Saturday, 24 September 2011

Let a thousand flowers bloom

My local branch of Tesco has recently started selling two highly-regarded US beers – Goose Island IPA and Brooklyn Lager. Now, I can’t really say that American craft beers are my thing – those titchy 355ml bottles don’t help, and Germany tends to be my import source of choice. But I’ve read good things about both of them in the blogosphere, and the examples I had of each were very enjoyable.

However, it raises the question of where the demand has come from for Tesco, not some exotic specialist retailer, to stock these beers. They’re both filtered and brewery-conditioned, so not something CAMRA would directly champion, and indeed I struggle to recall any mention of either in a CAMRA publication. Neither is there any Campaign for US Craft Beer trumpeting their virtues, nor any newspaper columnist banging the drum for them. And how many of Tesco’s customers read beer blogs? It’s a kind of subtle percolation of word-of-mouth that has brought these beers to a mainstream supermarket in a Northern industrial town.

There has been a lot of debate recently as to whether CAMRA should widen its remit to support non-real “craft” beers such as these and their British counterparts. In response to this, two new organisations have been set up to promote a more wide-ranging and inclusive approach to quality beer - Craft Beer UK, and CAMRGB, the Campaign for Really Good Beer. There’s a long comment thread about this on Zak Avery’s blog.

However, do these beers really need any formally constituted body to lobby for them? This change is happening anyway, as more and more of the beer market slips away to the off-trade, where CAMRA wields minimal influence, and non-real “quality” beers slowly but surely make more inroads in pubs and bars. The growth in the appreciation of wine in the UK over the years hasn’t needed any Campaign for Good Wine.

Earlier this year, I wrote here:
"The result is that there is a large and growing territory in which CAMRA and “beer enthusiasm in Britain” no longer overlap. This in future may well become a problem if potential recruits with a wide-ranging interest in beer are put off by the fact that the organisation ignores and indeed sometimes denigrates many of the brews they appreciate and enjoy drinking. In the beer landscape of twenty years hence, CAMRA could have become an irrelevance."
Now, I see no reason why CAMRA needs in any formal way to embrace “craft beer”, and indeed have argued in the past that such a move would be fraught with pitfalls. But, as well as championing “real ale”, it needs to be much more accommodating in being prepared to accept merit in beers that fall outside that remit. In practice, many (probably most) members already take that view. In the coming years it is going to be a major strategic challenge to come to terms with the concept of a landscape where a passion for “real ale” is only one of a number of overlapping “beer enthusiasms”. To say that Goose Island IPA is “processed muck”, or “not worth drinking”, or even “nothing to do with us, mate” is not a credible stance.

2 comments:

  1. Generally, I think we just have to accept self-interest and strategic alliance will be the way forward for beer in the UK.

    The point you make about overlap is why I left Kevin. Having Goose Island and Brooklyn on Tesco's shelves isn't anything to do with him, though. I'll be interested to see whether it affects any of the UK 'craft' beers they stock. BrewDog have the ambition to take on this type of brewer in their own market (their beers were about $15 for 4 bottles of Punk before taxes in California last time I was there). Tesco's is selling Punk for £1.49 and Goose Island IPA for £1.69, and I wonder if that's a competitive enough price for an imported beer to take share from BrewDog. Or will it grow Tesco's premium beer biz? It certainly has me buying beer from a supermarket, something I don't normally do.

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  2. I'd say it would grow their business overall. Most buyers in this category are going to be repertoire drinkers anyway, so are highly likely to put a bottle of Goose Island in their basket alongside Punk.

    As you say, this is happening (and it is a bit of a quiet revolution, really) irrespective of any input or recommendation from CAMRA.

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