Friday, 14 April 2017

Spreading yourself thinly

I recently wrote about my visit to the Royal Exchange in Stourbridge, where well over half the customers were happily drinking the one – admittedly superb – beer, Batham’s Best Bitter. The following day I called in to a pub in a nearby town that had recently been acquired by a relatively new microbrewery.

This had six or seven of their beers on handpump, some very similar to others in terms of colour and strength, alongside a couple of guests. Not being familiar with their range, I chose one almost at random that appealed to me, only to get a hazy pint with a distinct bite of yeast. I duly returned it, and asked a couple of regulars standing at the bar what they were drinking. They recommended an alternative beer, and that at least was clear, although still a bit yeasty and not particularly enjoyable.

This raises the obvious question of whether that pub ever enjoys sufficient trade to turn over nine different beers quickly enough to keep them in good nick. And you also have to wonder whether brewing a large range of beers, some of which are fairly similar to others, is the best approach for a microbrewery.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to brew fewer beers, in distinctly different styles, that would stand a better chance of both achieving decent turnover in their own pubs and gaining attention in the free trade? “It’s yet another beer from XYZ Brewery” isn’t exactly a winning formula. And my heart always sinks when I hear that small breweries have put their entire range of eight beers into bottles. Again, wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on one or two that could stand out and make a name for themselves?

Quality isn’t something that happens overnight – it needs close attention to detail and a process of tweaking and refinement over time. Breweries would stand a better chance of achieving it if they concentrated their attentions on a smaller range of beers.

It also raises another point that often seems to be overlooked in the gush of enthusiasm for the opening of new breweries. Whisper it softly, but a lot of microbreweries aren’t really that much good at it. Some are simply incompetent and produce beers with obvious flaws and glaring inconsistencies. Most of these don’t last long, but a few inexplicably manage to keep going.

Others are competent enough, but make rather dull beers lacking in any particularly distinctive character, while some do achieve distinctiveness, but at the price of being somewhat one-dimensional. It’s like comparing the bold primary colours of a naïve painter to the subtle, complex shades of an Old Master.

Of course this doesn’t apply to all, and some of the finest beers in the country are made by breweries founded in the past forty years. But novelty certainly doesn’t automatically equate to quality, and often the best drinking comes from beers that have developed complexity and subtlety through steady evolution over the years, and have stood the test of time.


  1. Reading that made me think of one (London) brewery in particular - Five Points. In contrast to many other startups, it did precisely this - concentrated on a small core range. I think it's more likely to get its beers permanently on the keg fonts like this. Camden is another. I know we're talking mostly keg here but your point translates over, I think.

  2. I think it's also true on the other hand that many long standing beers are but shadows of their former self, and instead of evolving complexity and subtlety have in fact devolved, be that in strength or simply dumbed down for the masses. I'm thinking of the likes of Pedigree, Old Speckled Hen,Youngs Special and dare I say Doom Bar which I remember as a once decent brown bitter,but no more just bland.

    1. Martin Taylor recently reported having a superb pint of Pedigree, so, as I wrote here, you do have to wonder whether it's sometimes a case of beers no longer being given sufficient conditioning time rather than their inherent quality having declined.

    2. A pint of Pedigree was one of my top 10 pints of last year (a year in which I was averaging over 10 new beers a week) - but that was at a Marston bar at a big event sponsored by them. So it would have been conditioned properly and the life expectancy of any one barrel would have been an hour or two.

      So it can be done. I think it's less a case of conditioning and more about turnover - that style of beer is like Italian women, stunning for a short while then they soon go flabby and uninteresting.

      That's not to say there's not been long-term changes (and short-term ones - for instance the 2016 vintage was not kind to Kent hops, whereas 2015 was terrific), but I think the main problem is that that kind of beer really shows up any lack of cellarmanship (or lack of demand on the bar).

      It also doesn't help that those kinds of national brands are often distributed by middlemen who take variable care of their beer, and now end up in pubs that don't take good care of them, they just want MolsonCoors to give them a Sky discount for taking Doom Bar. And of course they can be outshouted by modern beers - it happened to me once with wine, I dismissed a wine as boring in amongst a load of shouty New World ones, I then drank it again in "calmer" circumstances and realised it was stunningly complex but had just been drowned out the first time. I don't think it was a bad bottle the first time, I think it was all my fault.

    3. That's spot on about the impact of turnover (though some pubs clearly clean their lines better than other). That Pedigree I rated so highly was in a canalside pub where five old blokes are seemingly permanently at the bar drinking it (and Oakham and Potbelly are on the pumps as well).

  3. You and I have disagreed in the past about the US and UK beers scenes being similar or not. This article is the biggest change I have seen over the last fifteen years in the UK. Beer ranges seemed to have expanded greatly in most pubs. This is also true in the US where pubs will have over 80 taps. The two beer scenes more and more reward novelty and variety. It took me a while to recognize how wise RM is in his limiting beer ranges obsession. Not many brewers can brew 15 different beers well.

    1. There's a slight difference in that the lifespan of cask is so much shorter than keg - it takes a really busy cask pub to make >10 lines work.

  4. Lots of beers all very similar to each other is indeed a big problem, particularly in cask. But talking to landlords and brewers I get a strong impression that they'd like to be more distinctive and adventurous but feel unable to do so because of the bloody customers.

    Whenever I hear the 'I'll never shift that because it's too dark / too hoppy / too strong / too weak' line, I feel a rising sense of frustration and think 'well *I'd* buy it' but I'm obviously not going to polish off casks single-handedly and the 'normal' customers are far more conservative in their tastes.

    1. You are not alone in your frustration,I shall be going to the Nags Head in Reading later, a proper beer lineup.

    2. A pub having a range of fairly similar beers from different brewers is a different issue from a brewer producing a wide range of not hugely differentiated beers.

      And, like it or not, it's a fact of life that a large majority of people drinking ale in pubs want something broadly in the gold/amber/copper colour range and between 3.5% and 4.5% ABV. Anything else is always going to be something of an outlier.

      It is noticeable, though, that many multi-beer pubs seem to offer very little that isn't pale'n'hoppy.

    3. It's a real effect, which is why you're seeing "generalist" pubs starting to have the odd keg line for the >4.5% and/or hoppy stuff, to satisfy that small demand whilst keeping the cask lines below 4.5%.

      In order of priority I'd say it works something like :

      1) 3.8% session blonde - Purity Pure Gold is probably the best example that people might have come across, old Boddies would be another.

      2) 4.2%-ish brown best - Harveys, Bass etc

      3) Something pale and hoppy - Oakham Citra/Ghostship/Proper Job etc.

      4 Something dark - start with Plum Porter - it goes. Try something else dark - half the barrel sells. Go back to Plum Porter.

      The above are just examples that hopefully people will have heard of, obviously you can substitute local equivalents. If you only have 2 lines have the session blonde and brown best and so on.

  5. More on pubs than brewers: I don’t expect a local pub, without the turnover, to each stock 6 real ales. But I do wish that they did not all do just Doom Bar and London Pride (I’m in SE). I believe that with greater variety there could be an increase in trade: not by pubs stocking more beers but by them not all stocking the same beer.

    1. That's the effect of the tie (plus Coors doing deals on Doom Bar in conjunction with Carling)

  6. The Blocked Dwarf15 April 2017 at 02:02

    One of the things that always surprised me about German breweries was the fact they seemed to stick to brewing just one or two beers.Aside from their take on lager there'd be maybe a dark 'alt' bier for those who enjoy putting fruit into their beer and once or twice a year depending on regional traditions a 'festival' strong beer, for example 'Maibock' in May and a Xmas 'Doppelbock'. DOwn south of course they might have a wheat beer as well.

    German brewers would probably say: "Schuster, bleib bei deinem Leisten " ("Cobbler stick to doing what you do best, making shoes!").

    yet from what I can gather over here in the UK, even the smallest micro-brewery seems to have a Beer List larger than my face (to misquote Gordon Ramsey who said 'never trust a restaurant whose menu is larger than your face'). I've brewed a bit of beer myself and I honestly can't imagine anyone can really do more than 3 or 4 beers really well.

    1. Interesting how "last" is almost the same in German, there is an equivalent phrase in English "A cobbler should stick to his last" (it's from Pliny) but I prefer the Latinate antonym - ultracrepidarianism (literally going beyond the shoe - so BSing).

      I think it's easier for lager breweries - they tend to have a tied line so there's less pressure for them to come up with something new in order to put kegs in the cellar. Compare with Camden, or Freedom - the latter has actually been reducing its range, dropping the kolsch and IPL.

      Historically it was the way to go - with only one guest line in many pubs, you wanted a single beer that you could put some marketing behind - worked for Black Sheep and Sharp's. I know Sharp's had a very deliberate plan to boost Doom Bar at the expense of anything else. And of course Guinness is the ultimate one-beer brand. But now that lines are freeing up a bit more, it works for breweries to put different beers in a single drop - and consumers now have worse ADHD than ever before. On a positive note, you could say that this is the Cambrian Explosion in which breweries are testing what works, and that things will settle down. You're seeing it a bit already - Titanic traditionally had a big range but are now increasingly only selling it on the back of Plum Porter for instance.

      But at the moment it's about giving the consumers what they want - and half the world wants something new in every pint, even if it's not quite as "good" as something that has been refined over time.

  7. Crikey, I thought just opening a brewery made you a craftsman? Eh, You have to be good at it to? Howay with you.

  8. This is familiar to me. One of my locals is a brew-pub with a microbrewery on site. 7 of the 8 handpulls are their own beer, and unfortunately the quality is lacking most of the time as the turnover just isn't there for 6 very similar ales and they can often be "on the turn" (the 7th is a (usually) good stout, and the 8th is a Holden's brew which is what most go for).

    As it's a brew house, I guess they feel obliged to fill the hand pulls, but surely having 2 or 3 very good ales on is better than 6 beers all waiting to go off.




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