Monday, 10 November 2014

A Beer For That - a brewer's view

"It’s a great time to be a beer drinker"- this, if anything, is a statement I have a huge amount of agreement with. The "Let There Be Beer" campaign has recently re-launched itself because the veneer of justification on its original incarnation was so thin as to be transparent. The campaign is mostly funded by large multinational corporations who's logos appear by default on the new site. There are then a splattering of smaller organisations which include national pub companies, regional brewers and some industry bodies. Unfortunately for me, it almost doesn't matter if everything they say I agree with, the sponsors are after only one thing; a return on the investment they are putting in, the agenda will be the same, irrespective of the thickness of pretence hiding the motivation.

Let's look at the statement that I agree with, why is it such a good time to drink beer? Is it because of these organisations? No, absolutely it isn't. It is the microbrewer that have nurtured and championed diversity and a move away from bland, homogeneous offerings. Even the "family brewers" who may well have helped keep cask beer alive, would much prefer to make a narrow range of beers as the economies of scale this affords gives a better return for share holders.

It is clear to me that even the family brewers would, if given a choice, use much blander and cheaper run-of-the-mill hops. It is only the actions of us micro brewers, and the support that the beer enthusiast has given us, that has enabled this explosion of great beer in the UK. It is us that have imported the idea of using much more flavoursome and exciting hops from the west cost of USA or New Zealand hops to create beers with stunning flavours. It is us that have brought forward those flavours as a major part of the beer, rather than as a blend to just spice up very slightly Fuggles and Goldings.

Over the last 10 or so years, since I've been involved with the beer industry, things have moved a long way. There is much more choice, much more diversity and some real changes have happened. This would never have happened without us micro brewers, independent pub owners and of course a good discerning and genuinely curious beer drinker. A demand for more diversity and interest from drinkers has in turn helped micro brewers flourish in a spectacular way.

This enlargement of drinkers curiosity and desire for something new and different has hit the big beer producers a double whammy. The much more interesting and diverse arena of wines and sprits, as well as RTDs1 have seen the consumer turn its back on less aspirational big brand beers. In turn micro brewers have also been eating at this market share.

We should look more closely at why beer is seeing a decline in overall volume. Although we could question if measuring success in terms of volume is a good thing, that is possibly another topic altogether. Beer, generally, is seen a a dirty, cheap mass produced commodity. Whether we like it or not this is probably the view of the vast majority of people. Beer is also still perceived as a masculine product, by and large. Yes, I know moves have been made to some extent in this area, but largely it remains the domaine of the microbrewer to even look at that subject, and even then, not all micro brewers look at it that way.

Make no doubt about it the chase for volume by big brewers and some smaller ones alike has cheapened beer to the point that it has no aspiration for a population that is nowadays much more educated and ambitious than we were 30 years ago. When I was in my teens around 10% of the population were gaining University degrees. It is now approaching 40%2 - we are an upwardly mobile population and we no longer want the offering of the big brand beers. The micro brewers have taken part of that market share and wine and spirits other parts. We can't turn the clock back, the future of beer is small batch producers like us. We can grow the beer market by ourselves, we don't need the help of the big boys who have messed it all up anyway.

Beer is now viewed in a poor light by many a demographic, and this is backed up by many a alcohol related harm article in papers featuring a picture of beer. Of course we can suggest that its all the fault of the press for this, but I'd not agree, and I shall try to explain why.

For many years the bigger beer producers have been interested in one thing and one thing only; volume. Look in the supermarkets, there are products from those big producers often brought in on pallets to sit in great big stacks on aisle ends. Apart from potatoes, I'm not sure there is any other products that are pilled quite so high as cut-price big-brand beers.

The advertising campaigns are largely macho imagery that does nothing to encourage discerning drinking. The big boys are now seeing that the hard work done by the craft beer producers, the micro brewers, the small batch breweries, is actually catching the imagination of the public. Now they want to jump on our bandwagon. Well I for one am not letting them on my bandwagon.

But we know that the sales volume of these beers is decreasing, and let us make no bones about it, if it wasn't for us smaller brewers making an impact there would be no way they would set to on an otherwise apparently altruistic PR campaign. Sorry, but I don't buy the "we're all in this falling beer volume mess thing together" story.

We're absolutely not in it together. The big brand multinational brewers have repeatedly and consistently ruined any variation, interest, aspiration, kudos or self respect for the beer industry. They have found that their volume chase tactics are now finding a backlash with punters who prefer something a bit more sophisticated. Punters who are disliking the macho orientated advertising and turning to craft beer, wine or artizanal spirits. Luckily for us, and other more refined areas of the drinks industry, we are seeing the benefits.

I also don't buy the idea that if we support this initiative the benefits will ripple through to us. For the big boys a few percent change in sales is a massive multimillion pound benefit. To us, supporting this initiative will be benefits that are lost in the noise, at best, and more likely representing us turning our backs on our core values.

Key to all of this is not to increase volume of beer sales overall, no, to me it is much more important to develop aspiration, interest, excitement, and a true added value that is tangible. Chasing volume will inevitably see a return to much more bland and uninteresting beers. We don't need people to drink more beer, we need people to be more discerning about what they drink. I am not interested in a few percentage points of sales growth off the back of a cynical "we're really interested in you little guys" sort of nonsense. We are looking at genuinely growing our business into a sustainable future, and we're doing that off the back of genuine concern to create genuinely stunning craft beer.

I haven't got a problem with people liking the campaign. Indeed, if you are the sort of person that thinks all beer is good, and there is no such thing as a bad beer, then go ahead and like the campaign. Just don't ask Hardknott to endorse it. I believe it is a trojan horse delivered in a way that says you mustn't look a gift horse in the mouth. Except these days, a horse that is only fit for the knackers yard will probably cost you more to get rid of than its worth as dog meat.

It seems there are a few people being hooked into its false promises. We mustn't loose sight of the fact that there is one motive and one motive alone that is driving this campaign. It is the desire of the big brewers, brewers much bigger than us, to drive their volume upwards. They are trying to convince me that if I get on board my volume will go up too. I don't agree, what will happen is we will see more "craft" brands from these bigger brewers once you have all taken the bait, and the big fluffy rug will be pulled from under our feet.

--------

1Ready to drink - you know, alchopops etc.
2It is hard to be sure of a citation for the figures I give here - for a start, Polytechnics converting to Universities have caused blips in the figures. Figures from the 80s are anecdotal from my memory back when I was considering degree education myself . However, there is a report that shows that in 1992 17% of the population were graduates compared to 38% in 2013 - that's more than doubling in 20 years. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_337841.pdf


28 comments:

StringersBeer said...

What do you think about medium sized brewers (regional / family)? Are they in the business of pulling the rug from under "our" feet? What would you call a small "craft" brewer who elects to collaborate with them?

Dave Bailey said...

Stringers,

I included a paragraph on that very subject in the draught of this post. I have consulted the team here on this whole subject and they have all signed off on this final version. As it stands this is then genuine Hardknott stance on the subject.

We decided to cut the parts that referred to our collaborations with breweries larger than us. We do have a view on the subject, but decided for the time being not to air that view.

What I will say is that the family/regional brewers sit between us and the big boys. Between a rock and a hard place? They have their own reasons for signing up. It's the boys at the top we need to worry about.

Chris Hall said...

"We can grow the beer market by ourselves, we don't need the help of the big boys who have messed it all up anyway."

Entirely my thoughts too, Dave. This is a great post and very well-reasoned.

Rob said...

I wouldn't expect you to support it but what harm do you think this campaign will do you?

Dave Bailey said...

Rob,

The harm is that it risks pushing us back out of the market. The campaign is designed to try and gain the trust of various groups of beer drinkers, including enthusiasts. It seems to be working.

A Trojan Horse. Once they have your trust, my trust, and the trust of other people, just wait, there will be more brands like Blue Moon. More takeovers like Sharps and Goose Island. There will be takeovers and then closures as a rationalisation of the industry is embarked upon. Before long we'll be back to having a choice of only 6. A dilution of independence.

Do you really trust them? I don't.

StringersBeer said...

Sorry Dave, but you seem to want it both ways: You'll work with anyone (it seems) if you think it helps you (and why not?), but you want to be on some big brewer bashing bandwaggon at the same time. Dissing the big boys for "volume" & "supermarkets" when a little more than a week ago you were sharing your plans, here, for Hardknott's move into the same thing.

Me, I've got nothing against the campaign. It seems to be saying that beer's broadly a good thing. I can't not agree with that.

Dave Bailey said...

You've got the first bit right, of course, we'll work with what we think is best for us.

We, like some other notable craft brewers, are looking at supermarkets. Yes, we'd like a little more volume and at the same time make our beers more available to people who want them. This is absolutely not the same thing as siding with big, massive multinational brewers. Not in the slightest.

I often question who we should, or shouldn't collaborate with. Have they always been good for us? A debatable point on the whole.

But Stringers, I get baffled at your approach to comments on my blog. We are not that much different to you. Yes, we have slightly more staff than you, but we are far too little at the moment to make a real sustainable future.

We're just trying to do the same as you should be doing; fighting our corner. I'm not sure how questioning my policy is helping you to do the same. If you can't see the harm that this campaign might also cause Stringers then I'd suggest you look a bit more closely.

StringersBeer said...

Dave, my brewery is so small that this whole thing will have absolutely zero impact on me. It would be like a pigeon worrying about the impact of the rollout of fibre broadband on my message carrying business. And anyway, like you said when I pondered a couple of years ago on the issue of the corporates going crafty (as we say nowadays), "we should stop spending so much time worrying".

Phil said...

1992 is precisely the year that the polys turned into universities - I work at an ex-poly, more politely known as a 'post-92 institution'. There's certainly been expansion in student numbers since (say) 1993, but whether it amounts to doubling is another question. (Or rather, there certainly was expansion in numbers - the trend's in reverse now.)

Nitpicks aside, I think you may or may not be missing the bigger picture (I'll explain what I mean by that). The bigger context of this campaign is the denormalisation of beer as an ordinary, everyday drink - a default drink, something you just have because you fancy something to drink. And the context for that is the bigger denormalisation of alcoholic drinks in general - one sign of which is the storm the original LTTB campaign ran into for daring to suggest that drinking beer was fun. I think that progressive denormalisation has far more to do with the decline in beer sales than some kind of consumer rebellion against boring, identikit beer (as welcome as that would be). It's a threat to beer in general, and a campaign for beer in general is a big part of what's needed to push back against it.

It may be that you (collectively!) agree with all of this and welcome the decline of Big Beer - the craft sector will certainly decline more slowly, and will probably carry on growing for a while. But I think a "big fish in a small pond" strategy would be very short-sighted. The neo-prohibitionists haven't only got the big breweries in their sights (BD's clashes with Portman weren't all manufactured) - they'll get round to you in their own good time. "First they came for the Carling drinkers..."

Dave Bailey said...

Stringers, I think my position has changed a little from a couple of years ago. I've rubbed shoulders with brewery type people big and small from all over the world. Some of it has been useful, some of it not. Some, I believe, has been positively damaging. Of course, I'll always keep assessing that position, but that is the way I feel at the current time.

Phil, if we want to look at the big picture, why just focus on beer? I thought the whole point of the campaign was to try to temp people away from wine and spirits. Personally, if people don't want to drink good small batch produced beer then I'd be happier if they went off and drank good whisky or whine than something made by soulless multi-nationals.

If we want a campaign that tackles the neo-prohibitionists as a united alcohol industry then perhaps I'd think about it.

Rob said...

Sorry Dave, I still don't get it. I understand you want to question their motives, but I just don't see what the trojan horse is in this campaign. I don't drink AbInbev stuff because I don't trust their motives, but because it doesn't taste nice. If they did make stuff that tasted nice then I would drink some of it.

I can understand you getting worried by multinationals getting more into the craft sector. I'm sure there will be buy outs, and more 'crafty' beers released. But what has that got to do with this advert?

Rob said...

Doh, too many negatives, should read:

" I don't drink AbInbev stuff not because I don't trust their motives, but because it doesn't taste nice."

StringersBeer said...

Every time someone says "Blue Moon" there's a little voice whispers "Pilsner Urquell".

Dave Bailey said...

Rob,

The advert itself is not the thing that bothers me. I quite happy that they do whatever they want in terms of advertising. What bothers me is the fact that I am asked to endorse it. To help out even. I'm not going to do that.

I stake my business, my lively hood and even the value of my house on being different to all of that. It strikes me that my unique selling point is that we do something very different to the big mass producers. What irks me is the fact that I'm told behind the scenes that I mustn't shout about the things that make my brewery, my beers, my staff, and our ethos different.

They want to draw me into their homogenous nonsense. I don't want to be the same. I want to be different. I want to stand up for truly great beer and not have someone else's idea of what beer should be stamped all over all the hard work we've put in.

Stringers, you might have to elaborate on your meaning there with the mention of Pilsner Urquell.

Matthew Curtis said...

Great post Dave, it's great to see someone from within the industry reiterating my own feelings about this campaign.

rob said...

You're "told behind the scenes"!? Who's doing that and why do would you care? And is someone dares try that sort of shit on, why don't you call them publicly on it?

Ed said...

Dave, 'good whisky' is mainly produced by 'soulless multi-nationals'.

Dave Bailey said...

Ed,

I understand your point, but I think you miss mine. Whisky is seen as aspirational. Besides, there is the point that there is a growing interest in overturning the fact you point out within the whisky enthusiasts arena. Bladnoch, for instance, has been bought back and brought into action by private enterprise, despite barriers put in the way by big industry.

I'm not just a brewer. I've spent more time in business as a publican. As a publican I am less interested in selling people beer and more interested in selling them an experience, a concept, something that has much more value than just the liquid in the glass. Indeed, Hardknott is much more than just the beer. We are a concept, a dream and an ethos.

As a publican I stock quality products with the aim of providing an experience that appeals to an aspirational customer. The choice of wines and spirits is key to tha, as well as the beer. And yes, I do consider the business ethos behind each and every product. The choice isn't always made easy because the products I'd like to stock can sometimes suffer from diverse routes to market. This troubles us too, because wholesalers are looking for limited ranges of products they can sell in volume, hence seeing the ubiquitous brands. The big boys push us out in many different and diverse ways.

Be it food, drink or music, I am in the market of providing something very different to the run-of-the-mill experience. In so doing I'd like to try and buck trends. This puts me at logger heads with concepts like "There's a beer for that" because of its desire to generate ultimately an homogenous and "harmonious" beer market. i.e. flat and boring.

The conflict that occurs in the beer industry are good, and I've recently made the choice to go ahead and create much more conflict, as I think this is what is required, not a sit back and go "hey, isn't beer lovely, we should love it all"

Whisky is good, even though a large number of distilleries are owned by bigger companies, and don't get me started on Diagio, there is a much greater diversity by the fact that the sills are often small, and whisky has to be kept in oak for at least 3 years to be called whisky. This inherently adds a value, whether you think that value is worth it or not, and that value creates aspiration that the beer industry has repeatedly and consistently refused to permit.

I am one of a few people who wants to add aspiration to beer.

Tandleman said...

Fair points Dave. In some ways. Still boils down to getting people to drink beer. You can't get aspiration into beer without that.

Are you really saying though that the ethos of this campaign is that during it no-one should promote their own business?

Dave Bailey said...

Tandy, yes, there is a sinister undertone to the ethos that is trying to deter us micro-breweries from shouting out their USP (unique selling point) - that we are different to big brand producers. This is what makes us good. This is what we do best, is to be different from mass produced beer. We mustn't be afraid to say that we are different. But they want us to stop saying that we are different.

"It's Just Beer"

StringersBeer said...

Seriously Dave? Someone actually "asked [you] to endorse it" on condition that you didn't "shout about" your own business?

Dave Bailey said...

Stringers, yes, people are all the trying to dissuade me from shouting about my business.

People who are heading up multinational corporations are clever people. The way they frame their arguments are meant to sound like they are doing me a favour. They are not.

Moreover, what is your motive for commenting here Stringers? It seems to be to dissuade me from doing what I do best.

StringersBeer said...

My motive? You set off my BS detector is what ;-) And the persecutory delusion alarm: "people are all the trying to dissuade me from shouting about my business" - You shout away. But I thought it was the making of beer that you did best. (better than them, anyway).

Dave Bailey said...

Stringers, I do hope you are not calling me a lier?

I tell it the way I see it. And yes, the part of the motive behind the original "LEt There Be Beer" campaign was very transparent; make all beer appear to be the same and stop these little upstarts from pointing out that actually, big brand beer is rubbish.

This new campaign is a little more cleverly camouflaged, but the motives behind it haven't changed.

And yes, big people have talked to me about what I should and should not say, so don't go calling me a lier.

StringersBeer said...

No Dave, of course I'm not calling you a liar. I'm sorry if you though I was. And I apologise for giving you that impression.

I'm just doing the Internet "Pics or It Didn’t Happen" thing. Name names. It would make a much better story.

The motive behind this campaign has to be to sell more beer. Things being what they are, the huge majority of that extra beer will be that sold by big brewers. A tiny teensy bit might be yours (or mine). I don't believe it stops us selling our delicious beer in the way we want to.

Dave Bailey said...

I doubt it'll make any positive contribution at all, to be honest. And as I've said, likely a negative one to you and me.

Rob said...

Dave, why don't you name names? Or actually describe what was said to you? At the moment it is all very vague.

Dave Bailey said...

Rob, I meet people from all levels in the brewing industry. Writers, brewers, brewery owners, leaders of the Let There Be Beer Campaign and even occasionally the CEOs from these large multinational conglomerates. They know me by name more than I know them by name. This is not bullshit, but just the truth.

The conversations are helpful to me. Sometimes I am taken into their trust and in return I get truly helpful market insights. Sometimes I get fead full of bullshit. However, to a man these people do not, I believe, take me for an idiot, and I retain a level of respect and professionalism with them.

It is possible what I have already said here undermines a trust that I think I have gained with some people.

To name anyone or to quote what they have said would be a breaking of confidence I am not comfortable with, and may limit the usefulness of future conversations.