who drink decent beer.

I'm afraid Meantime are heading up a dead end - and they won't notice for some time, because (a) they'll get enough punters to make it pay and (b) those punters will be only too willing to tell them how wonderful the beer is and how well suited it is to sophisticated palates like what they got.

HardKnott Dave said...

Tandleman, totally agree that price and quality are not always appropriately linked.

Phil, not withstanding that comment to Tandleman, in my view totally exceptional beer is always going to carry a higher price tag. Is Meantime priced appropriately? That is for you to decide.

Reasonably priced beer will probably only ever be reasonably good.

Ghost Drinker said...

Good Points there Dave. You've gotta love a bit of drama!! it makes life so much more fun and interesting.

Phil said...

Reasonably priced beer will probably only ever be reasonably good.

Not in my experience.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

‘Reasonably priced beer will probably only ever be reasonably good.’

Eh? So where does that leave the likes of BrewDog’s bottled beers in the supermarkets, which are reasonably priced, or Harvey’s Best Bitter in the pub, which is hardly premium priced and so on.

HardKnott Dave said...

Ghost, Ill have to confess to enjoying this little bit of drama.

Phil, perhaps we have to agree to disagree then.

Adrian, the reasonably priced BrewDog beer in supermarkets is only what I'd class as reasonably good beer, at the top end of this bracket I'll grant. Their exceptional beer is the likes of AB:04. Have you tried it yet? It's really very good indeed.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

I had one of the AB’s, but not the 4 so not qualified to comment, but the point I have a problem with is that you seem to be arguing that the more expensive a beer the better it is, which, if one wanted to be tedious, could then takes us to the debate about what is good beer. Then it’s back to the medieval monastery for a good debate about how angels you can get on a pin.

HardKnott Dave said...

Adrian,

We seem to be confusing two issues here.

What Phil and I have been discussing, at least this is my understanding, is whether ANY beer can be expensive. I say it can and Phil seems to me to be saying no beer should be.

Why a beer can be expensive might well be a moot point. Whisky and wine can be expensive simply due to its rarity value. A very quick search found me a whisky at £50,000 a bottle.

Is it worth it? not to me, but possibly someone might think so.

I agree very much that what makes a good beer is open to interpretation. Is Meantime beer worth what they are asking? I don't know as I have never looked at the price of their beer. But, judging by the success of Meantime enough people think they are worth it.

I do not see why anyone should have a problem with breweries or bars charging what their business model demands. If someone doesn't like it then ignore it - just like I ignore Gucci Shoes

HardKnott Dave said...

Just for good measure, here is a better link to the whisky that is a very silly price.

Phil said...

What Phil and I have been discussing, at least this is my understanding, is whether ANY beer can be expensive.

No, that's not what I thought we were arguing about. There are lots of reasons why a beer is expensive: the brewer has blown the profits in advance on marketing, the brewery has eccentrically chosen to set up in the middle of Chelsea and needs to pay the rent, or (more respectably) the beer has expensive ingredients and an expensive manufacturing process.

What I thought we were arguing about was whether there's any correlation between price and quality: will a very good beer generally also be a very expensive beer? I'm saying that this hasn't been true in the past, and I really wish people weren't trying to make it come true in future.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

I don’t have a problem with the pricing of beer, five years ago I spent 15 quid on a bottle of Deus which I still have, but the chain of thought seemed to imply that you thought that only expensive beer was good, I could open my Deus tomorrow and match it against a fresh pint of Proper Job in my local and the PJ might win — when I used to drink wine I’ve paid money for what I would have thought were good vintages and been sorely disappointed, but I would quali at paying 50k for a bottle of whisky even if I had the money, there comes a stage when prices gets silly, bit like a million quid cars or a 5k phone I saw an article about, that’s just vulgar.

HardKnott Dave said...

Phil, lets rewind a little shall we;

"The drift towards premium products at premium prices strikes me as a very bad thing."

Why? Because premium quality should be available to everyone? Why should the beer market be a special case?

Adrian, I totally agree. Price does not ensure quality. There is a correlation though, for the reasons Phil has stated. But of course, as you have already suggested, we could argue forever about what is good beer.

RedNev said...

As an experienced drinker, I have never seen any correlation whatsoever between beer price and quality.

HardKnott Dave said...

Nev, I don't know how our relative drinking experiences compare, but I do notice that there is a link.

Of course, we do have to be careful not to confuse the variations caused by the venue we drink in. I see the supply price as the measure. The on-sale price is governed by the very real added-value that is applied by the venue. That is a whole different issue all together.

RedNev said...

The on-sale price is also influenced by the extent to which the Pub Co rips off the licensee.

StringersBeer said...

Dave, I know this has been covered somewhat over here but it's not easy for me to let this pass - you may very well have the "suspicion that [SIBA] has matured into something that is less than entirely useful to the micro-brewer", but what do you do about it?

You don't join it, even though you'd be welcome to, even though your heroes (by which I mean Brewdog of course) are doing (have done?).

I have my reservations about SIBA, but I'm a member, so if I had the time I could do something through the internal democratic processes to change it. Indeed that's one of the problems - the smaller brewers don't usually have the time, they're too busy brewing, it's only the bigger businesses who can have the luxury of investing staff time in the running of the organisation. For the benefit I get from that - thanks. (In fairness, some smaller brewers have been very active.)

It's very easy to subscribe to the idea that there are entrenched interests making it hard for the brewing mavericks to get the access and the recognition they deserve, but really, SIBA? These are the people whose hard work might well be giving BD access to the Enterprise estate. Which those radical iconoclasts seem to want so much, that they're happy to cosy up with the people they claim to have bad-mouthed them.
I mean (as they say), come on.

HardKnott Dave said...

Stringers, I understand what you are saying, but I doubt I'm going to change anything if I join.

I fully accept my feelings towards SIBA might be unfair, but that's the way I feel. I should also point out that these feelings were there before BrewDog came out and said what they did. You wouldn't have to look far to find the beer writer that was there the day I had a strong discussion about it in a pub near here.

I write about what I see in the industry. I write about it the way I see it. Rightly or wrongly that is what I do and I doubt that will change if I join SIBA.

Most importantly I welcome your comments in return and value your opinion. You might even convince me to change my opinion, as Ed in his comments may do also.