Monday, 14 January 2019

Craft will eat itself

Over the weekend, my attention was drawn to this blogpost entitled Is Craft Beer Burning Out? The opening paragraph immediately grabs your attention:
IPAs so cloudy they look like radioactive pond water, double mocha-wocha choco-vanilla fudgy wudgy pastry stouts, DDH fruit smoothies (that’s Double Dry Hopped for the uninitiated) and salty goses that taste like gym instructor sweat. Is craft beer trying so hard these days it’s in danger of burning itself out?
This trend is perhaps more pronounced on the other side of the Atlantic, but the constant pursuit of the new has certainly spread over here too. It ends up going in ever-decreasing circles as brewers and drinkers hare after increasingly outlandish novelties. Of course there is a place for innovation in beer, but if people never want to drink anything twice it ultimately becomes self-defeating.

It also detracts from quality. If you’re never going to get the chance to drink a beer twice, then the incentive to make a product where drinkers will want to make repeat purchases disappears, and there’s no opportunity to tweak recipes in response to customer feedback. And, as the author points out, whereas in the past brewers would make small-scale test batches to develop and refine any new product, now they just put anything out without testing in the knowledge that drinkers will be moving on to something else anyway.

There’s a story that one particular brewer once had a batch that was badly affected by the common brewing fault known as diacetyl, but instead of pouring it down the drain they decided to rebrand it as “Butterscotch Porter”. That kind of thing now seems to be par for the course – however it turns out, someone will regard it as “interesting”.

I’ve argued in the past that one of the things undermining cask beer is the culture of ever-changing guest beers, which presents it as a disposable, interchangeable product and prevents the development of brand loyalty. The constant pursuit of novelty also serves to further widen the gulf between the enthusiast and the ordinary drinker in the pub with his or her regular pint of Pedigree or Carling.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Style or substance?

There have been quite a few articles in recent months asking the question of “how to save cask?” Some of these, especially those from across the Atlantic, refer to cask beer as a “style”. But, as I have pointed out in the past, that is incorrect. Bitter is a style; IPA is a style, but cask is rather a whole system of storage, maturation and dispense that can encompass a wide variety of different styles, but is critically dependent on sales volume to be viable.

However, it has come to be established as a beer category in its own right that commands a great deal of loyalty. In the 1970s, many people would identify themselves as “a bitter drinker” or “a mild drinker”, which could include both cask and keg, but that has virtually disappeared now. Cask is not just a delivery mechanism for various styles, and indeed people are much more likely to identify themselves as “a real ale drinker”. That doesn’t mean they will never touch beers that aren’t real, but that if there is no real bitter available they don’t immediately turn to a keg bitter as a substitute. The handpump has become clearly established as a distinctive symbol of a particular generic kind of beer.

The loyalty goes go the other way too, though. Some people identify as “smooth drinkers”, and I have seen people come in to pubs and ask whether they have any smooth. Likewise, the typical Guinness drinker would not see a cask stout as an acceptable alternative – they identify with Guinness as a brand, not with stout as a style.

I recently ran the Twitter poll shown above. Presumably most of my followers, or at least the ones who would answer this poll, are cask ale drinkers, and the results show that, while some do drink non-craft keg ales, for most it is something they do rarely or never. Personally I can only recall a handful of occasions in the past year, a couple in Sam Smith’s pubs, and one in a keg-only free house in a small town in Wales where I had a half of Banks’s Mild. I don’t dogmatically avoid keg beers, but if I find myself in a pub where there is no cask available I will generally switch to lager or perhaps Guinness rather than smooth ales.

It’s noticeable how little cask and keg actually tread on each other’s toes in the marketplace. Forty years ago, many brewers had a mixture of both versions of the same underlying product in their pubs, but nowadays the only ones I can think of are Felinfoel and Sam Smith’s. The vast majority of the remaining family breweries, at least in their own pubs, are all-cask. About a third of the pubs in the country still have no cask beer, but in most areas they tend not to be the ones the casual pubgoer would go into, leading some people to overestimate the dominance of cask. And a lot of keg beers are sold in clubs, which by definition tend to be used by regulars rather than casual customers. Very few of the new generation of breweries produce keg versions of their best-selling cask ales.

Much the same is true in the sphere of craft keg. Most craft kegs tend to occupy niches where cask is absent, typically American-style IPAs and very strong or speciality beers that by definition are not going to sell in the quantities needed for cask. There is some overlap, but not all that much. However, it is not difficult to foresee in the future that a keg American-style IPA, albeit at a moderate, sessionable strength, will become a regular fixture in mainstream pubs, no doubt to the detriment of cask. For some drinkers now, the fact that these beers are on keg is a selling point in itself.

It’s also important to remember that much of the change in market share amongst the various segments is due to customer churn rather than direct switching from one to another. Of course some drinkers have transferred their allegiance from cask to craft keg, at least on some occasions if not all the time, but that isn’t the prime reason for the apparent rise of one at the expense of the other.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Don’t let the facts get in the way

For some years now, we have often seen assertions from sections of the beer commentariat that one of the main causes of the decline of the pub trade in recent years has been the policies of the large tied pubcos. However, as I argued here, there really is very little substance in this. Yes, in many respects the pubcos have been less than ideal custodians of their estates, but the decline of pubs has been due to a lethal cocktail of social change and legislative restriction. Running them in a somewhat different manner would not, overall, have made much difference.

The British pub trade today comprises a wide variety of different ownership models, including large and small pubcos, managed pub chains, family brewers and independent operators. If the pubcos really did have a particularly negative influence, then surely the other sectors would be doing markedly better. But, in fact, as Pete Brown points out in this article, over the past ten years it has in fact been the major operators who have done much better than the independents.

While everyone can point to examples of independently-run pubs that have prospered, there are plenty of others that have quietly fallen by the wayside, not to mention the huge numbers of pub disposals that nobody else has even sniffed at. Can anyone seriously argue that, under different ownership, all those beached-whale estate pubs and street-corner locals in run-down urban areas would have thrived? The reasons why one pub succeeds over another are completely different from those behind the wider decline of the trade as a whole.

The whole argument is just a convenient distraction from the true underlying issues. And it should always be remembered that, in the 1970s, the beer tie saved real ale in this country.

I also can’t help thinking that, in surveying the courses of pub decline over the past ten or so years, Pete as usual totally ignores the familiar elephant in the room...

Friday, 4 January 2019

Why can’t they just leave us alone?

Between Christmas and New Year, the Daily Telegraph reported how Public Health England were urging the government to impose strict maximum calorie limits on a huge range of common dishes eaten out of the home. Now, as I have argued before, while there may be practical difficulties in achieving it, there isn’t really any objection in principle to providing calorie information. However, this goes far beyond that to represent an unprecedented intrusion into the minutiae of people’s everyday actions, and something that is not mirrored in any other country.

There’s a huge list of practical problems with this. For a start, it’s a blanket, one size fits all solution that does not take account of people’s hugely different dietary requirements. Someone doing hard manual work (and there are still a few about) will need far more calories than a sparrow-like maiden aunt. There’s nothing to stop people ordering two meals if they don’t think that one is enough. And how does it deal with self-service buffets, or the growing trend for tapas-style menus with a variety of “small plate” dishes?

It must also be remembered that, in recent years, there has been a marked reduction in the average amount of calories consumed per person. If we are indeed as a society becoming more obese (which is less clear-cut than often supposed), then it is due to doing less, not eating more.

Not surprisingly, there was a chorus of protest in response to this news. Surely, you might think, there would be tremendous political mileage for any party prepared to call a halt on the ever-growing tendency to want to micromanage every aspect of people’s daily lives. Why can’t people be treated like responsible adults and left alone to make their own decisions?

But the problem is, as I have often said, that people in general do not identify any commonality of interest with others whose freedom is being infringed. I may be outraged that my ability to do this is being curbed, but I will cheer on when whatever that other dirty, irresponsible scumbag does is banned. As long as people to continue to view things within their own particular silo, it will continue happening.

It all started, of course, with the campaign against tobacco. And how many people welcomed that, and flatly denied that it represented the start of a slippery slope?