Saturday 3 December 2011

The beer bubble

Reading many beer blogs, you can’t avoid getting the impression that a “craft beer revolution” is taking place. The country, it would seem, is awash with new, exciting, challenging styles and flavours. But how far does that really spread beyond a handful of specialist outlets?

In the general run of pubs I go into, while you might see the odd guest beer or Peroni tap, that’s about it, and the vast majority of the beer drinkers are still necking Unicorn, Holts Bitter, John Smith’s Extra Smooth, Carling, Stella and Guinness. In Tesco, while there might be a little ghetto with a few BrewDog bottles and Belgian and American imports, much the same is true. I don’t really think the craft beer evangelists are giving a warm embrace to bottles of Spitfire and Warsteiner.

It’s also very much an urban phenomenon, confined to major city centres and the urban villages of the prosperous, liberal middle class. You might see it in Chorlton, but hardly in Levenshulme, let alone in Leominster. And, because London has quite a few neighbourhoods like Chorlton, it’s supposedly sweeping the board in the capital. But, beyond that limited sphere, it just doesn’t resonate at all. It’s a bubble of urban hype.

Back in the 70s and 80s, you would travel around the country and see plenty of A-boards and roadside signs proclaiming “The Red Lion -15th Century Inn – Good Food – Real Ale”. The concept of “real ale” is something that, at the time, had really caught the popular imagination. I never see similar signs advertising “craft beer”, and I don’t expect I ever will. And the Red Lion itself is probably now a private house.

“Real ale” connected beer enthusiasm with the wider drinking public. Far from evangelising to a broad audience, “craft beer” locks beer enthusiasts into a bubble of self-absorption and means they end up just drinking in their own exclusive venues and steering clear of any engagement with the hoi polloi.


  1. Not trying to be provocative, but what exactly are you saying? That there is no "revolution"? That it is not as big as beer bloggers are making out? Or that it's the beer equivalent of middle-class foodie-ism?

  2. All three, to some extent. But primarily that it's consciously self-referential and isolates itself from the wider world. It wends its merry way from the Port Street Beer House via the Grove to North Bar without apparently caring that the main A62 road linking those three points is lined with closed and boarded pubs. Thus it exists in a bubble.

  3. Good beer is GOOD beer,,,it does not need labels. If an establishment serves good beer, I'm there on my occasional flurries into real pubs.

    There is something to be said about 'atmosphere' though - what is the atmosphere like in places that sell craft beers? Is it an atmosphere where you can fart and have a laugh about it?


  4. I think what you're observing is a fact of almost all consumer "revolutions": they start in urban centres where, e.g., people have access to imports, more disposable income, and where there are greater concentrations of young people with an interest in following new trends.

    Compare the rise of rock'n'roll in the UK -- that took a while to reach small towns and villages, but it got there, in its own way.

    I'm confident that in five years time, my home town (generally in decline, not one pub that I would bother visiting for the beer, despite a population of 36,000) will have at least one decent pub. The 'craft beer revolution' (just a handy term of reference, nothing more) will help raise awareness and drive demand and enough punters will eventually come out of the woodwork to keep one pub in business. It's already been supporting a specialist bottled beer shop for more than five years now, so there's some demand there.

    I think your hoi-polloi point is interesting, though. For most beer geeks, the 'craft beer bar' forms part of balanced diet which includes normal pubs -- they're too expensive to drink in all the time and, frankly, they can feel a little less than relaxed. (But that depends on the company.)

  5. It is a bubble Mudgie, but I kind of think there is more to it than you make out, but a lot less than others do. You also identify (as I have too) some of the less attractive aspects, particularly the elitism one, which I think is hard to shake off.

    It is one that ruffles a lot of feathers too. People do like to be snobbish or elite in beer, but nobody likes to be identified as such.

    Good piece.

  6. "I never see similar signs advertising “craft beer”, and I don’t expect I ever will."

    Of course you won't Mudgie, the 21st century happened. Who needs signs when you have the reach provided by social media?

    So, when, in your opinion, does this thing stop being a "bubble"? Or do you expect the bubble to burst?

  7. "Who needs signs when you have the reach provided by social media?"

    By definition, social media are only "preaching to the converted". And, of course, because of social media, no other form of business feels the need to advertise itself via roadside signs and A-boards, does it?

  8. But sometimes you only need to preach to the converted. I know from my groups of friends that it tends to be the ones who are interested in beer who choose the pub.

    'Craft beer bars' are only a tiny percentage of the market at the moment but across the country they are being successful. So many of the pubs that are closing have so little to offer - poor beer, poor food, poor atmosphere. Change but one of those to great and you tend to find you have a successful pub.

  9. I completely agree with what you say, Curmudgeon. I go to the pub most days of the week but I just don't see this stuff anywhere.

    I once did see a Brewdog font in Liverpool spouting gallons of shaving foam for a fellow in a suit, and while he was waiting for his one pint of keg, my round of real ale was served and paid for.

  10. I would tend to agree with except that the Cock & Pullet, a street corner local in Birkenhead now stocks bottles of beer from Flying Dog brewery. Who'd have thought it?

  11. Nev -- I tend to think of the increased availability of real ale, and especially of interesting real ale, as part of the "craft beer revolution". Where we live now, the best pub for miles around is a microbrewery selling real ale brewed on site. It's not remotely pretentious -- just a normal boozer that the landlord bought from a pub co that decided it couldn't make money from it. The clientele is mostly made up of people who live in the village or nearby, with the occasional pilgrim from further afield. The change has happened in the last five years or so.

    On a similar note, our local back in the suburbs of London was, ten years ago, a really run down, rough pub. The middle-aged couple who took it over started selling indifferent real ale; then good real ale; then lots of good real ale; and there are now six pumps with beers from Crouch Vale, Maldon, Adnams, etc.. The pub is always crammed with a very normal mix of people who live nearby, CAMRA types (who must take credit for driving the improvement in the beer in the pub) and passing trade.

  12. Birkonian -- that's exactly the kind of thing I think we'll see more of. Some of those pubs which, currently, if I can do so without offending anyone, I walk out of because there's nothing I want to drink, will eventually have at least *one* beer I can get a bit excited about.

  13. Martin, Cambridge4 December 2011 at 18:57

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the "hardly in Levenshulme, let alone in Leominster" line, Curmudgeon. Not much sign in Ludlow or Lincoln either, though there's plenty of good solid beer from the regionals in both those places.

    Outside a small section of N1 and SE1, London actually has less neighbourhoods like Chorlton than we might expect; West and South-West London has very few specialist beer pubs for it's c.3 million population.

    The handful of new pubs majoring in micros and imports are generally excellent, but aren't the sort of place many people will go to on a weekly basis.

  14. We'll know the bubble is about to burst when a major pub operator opens up its take on the "craft beer bar" ;-)

  15. Hmm, I'm not quite sure what to make of your stance. On one level, I understand where you're coming from - it is indisputably niche, as I point out here, but then, as I also point out, it is also where all the growth and value in the market is, which your lament of the boarded-up pubs sort of validates.

    I'm not sure what the problem is with this being a bubble (if bubble it be)? Is it that you feel it's unsustainable and will burst, or that it is somehow distasteful/elitist because the value for money is questionable?


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