Monday, 20 December 2010

Guest beer syndrome

The various discussions in recent months about whether cask beer should aspire to being a “premium” product led me to wondering whether the current approach to selling it in the on-trade actively works against that aim. In most pubs aiming to appeal to beer enthusiasts, not just the general drinker, cask beer is mostly presented as a series of ever-changing guest beers. The pubs may have one regular house beer (anyone remember West Coast Green Bullet in the Crown?) but the vast majority of the range changes from week to week, or even from day to day. You are only ever likely to encounter the products of most micro brewers as guests.

I can’t think of any other consumer market in which this approach applies, and it certainly doesn’t for premium bottled ales in the off-trade, where the rate of churn is much lower and many of them are fixtures year-on-year. Neither does it for non-cask beers in pubs – when did you last see a “guest lager”?

Clearly as the “guest beer” approach is so widely adopted, it is something that appeals to customers, and so you can’t blame pubs for doing it. But it creates an image of cask beer as a kind of unpredictable, here-there-gone-tomorrow, pot luck product, not one that is reliable and dependable.

If I was a brewer wishing to build up a reputation for my beer, I would want to see it as a permanent fixture on as many bars as possible, so customers knew where it is available and had the chance of a repeat purchase if they liked it. If your beer is only ever seen as a guest, you will never build up much brand loyalty.

15 comments:

  1. As someone who runs a bar without a single permanent beer on it, I heartily disagree. There are many reasons why people go into bars and pubs and choice and variation are one of them.
    The guest beer concept has been around for years and I think it's actually a good way of pubs getting new beers for their customers rather than having the same stodgy old line up the whole time.
    What's wrong with a bit of variety?

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  2. My local has some regular beers that are on for drinkers who like a pint they know, and changing guests for those who like to flit. Surely there's no problem in catering for everyone here.

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  3. Unfortunately, a lot of micro's have to rely on the "guest beer" market, just to get their products on the bar. However, when you get pubs that change their guests on a weekly, or even daily, basis this is not a particularly stable market for said micro's.
    I remember when we had our off-licence, being phoned up for repeat orders, from micro's desperate for a sale, and having to disappoint some just to give others a turn.
    This all points to far too many small brewers chasing a market that at its best is standing still, and at worst declining.
    I would be the first to agree that the large number of micro's in existence today is great for consumers, but not so good for pub owners, who are spoilt for choice, nor ultimately for the micro's themselves!

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  4. I speak to many micros and almost all of them have regular accounts they supply on a weekly basis so even if a particular beer might not be building brand loyalty at least the brewery is doing so.

    In point of fact virtually every micro has a set of core beers they make on a regular basis so presumably there is a steady demand for these same beers from the brewer's regular accounts.

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  5. Don't pong drinkers like the gamble? A pint of old grot please, then the thrill of discovering whether the warm vinegar is light or dark.

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  6. I'm not disputing that constantly rotating guest beers are what many customers want – the post makes that clear. But it doesn't necessarily serve brewers so well, nor advances the overall perception of cask beer. As Cookie says, so often it makes ordering a pint a gamble.

    @John – yes, some pubs will usually have at least one beer from the same brewery, but you'd struggle to find many pubs in Stockport where a specific beer from a micro brewery is available as a permanent beer.

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  7. what worked for us and was undoubtedly one of the drivers for increasing cask ale in 2009/2010 by some 60% was keeping one CAMRA LocAle beer on our bar throughout the year.

    It helped that the beer in question was Harvest Pale, from Castle Rock in Nottingham, which has universal local appeal.

    Using our three other pumps to feature "guest ales" and getting feedback from casual drinkers and members of our in-house real ale club to stock the sort of beers our customers wanted was also imperative.

    Just whacking in any old ale won't do with a discerning consumer, but actively involving the customer in stocking policy pays dividends.

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  8. I have observed that locally brewed beers do produce customer loyalty. Pubcos that refuse them space on the bar are therefore missing a trick, but's hardly astonishing news, is it? There is no logical reason why a beer from a micro can't be the permanent beer, and I do know a couple of pubs where that's the case - but that's one or two out of dozens locally. Pubcos must take much of the blame for this situation.

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  9. > when did you last see a “guest lager”

    They do exist - both Pi bars (Chorlton & Liverpool) do them - currently Freedom Dark.
    Electrik in Chorlton also have a guest font that has seen Outstanding Pils, Brew Dog Zeitgeist as well as foreign beers in recent times.

    As others have said there are pubs which might not have permanent ales but have permanent or near permanent breweries - in my neck of the woods I can think of Oddest & Mallinsons; Bar & Phoenix; Horse & Jockey & Kelham Island; Electrik & Hawkshead....

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  10. In Stockport several pubs have a permanent Copper Dragon beer and of course the Railway has half a dozen permanent micro beers.

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  11. I think you are correct that this is a syndrome, or maybe better yet a symptom of a very difficult market for real ale brewers.

    Most everyday UK citizen thinks that pubs have to (by law) serve a guest beer. They'll usually sport examples like how their Greene King pub has Rocking Rudolph on or even Abbot Ale as a Guest alongside the IPA, or how the Brakspear pub has Hobgoblin. Of course we all know that those beers are on the bar because the said 'brewers' own those other brands/companies.

    Go to the 'free house' and see that sure enough, he stocks a main range and rotates 1 or 2 handpumps for guests. I know for a fact that this publican gets 50 calls a week for beers to rotate through on those handpumps and most likely he will get the one that will make him the most margin.

    From a brewers point of view it isn't great. If you fall into the trap of doing the guest beer thing, you end up massively adding to either your logistics costs or your asset outlay. Most brewers are really strapped for cooperage (kegs, casks, whatever), if you fall into the guest beer trap you end up with your valuable (in value and in opportunity) stainless sitting empty in someone's cellar that you know will not take your beer next week. So, you have to make a special trip just to get your empty. This also leads to the problem of assets going missing causing even more costs to rectify.

    Really it demonstrates that the pub model is broken in this country. The pub tie has effectively ground the real ale (I'm talking small, not regional) sector into having a minute market that costs more to service than what it is worth to the brewery.

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  12. Zeitgeist on keg, eh? Sorry I missed that - I would have liked to try it (if only to compare with the glory that was Zeitgeist on cask).

    I think you've overstated the problem in two ways. On one hand, the variation from week to week isn't that extreme: as the new wave of breweries gets older, there is definitely some consolidation going on, with some pubs running a "tied pump" for a favoured brewery & many others settling on a few core guests. Most of the pubs I go in have always got something from Phoenix on, and Pictish, Millstone and Facer's aren't far behind. And on the other hand, Cookie's right - there are lots of people who positively like trying something new (enough to keep Glyn in business!). So from the drinker's p.o.v., I'm not sure the system is that bad. It's clearly pretty poor for brewers, though.

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  13. "So from the drinker's p.o.v., I'm not sure the system is that bad. It's clearly pretty poor for brewers, though."

    Exactly the point I was making.

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  14. Is it poor for brewers? As you know I speak to many local micros ona regular basis - most are running flat out to meet demand for BOTH their core and "guest" beers. None of them seem to have identified the problem that you have - and given that more than a few are now in the position of being able to chose their customers a brand loyalty clearly HAS developed, not only for some beers but also the brewers themselves.

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  15. I agree with John. Just ask Phoenix. I also agree with a lot of what Jeff Rosenmeier says in his para 4, but it only really applies to unestablished micros in most cases. They are always going to be chasing the tail of the more established ones. That's life.

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