Saturday, 14 March 2015

The bland leading the bland

Greene King have recently relaunched their flagship IPA brand to give it a more contemporary and, dare I say, “craft” look. This beer is derided by many beer aficionados for being dull and bland, and various comments appeared on Twitter about “polishing a turd”. I wouldn’t go quite so far – while it’s certainly not a beer I’d go out of my way to find, when well kept it does have a bit of character and can be an enjoyable pint.

However, as Martyn Cornell points out in this blogpost, the critics are missing the point. Greene King IPA is intended as an approachable, easy-drinking beer for mass-market consumption. It’s never going to excite the tastebuds of those who are looking for extreme and challenging flavours. This illustrates a wider point, that from the early days of CAMRA, beer enthusiasts have consistently failed to understand why the general public choose to drink beers other than those they favour. Another example of this is shown by this post by Boak and Bailey about how the rise of lager in the UK has consistently been misunderstood and underestimated.

It is somewhat patronising to believe that people are gullible fools who are persuaded by expensive advertising campaigns and glitzy illuminated fonts to choose dull mass-market beers over the good stuff. Most drinkers are not enthusiasts and will apply different criteria, but, as I argued here, that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. They are likely to put a higher value on consistency and the absence of strong, possibly offputting flavours.

In the past, local monopolies were often blamed for brewers being able to foist dull beer on drinkers, but that has been much eroded now. There can be few significant towns where the pubs don’t offer a wide selection of different beers. But it is very noticeable that the cask beers you see everywhere tend to be the classic “brown bitters” such as Bombardier and Doom Bar, or the easy-drinking interpretations of the modern golden ale style such as Wainwright and Dizzy Blonde. There’s nothing stopping pubs stocking other beers, but in general they don’t want to frighten the horses too much.

The same is true of the Premum Bottled Ale shelves, where everything is on a level playing field, but the more accessible beers, whether malty bitter or soft golden ale, still rule the roost. Indeed some of the more strong-flavoured beers, such as Thwaites Indus IPA, have struggled to maintain a listing. But this is due to consumers demonstrating an informed preference, not because they are too thick to know any better.

It’s also an interesting thought that in the early days of CAMRA, there were no extreme or challenging beers, and very few above an OG of 1050. And some of the favourite beers of the pioneering campaigners were ones such as Holts that many ordinary drinkers steered clear of because of their distinctive flavour. You wouldn’t believe it now, but my father used to tell an anecdote of going to a Rugby League match in West Yorkshire in the 1950s, calling in a Tetley’s pub (before they took over Walker’s of Warrington), and finding the beer just “too bitter”.


  1. Good article though I had to google "Dizzy Blonde" as I'd never heard of it and I don't think Wainwright's is that common nationally!

  2. Wow - is that a record post-to-comment time?

    Obviously this is a North-West focused blog, but Wainwright is widely seen in pubco outlets and the free trade, and Dizzy Blonde also gets a lot of free trade interest. Wainwright is maybe the best example of the "approachable" golden ale.

  3. When I was a normal I went drinking for social lubricant and chose beer due to cultural norms.

    Now I'm a beer geek I go out for the weird beer and write it up in my little notebook.

  4. "Greene King IPA is intended as an approachable, easy-drinking beer for mass-market consumption"

    No its not, I would expect better of you mudgie than to simply repeat GK marketing speil without a moment's thought.

    Its the cheapest filth they can throw out. There is absolutely no thought as to what it tastes like whatsoever, because it doesn't need to taste good, because it is only sold in pubs with no better option.

  5. I used to like it Py, along with lots of other bland dishwater type drinks, before I became a beer nerd and discovered us beer nerds are not allowed to like such things. I learnt what I am supposed to like, obscure stuff no one has heard of, and now I neck that.

  6. General point - are malty bitters actually that undemanding and easy to drink, or are they just what a lot of people are used to? I've only got anecdotal evidence for this, but we occasionally find that people who "don't like beer" actually don't like traditional bitters or British golden ales, and actually enjoy banana-sweet wheatbeers or caramel-grapefruit-lolly flavoured US IPAs or Belgian strong ales a lot more than the supposedly "easy drinking" bitters that put them off beer in the first place.

  7. "Easy drinking" is not at all an appropriate adjective to apply to GKIPA. As millions of young curious drinkers have found over the years, its about as easy to drink as a pint of tramp sick.

  8. Good to see py in trolling mode again. Meanwhile back in the real world you make a very good point. As we both know there are plenty of established new brewers out there who are making a good living selling "dull brown beer" to the free trade. Those of us the "bubble" too often forget that may (most?) drinkers don't want beer that will assault the taste buds.

  9. oh do fuck off john. if you have nothing more insightful to add other than the usual ignorant bullshit about "assaulting taste buds", don't post. go back to the 1970s where you belong.

  10. Good to see you engaging in intellectual discourse as usual - I think you've already been called out on your GK stance over at Zythophile so I don't intend feeding the troll here as well.

    What I will say though, and as Mudgie will testify, my tastes in beer are far removed from the 1970s. However unlike you I can see the bigger picture. Now, get back in your box and leave this discussion to the grown ups.

  11. @py - we have been through this all before on Zythophile's blog, and the conclusion was that you thought GK IPA had a strong, unpleasant, soily taste, but everyone else thought it had an inoffensive and subdued beery flavour.

    The point I'm making is that many beer enthusiasts are too eager to write off people drinking mainstream ales and lagers as dupes, rather than making the effort to understand why those products appeal to them.

    And I'll confirm that John is one of the least likely people to suggest should go back to the 70s.

  12. Lord Egbert Nobacon14 March 2015 at 21:31

    Confession time.
    I like GK IPA.Always have done.
    Even when I consumed so much in the Cheshire Cheese off Fleet Street that I had the Heimlich Manouvre performed on me for the only time in my life by my then squeeze,a really rather delightful district nurse.
    The night's drinking emerged from my gullet rather like a fireman turning on his hose to quench a three pump fire.
    It was the Olympic Gold Medal of projectile vomiting.
    I was so amazed we both went back in to the Cheshire and had some more.
    For some reason the taste of it puts me in mind of an old black and white 2nd World War movie with Kenneth More,pipe in mouth and singing round the old mess Joanna before heading off in the morning to dogfight the hun.
    It's solid,predictable and to my mind as good as any boring brown bitter you care to mention.
    And there are still a few of us old fogeys out here who prefer that to those new-fangled hipster hop bombs.

  13. It's good that there's a place in the market for both "boring Brown bitters" and "hipster hop bombs".

  14. Oh, same beer - new pump clip. Spotted in a deepest Scottish spoons yesterday. I've had GK IPA once. It was ... ok.

    Oddly though it was £2.40 a pint whilst the guests (including Rogue Brutal IPA 6%abv) were £2.05.

    The vast majority were drinking lager, pop or coffee though.

  15. Regardless of what you think about GK IPA that new pumpclip is a great piece of design.

  16. I offered my wife a taste of something pale'n'oppy a couple of years back. She looked surprised and said, "Oh, it's a bit like white wine... it's not really like beer, is it?" Then - just as I was preparing a rueful frown (these craft types, what can you do?) - she added, "I like it!". That was me told.

    The big tannic bitterness and slightly sweet malty body of a classic best bitter is certainly an acquired taste, albeit one I acquired before I was old enough to drink; maybe a beer like GK IPA is a dialled-down version of 'brown bitter', making it more palatable to more people. (See also Doom Bar.) I'm not sure how many of them would really be happier drinking Citra, though.

  17. Exactly. I think that a lot of people (including me, to some extent) spent ten or twenty years basically just drinking bitter before they really tried any other beer styles - or before they even had the option - and hence find that bitter is straightforward and unchallenging while all this new stuff is a bit strange and different and something of an acquired taste. But there's also a tendency to forget that bitter is also an acquired taste, it just happens to be one that they acquired a long time ago.

    I suspect that this makes the likes of CAMRA less effective than they could be at getting new people into good beer. I don't think that _everyone_ is being put off by too much Old Hooky, but I have met people who "don't like beer" but did like a 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueze...

  18. Strangely enough, give me Citra any-day.

  19. Martin, Cambridge15 March 2015 at 14:04

    Nowadays I drink the beer that's being drunk most (I ask) which increasingly often is the only one pulled through. IPA is a decent enough beer, even if it isn't as good as was in 2006 (Bitter of year) or when I first drunk it in the eighties.

    I don't buy idea people drinking it when they don't like it - few pubs offer less than a couple of alternatives to IPA for ale drinkers.

    The IPA Reserve is a superb beer in my view, rarely seen on pump though.

  20. @Martin - sadly all too true. If there isn't an obvious best-seller in a pub, always best to have a pint of what someone else has just had.

    I've had a few bottles of IPA Reserve recently as Tesco have been selling it for a bargain £1.24, but I do find it a bit on the sweet side.

  21. Different people have different tastes. How else explain the existence of Dr Pepper? It’s horrible stuff but it’s a free country so if you like it, knock yourself out. It’s interesting how a 70’s campaign like CAMRA still dominates the perspective of people that want to get other people “into beer” That it is important to try and encourage others to like something and discourage the liking of something else. Why not just leave people to discover the world of booze for themselves and pick a drink they like? Nowt wrong with a glass of wine or port or sherry or a gin and tonic.

    Most people start drinking and drink either what they like to taste of or what is the cultural norm of their society, gender and social class and get used to something they may not initially like. My first taste of most beers as a teenager was a drink of something I didn’t at first like. I preferred sugary soft drinks. A pint of lager was at least beer, acceptable among my peer group of working class lads, and preferred because it had less “beer” taste than the pint of bitter older men appeared to prefer.

    As I got older I started to like the taste of beer and discovered many beers beyond lager that I also liked, and that cask bitter was a decent better value product in those pubs that kept it well. I discovered I quite liked weissbier and didn’t much care that other beer geeks dismissed its sweet bananaryness. I discovered that some beers were better for different occasions or seasons and that some beers went better with some types of food. I tried beers I didn’t much like that others appeared to like a lot. I left them to enjoy it.

    I discovered this without caring much what others thought of my choices. It’s my money and I’ll spend it how I like.

    Now it’s spring, I’ll be mowing lawns and keeping my gardens tidy. An ice cold can of lout is a cracking end to this activity, necked quickly without touching the sides. A pint of the local boring brown cask bitter goes well with the Sunday lunch the local pub do. The blonde ale they serve is nice to sit in their beer garden with. A stronger hoppier ale is nice of an evening offering a bit more booze to lower volume and bit more bitterness.

    In the 70’s a campaign started to encourage people to drink cask beer because it was under threat of extinction. It no longer is. All this newer craftier beers appear quite popular and are not going anywhere. Cheap lout is still available.

    Why can’t we all just like what we like and enjoy liking it? Why should it matter what I drink? Enjoy what you drink. People buy GK IPA. You gotta assume most do because they like it. Leave ‘em to it.

  22. I'm not keen on GK IPA: but probably because it's so often badly looked after. One of my locals has it regularly, but if I go in there, (unusually) drink lager as it's the only thing they don't fuck up.

  23. A question that it might be interesting to put to readers of your blog: 'if a foreigner asks you for recommendations of good English beers, what do you tell them?'! Personally I find it difficult, because they vary too much from pub to pub - indeed that's a major reason why many Brits drink generic lagers. If possible, I'm more likely to recommend a specific pub that I know maintains a high standard for whatever they sell.

    The point being, that it would make more sense to compare beers if there was a 'level playing field' - i.e. if they were all in tip-top condition and tasting as they were supposed to! I'd rather drink a really fresh, bright pint of of 'average' beer (like GKIPA, perhaps) than a duff pint of 'the best', any day.

  24. I haven;t drunk Greene King for some while and shan't be doing so as long as the Company actively supports minimum pricing.

  25. I think most drinkers are creatures of habit not wanting to overly think about what they drink nor wanting to spend cash on something they haven't tried and may be bit of a gamble. Gk ipa has that historic brand loyalty on a national scale, tetley still have it in many of my local pubs (less so than when it was brewed in Leeds) I could say same for black sheep and Timmy Taylor. There is still though the lager drinking masses for whoem warsteiner is pushing the boat out into new waters and gk ipa is a weird specialist drink. Personaly id rather stick to the carling than gkipa. Others who are happy to experiment in theory are mote price motivated - with gkipa available locally at 2.25 its a hard sell to persuade those drinkers to go around the corner and try stuff at 3.30 never mind the new keg lines at 4 or 5 quid. The pale golden ales do seem to have taken lot of mainstream ground from the previous brown bitters though - that mainstream market is changing slowly


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