Sunday, 14 August 2016

Perpetual change

Manchester brewers Cloudwater have gained a lot of praise over the past couple of years for being in the forefront of the craft beer movement, for example in this piece by Martyn Cornell. One feature that he highlights is that they don’t brew any regular beers, and constantly revise and update their range.

It’s certainly true that innovation is seen as one of the keystones of the contemporary British craft beer movement. But the question has to be asked whether that is really a sustainable long-term strategy. (FWIW I am absolutely not knocking Cloudwater – they have been very successful and, unlike some others, have the brewing chops to carry off the constant innovation strategy)

Brewing is a mature industry so, unlike automotive and electronic technology, there are no significant potential gains in terms of quality or efficiency. Any innovation is basically going to be just ringing the changes on existing possibilities. Of course changes in market structure are possible, and in recent years the British beer market has been transformed by the introduction of golden ales and New World hops. But the basics remain the same.

It also has to be recognised that the vast majority of drinkers don’t regard a visit to the pub as a voyage of discovery. They are looking for tried and tested beers that they can rely on. Of course people are not totally resistant to trying new things, but their willingness to go out on a limb is limited.

Someone once baited me by asking “so you never want to try anything new, then?” but really that is a straw man. Of course I’m happy to try new things, but on the other hand I know that if I step outside my comfort zone in terms of style and strength it’s unlikely to be more than a one-off indulgence. 9% Double Mocha Stout – yes, may be interesting, but never going to become a regular drink. I’ve also reached the stage in life when I recognise that trying new things I’m very unlikely to enjoy is a waste of time and money.

It’s noticeable that even in the most cutting-edge beer pubs, such as the Magnet in Stockport, most cask ale sales are hoppy pale ales in the 3.5% - 5.0% strength band. They may have a variety of names, but at the end of the day they’re not that different overall.

The US craft beer market is often put forward as an example for the UK, but there, within the category, the big sellers are beers such as Samuel Adams Boston Lager that people choose as everyday drinks. How many British craft beers would the average punter be able to name? Just one - BrewDog Punk IPA.

There’s nothing wrong with innovation, even constant innovation. But the future of craft beer in the UK must be building strong distinctive brands that drinkers recognise and are going to be keen to order off the bar or supermarket shelf. If you keep shuffling your deck, you limit your possibilities. And the fad for perpetual change will eventually fade away.


  1. The interesting thing about Cloudwater is that they've got one very strong 'brand' - the DIPA, which they tweak & re-brew every year, to great excitement among the crafterati. So maybe they agree with you deep down!

  2. Your equating beer with brand but missing that brewery is brand too. This isn't "innovation" or "discovery", this is bringing a product to a target market, the target market being those that want a different flavour with every glass quaffed. If it says Cloudwater or Blackjack or Quantum, I'm going to buy it; abv is going to determine how big the glass is.

  3. I think Cloudwater are a bit of a special case in this regard - they're adequately well thought of that even if they're selling primarily to the small segment of drinkers who're actively looking for something new, they're a pretty big fish in that small pond. Not to mention that most of their stuff seems pretty accessible style-wise - they're generally asking people to take a punt on trying a new pale ale or a lager, which is less of an ask than a new smoked hibiscus sour or something.

    In contrast, lot of the other successful new-wave UK craft breweries - think Brewdog, Magic Rock, Beavertown, Thornbridge and so on - seem to do rather nicely by putting out enough weird, limited, unusual stuff to keep the geeks interested and to keep their craft-cred, while still having a solid, easy-to-spot core range that they can sell by the truckload.

  4. Oh, there's certainly a market for always wanting something different, but I'd say it's always going to remain something of a niche.

    And is there any other food or drink product where there's the same desire to never have the same thing twice?

  5. It's the social aspect I like - the Cheers quality - where everybody knows your name/nickname. A real fire and not too much piped music. I wonder how much of England's historical social changes and revolutions began as chat in pubs.

  6. The number of breweries that don't have a core range is very small. Or are you meaning pubs that fill their taps up with whatever specials are going round?

  7. I have found many Manchester brews very bland lately. Certainly Holts, Hydes, Lees ,and Robinsons are not what they were. Many of the new so called craft beers are poor ir worse in kegs. I love Thornbridge though whenever i can get it.

  8. It's not a British thing, quite a lot of the new breed of European brewers seem to lack a standard session beer, the emphasis seems to be on higher ABV (DIPAs, Imperial Stouts, etc) and not a beer you would have a session on. I find it strange, but a Punk IPA is an exception and not the rule for some reason.


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