Friday 6 August 2010

Musing the Market

It has been a very busy and varied couple of weeks. Improvements to the brewery progress, we've been getting our beers out to people that we have promised them to and of course the Great British Beer Festival saw a massive and worthwhile distraction.

Yesterday I woke up thinking about the procreation of yeast, which is odd, as primeval physiological instinct of my own procreation used to be my normal morning distraction. I awoke unusually early which was handy as I had a lot to do. The yeast subject was catalysed by the discovery of my American friend's beer presence on Bières Sans Frontières at the festival. The two main thrusts, if you'll pardon further reproductive connection, of my considerations of this were; 1. Why does his beer taste the way it does? 2. How come Ted, who is 8 time zones away and has been brewing less time than me, has his beer at GBBF already? The second question I'll come to further down, but the first was what woke me up and will be the subject of another post, promise.

However, before I could get around to writing this post we had beer to deliver beer and an install to do at a pub. Along with our cask ale beer we are starting to supply various interesting beers to pubs that would like to do something interesting. The Queens at Biggar on Walney Island has been closed for over a year. Two delightfully enthusiastic ladies have bought the place and have set about renovating it with supremely directed madness. Their attempts might or might not be foolhardy but recognising kindred determination we have committed to helping them to achieve their vision. They wanted Timmermans Kriek on draught. We can do that for them. They also wanted Mitchell Krause on draught, so we've been involved with that too. Of course there will be our cask beers available from time to time.

The owners have gone, quite sensibly in my opinion, for multiple suppliers. We will have to sit alongside Bank Top, Veltins, Stoweford Press and Grolsh as well as Hawkshead. To be honest it is the last in that list that I worry about most from a competitive point of view; Hawkshead make damn good beer. Having had my run-ins with Alex Brodie, the owner, I hope we have put this behind us after several pints together resulting in frank discussion and a realisation that perhaps we have quite a lot in common, even if neither of us want to admit it.

It is not the first time Hardknott and Hawkshead beers have sat on the same bar and I hope not the last. Progressive and interesting beers are likely to succeed by learning to get along, and even perhaps helping each other out; I connected the cooling jackets on the Hawkshead pumps on this occasion, there you go Alex, I do hope you approve.

At GBBF most of us beer geeks, bloggers and twitteratti assembled near BSF. Frankly, it's where most of the beer is that we want to seek out. We may well not represent the majority of the beer market and it is important for us to remember that. However, I don't travel 300 miles to try some clone of a "traditional" recipe, frankly, I can get that at home. I go to find like minded people and search for great, progressive beer.

Sid Boggle considers this on his blog. I seem to have been mistakenly included in some of the best brewing talent around, but apart from this point, the piece is interesting and provoking. I'm still trying to understand the beer market and exploring what is said I must consider further. A key issue for me is exactly why people buy beer and what type of beers interest the various types of beer enthusiasts.

Cumbria did achieve one award at GBBF; Beckstones got bronze in the Strong Bitters category. David Taylor is a very diligent brewer and the consistency and cleanliness of his product shows through. In 2008 he also got overall silver in Champion Beer of Britain with Black Gun Dog Freddie. David's brewery is the closest geographically to mine, begging the question of the sense in me thinking I can survive in a declining market with such competition around.

However, despite there being a significant number of breweries in Cumbria, many of whom I think brew technically competent beer, is it only Beckstones1 that seems to win.

My conclusion, currently, is that the beer market in Cumbria is not particularly progressive. The beers chosen at local level to represent Cumbria don't show off all the best beers, in my humble opinion. The personal preferences of local CAMRA branches have to be an influence.

There must also be an influence as a result of the style of market in The Lakes. Most breweries are pushing the fact that they produce local traditional ale, made with traditional ingredients, you know, British Marris Otter and English hops and made with Lake District water. Beer miles and quaffability being the main selling points; after all, if you are on a walking holiday in The Lakes you want a piece of the locale that will slake your thirst. Interesting flavours cost more and have minimum impact on sales.

The rest of the County, the industrial belt around the outside, is also steeped in tradition. Insular and lacking progressive thinking; the majority of the drinking population secure in it's contentment. Quite unlike the forward thinking alternative beer community I have come to love in Sheffield, London, Leeds and other big cities.

The fact that Cumbria rarely wins much at GBBF, despite having a high number of breweries and beers to choose from, might be partly due to the fact that we need to do better at brewing, but the choices put forward at local level do appear to be mired in local branch politics and the Cumbrian palate having a fondness for all that is bland. I'm not convinced that the best beers are put forward.

After all, despite my aforementioned rivalry with Hawkshead, I feel their absence tells a story; they are probably one of the best breweries in Cumbria right now, but not one of their beers was represented.

Furthermore, the fact that BSF provides such a fantastic array of esoteric beers, very few progressive UK breweries can showcase beer at this, the key beer event of the year in the UK. I can imagine that in years to come there is likely to be an increase of fringe beer events in the capital that will cater more for the beer geek community. I suspect I will see you there and you never know, I might even be prepared to bury hatchets for anyone else who will join this journey.

1I am pleased Beckstones did well, and the fact the this brewery has already gained two awards in GBBF is good reason to carry on putting David's beers forward. Yes, I also know Coniston has been successful a few years ago and Great Gable did very well with Yewbarrow in the bottle section - I like this beer too.


rabidbarfly said...

You are one of the 'up and coming' brewers Dave, if not up and coming then certainly talented and trying to do the right things. Looking forward to more casks at the rake next time you guys are in London.

Sid Boggle said...

I didn't put it in my blog, but I checked out all of the boards on the UK bars when I did a proper walk-round, and it was a bit depressing to see so many 'usual suspect' beers on day one. I know that there'll be big changes on some bars through the week, and for some breweries it's a chance to get their 'signature' or most popular beers in front of a wider trade audience and drinking public, but I only found a handful of new breweries whose beer I'd never heard of.
As for Hardknott, I meant every word. Little acorns, David, little acorns...

Brew_monkey said...

I've stopped wishing to get my beer down there, or indeed wondering how breweries get nominated for GBBF. CAMRA are after all a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers and promoting our small craft breweries is down to us. Personally i'd rather grow my place organically, let drinkers discover us, have a group of appreciative landlords that i can support than end up winning an award which puts so much presure on a business that contracting production out is the only way to cope. With nine breweries in Sheffield it amazes me how the same old same old get chosen for GBBF though but i guess CAMRA have their favourites just like everyone else. Maybe i don't have glory aspirations so i don't really care, or maybe i've just got used to the feeling of bitter disapointment each time i don't get asked. I'm certainly with you on the ale front Dave, i stayed well clear of all British ales and stuck to American, Dutch and Danish beers, much to the aggrivation of my liver i might add. And although in some respects it maybe easier to sell variations in style in Sheffield, the majority of landlords still want 3.8% bland ales because in their oppinion that is what sell better.

junklight said...

Speaking as a consumer of beer (and perhaps a nascent beer geek) I think you are spot on about the Lakes market. Apart from your own stuff and the excellent Hawkshead (Brodies Prime is a firm favourite) the only other ones that I quite like are the Coniston Old Man - and they have an Oat Stout or something (the name escapes me right now). Mr Pickthalls "sea of bland session ales" is definitely the norm here.

As for being one of the "up and coming" - don't go hiding your light under a bushel. Your Aether Blac beats Brewdogs Paradox hands down in my opinion and your Granite is quite extraordinary (and I am *really* doing my best not to drink the other three bottles and let them get old)

I'm looking forward to sampling your other wares when I get the chance....

StringersBeer said...

As you say, GBBFs Bières Sans Frontières showcases interesting, unfamiliar (and in some cases undrinkable) beer. Well done them, then. I wish I'd had time to go.

I think it maybe a tad unnecessary to worry that "local CAMRA branches" are in some way holding back "progressive" beer and brewers. I know that a perceived lack of transparency in the system causes concern to some beer enthusiasts outside CAMRA (and inside?).

But really you know, the selections for GBBF and for CBOB tastings (completely separate things of course) probably do represent, pretty well, the kinds of things that CAMRA members enjoy drinking. And that's how it should be isn't it? It's a members organisation - they're not some state-funded Beer Council.
(Now that's a horrible thought...)

Alistair Reece said...

Something that has been troubling my mind a little with regard to the international section of the GBBF is the lack of reciprocation from the Great American Beer Festival. From what I can see, and of course it is entirely their prerogative, but not a single foreign brewer will be in attendance.

Perhaps CAMRA in organising next year's GBBF should look for some kind of two way deal, and expose the American market to British real ale more? Remarkable as it might sound to a lot of British beer lovers, styles such as Bitter and Mild are practically unheard of over here and would be considered innovative, it would also be a great opportunity to showcase cask.

Shelagh said...

I'd love to make and sell loads of interesting, challenging beers. I'm looking forward to doing just that. All I need is a load of people who will actually BUY the stuff. It's an interesting debate. The trick seems to be to develop a recipe which is challenging and exciting AND to sell enough to make it worthwhile brewing so many times that it comes to the notice of the CAMRA committees AND at the same time make enough money brewing beer which the landlords and the drinkers want to drink to pay the mortgage.

Unknown said...

Ach, of course I'd like to think I'm up and coming, but I know I'm fallible too. It has been said that we need to be careful the beer geek market doesn't just become a load of enthusiastic brewers and some bloggers/tweeters to whom we have to give beer away to in order for our beer to be noticed. And become a self congratulatory institution that makes no money.

Al has a point about getting beer to the US, perhaps that is a start. I know at least one guy who resides up in the Cascade mountains would jump in his mouse ridden toboggan masquerading as a Jeep and drive all the was to Eugene just to buy some of my beer, there are perhaps more. But I digress into private jokes.

Finally Shelagh has a point in some ways. The best way to do it is to focus on as many sectors as is possible. My "interesting" beers go into bottles. The cask beers aim to be more middle of the road. Although I hope my cask beers are interesting too.

Alistair Reece said...


I am yet to try your beer, but have plenty of confidence in the opinions of those I know who have, and so I can assure you that you have such a willing market on both sides of the country, the Cascade mountains and the Blue Ridge!

Leigh said...

Interesting knowing your feelings about this, Dave. Brewing for pleasure and brewing for business are two entirely different things, and one must know your business/market inside out. Your fears/plans are all justified, I think. Interesting piece.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

They had Union Dew on gravity? It's much better with pump and sparkler.

doctor beer said...

Hey Dave. Just logged on to your blog.
Some dull beers at GBBF! But a few good ones - as you say they tended not to be British.
Interesting comments about cask beer in the Lakes I'm not sure that bland beer is specific to that area - rather everywhere!

But sadly,there weren't many beers brewed in Cumbria that I'd have gone out of my way for.
In reality a good percentage of the people who are drinking beer aren't local anyway, but holidaymakers.
I was brewing on a small scale near Kendal in 1980's with American hops and what I considered at the time a pale,hoppy beer. It was very very popular. The "locals" however did prefer Thwaites bitter!!

I'd say keep doing what you want to do - there are plenty of folk out there who want something more esoteric.Percentage terms of course almost zero.
Neil at Plain is an example - he's converted.It's a crusade!
One day I'll tell you about the local CAMRA branches....