Friday 22 June 2018

The great craft sell-out

This is the column that I submitted earlier this month for the next edition of my local CAMRA magazine Opening Times, which is due to be published at the beginning of July. I normally wouldn’t release these until the first of the month, but in view of its topicality I thought I would let readers have a preview.

The Great Craft Sell-Out

It’s a fact of life that most successful start-up breweries will end up being bought by bigger competitors

THE PAST few years have seen a growing trend of successful craft breweries founded in the modern era being acquired by the major international brewers. We have seen such well-known brands as Goose Island, Lagunitas and Ballast Point being taken over in the US, plus Meantime and Camden in this country. As “Opening Times” went to press, there were reports that Heineken was planning to buy a stake in craft favourites Beavertown.

This has resulted in widespread disappointment, even a sense of betrayal, amongst craft beer fans. Selling out to “the man” is, for many, hard to forgive. On the other hand, if the owners are offered well over the book value for their company, they can’t really be blamed for seizing the chance of a comfortable retirement. It also contains an element of railing against fate. It may be regrettable, but it’s simply a fact of business life that the most likely outcome for a successful start-up is to be taken over by a larger competitor. Very few go on to spread their wings and fly independently in the way that BrewDog has done.

There’s a strange reluctance to recognize any merit in beers produced by the major breweries. In the 70s and 80s, CAMRA was very critical of the market dominance of the then “Big Six”, but it always accepted that they did produce some excellent real ales. Yet many craft fans are unwilling to touch anything in which the big boys have had a hand. But surely it’s entirely possible for a big company to produce a good beer, just as a small company can make a poor one. This comes across as an exercise in cutting off your nose to spite your face.

This wave of takeovers is significantly different from those that occurred in the British brewing industry in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Then, the prime objective was to get hold of smaller competi­tors’ tied estates and distribution networks. Promises may have been made about maintaining production at original sites, and keeping brands going, but they were rarely worth the paper they were written on.

The more recent ones, however, are about acquiring beer brands, not outlets, and so there is much more of an incentive to maintain the brand equity. Inevitably, in many cases, it will end up being eroded over the years by changes in recipe and production methods, but if they’re not careful the buyers end up destroying the value of their own purchase. It’s also hard to see the takeover of a start-up only a few years old as quite as much of a loss as that of a business that has been established for several generations and become part of its local community.

Every small business start-up has a life-cycle, and there will come a time when the owner wants to move on. Most micro-breweries eventually just shut up shop because the owner has become too old, or unwell, or has lost interest, or isn’t making a worthwhile profit. If you look at the micros from the first couple of decades of CAMRA, few are still in existence in any form. Companies like the remaining family brewers, who have been in existence for a hundred years or more, are very much the exception, not the rule.

Brewing remains an industry where, compared with many others, the barriers to entry are very low, as shown by the fact that over 1,500 new breweries have been set up in this country in the present century. The loss of some favourites may be regretted, but we are likely in the future to see the cycle of cool new start-up turning into corporate acquisition repeated over and over again.

Obviously a huge amount has already been published on the subject of the Heineken investment in Beavertown. I thought this blogpost from Katie of The Snap and the Hiss offered a very balanced perspective from the point of view of someone who is a Beavertown fan.

In contrast, Boozy Procrastinator has speculated on what Logan Plant’s famous dad might think of it all (definitely NSFW).

Thursday 21 June 2018

A rare outbreak of normality

Over the weekend, I was in one of the dwindling number of pubs in my local area of a broadly traditional character. I saw what I assumed was a middle-aged couple come in (although they seemed a little ill-matched) and sit down with drinks. They were joined a few minutes later by a couple of younger blokes of around 20, who may have been the son of one or both of them and his mate.

Nothing unusual about that, you may think. But how often nowadays do you see that kind of mixed-sex, mixed-age family group in a pub, who are just having a drink and a chat and not eating? It was once commonplace; it isn’t now. This is the pub functioning as it should, as a “third space” for social interaction away from the baggage of home and work.

There was sport on the TV, by the way, but it was just one of the more obscure World Cup matches. And they asked the barman to change it over to the cricket anyway, although I don’t think that was their main reason for being there.

Wednesday 20 June 2018

True crafties don’t drink halves

Over the weekend, Boak and Bailey tweeted a telling little anecdote.

The immediate response is obviously that he needs to get himself some new mates, but it illustrates how the craft beer sector, despite its claims to “considered, mindful drinking” is not immune from this kind of laddishness. It also underlines why mainstream draught beers much above 5% ABV are so rare, as they offer an obvious come-on for irresponsible drinking.

Mind you, if you are going to drink pints of DIPA, it’s always best to make sure it’s someone else’s round.

Meanwhile, the beer and food pairing lobby have been coming up with their usual snobbery about how the worst thing that ever happened to beer in this country was the pint glass. It cuts both ways.

Friday 15 June 2018

Free the keg

One change that was made at the recent CAMRA AGM was to remove the previous prohibition on CAMRA beer festivals selling British beers that didn’t meet the definition of real ale. This was always, in Highway Code terms, a “should not” rather than a “MUST NOT”, and some branches did disregard it, surely to some extent out of a desire to cock a snook at what they saw as stuffy traditionalism. However, removing it entirely will surely encourage others.

As I’m someone who doesn’t tend to attend beer festivals as a customer, it will make no difference to me personally. But I do have to wonder what exactly is the point. If you’re supposed to be a Campaign for Real Ale, having keg beers at a festival comes across as rather like having cats at a dog show. It has been suggested that keg and cask beers might be presented alongside each other to underline the superiority of the latter, but that comes across as a touch disingenuous. Who would want to serve X at a festival merely to show that Y was better? Plus, in any case, beer festivals by their nature rarely show cask at its absolute best.

If festivals are to serve keg beers, they should give some thought to what they’re aiming to achieve, rather than just doing it because they can. Maybe consider beers that simply aren’t available in cask form, or where it is felt that the keg format shows them at their best. A good example of the latter would be to showcase British craft lagers, which are often spoken of as a massive potential growth market, but which by definition aren’t going to be real ales. Or perhaps nitro stouts from craft breweries.

Or even why not offer a selection of the established beers such as M&B Mild and Tetley Imperial, which live on in keg form but, because of that, never receive any attention from enthusiasts? Who even knows what beers are out there in the marketplace? OK, that may be a bit of a mischievous suggestion, and is unlikely to happen in practice, but to someone interested in our brewing heritage it could be far more interesting that a random selection of the local railway arch brewers’ latest pastry stouts.

Presumably this also removes the prohibition on selling British bottled beers that aren’t bottle-conditioned. I’ve referred in the past to the insistence on bottle-conditioning as being an unhistorical shibboleth, so this is a move to be welcomed. It will give festivals the opportunity in future to sell, for example, bottled Robinson’s Old Tom. And it could be a good thing if small brewers were given the opportunity to showcase their beers in more reliable brewery-conditioned form rather than expose them to the lottery of small-batch bottle-conditioning.

Monday 11 June 2018

Looking for a role

Phil of Oh Good Ale has recently been recounting his experiences doing the local CAMRA Mild Magic trail. In his concluding post, he makes some very thoughtful observations about the current state of the pub trade.

So, what’s going on out there? Pub-going is changing; like Spinal Tap, its appeal is becoming more selective. The progressive denormalisation of alcohol and social drinking, as a part of everyday life, is continuing to drive pub-going numbers down – or rather, it’s ensuring that losses in pub-going numbers (which are inevitable with social and cultural changes, plus the march of time) aren’t being made up by equal numbers of new drinkers. There is a new breed – or a number of separate, partially overlapping new breeds – of drinker; it’s not just a few hundred hipsters, but on the scale of the population as a whole their numbers are tiny. We can get a false impression from looking in the wrong place, I think. People come from miles around to destination bars in the town centre (and Chorlton), and those bars get pretty crowded at times – but if they’re in town, those people aren’t drinking in the pubs where they live. Thanks to a range of social changes, many of them positive, pubs have lost what used to be their steady clientele (defined roughly as “every unmarried male over the age of 14 and a large proportion of the married men”) – and people who know their Beartown from their Beavertown aren’t going to fill a gap that size...

...There are places where an old style of pub-going doesn’t seem to have gone away, but there are many others where it seems to have died completely, leaving big multi-room pubs waiting for a clientele that isn’t to come back (or not more than a couple of times a week)...

... That’s the world we’re in now, pretty much; unless that wider trend towards denormalisation can be reversed, the pub industry’s going to be facing lean times – or rather, even leaner times.

This echoes several of the points I’ve made in the past in posts such as this and this, that:
  1. The “denormalisation” of drinking alcohol, especially in a social setting, is one of the key factors in the decline of pubs

  2. People increasingly see going to the pub for a drink, if they do it at all, as a distinct leisure activity in its own right rather than something woven into the fabric of everyday life

  3. “Use it or lose it” is a simplistic and not very helpful statement. The problem isn’t so much existing pubgoers visting less, but demographic churn not replacing them with a new generation
While some pubs, in specific locations, catering to specific markets, continue to thrive, many others, even if still open, are all too visibly “running on empty”.

Friday 8 June 2018

More Blogger bother

Blogger have recently carried out a number of changes to their service. As usual, these seem to fall into the category of Hutber’s Law, that is “improvement means deterioration”. One is the removal of support for OpenID, which allowed people to leave comments using their account on other blogging platforms such as Wordpress. They claim that this was little used, but it certainly was on this blog, and it was valuable in adding authenticity to comments. Using the “Name/ID” function, anyone can superficially pretend to be anyone else.

On top of this, they have stopped e-mailing comments on my own blog to me. They accept this is a fault, but after a couple of weeks have done nothing to fix it. The big problem with this is that, if comments require approval, I don’t receive them. The only way I’m aware of them is if I log on to the control panel, which obviously is a lot more trouble than just looking in my inbox. So, if you’ve left a comment and are wondering why it hasn’t appeared, please be patient...

Tuesday 5 June 2018

Welcome to the real world

A couple of years ago, pressure was exerted on the brewers of “super lagers” to change their packaging to bring them in to line with guidelines on “responsible drinking” that no single-use bottle or can should contain more than four units of alcohol. All of the major brands have complied, through one or both of reducing the strength from 9% to 8%, and reducing the can size from 500ml to 440ml. It’s not a law, though, and you can still find 500ml cans of Polish 9% lager in corner shops.

Now it seems that the spotlight is being turned on the craft beer sector and, as the Morning Advertiser reports, they’re not at all happy about it. Indeed, their response seems ridiculously hyperbolic. Russell Bisset, of Leeds-based Northern Monk, says that the move comes across as “an attempt to curtail them growth of the independent craft brewing sector”, and he is “troubled by the Portman group’s attempt to influence and dictate the strength of beer we are able to produce”.

Come on Russell, keep your hair on! Nobody’s trying to stop you brewing very strong beers, just wanting to control the maximum size of package you can put them in. Indeed, many people have criticised craft brewers for their tendency to put very strong beers in containers of 500ml or above, when generally you only want to drink 330ml or less at once. At the same time, there have also been numerous complaints about the craft tendency to put beers of modest supping strength in “child-size” 330ml bottles and cans as a mark of differentiation from the 500ml bottles of boring mainstream brown bitter.

Yes, this is a restriction on brewers’ freedom, but in the overall scheme of things it’s an utterly trivial one. If customers really want to drink that volume, why can’t they buy two smaller bottles instead? Although no doubt we’ll also get the guff about secondary fermentation in larger bottles imparting an additional depth and subtlety of flavour. And there is a good argument that standardisation of package sizes helps consumers by making it easier to compare value for money between different products.

It’s noticeable how the craft brewing sector imagines that it should be exempt from the rules that apply to ordinary mortals. Large bottles of mega-strong beer, cartoon characters on labels, and fixed price all-you-can-drink offers are fine for them, but not, it would seem, for normal drinkers. They are thick, irresponsible drunken plebs who can’t resist temptation, while the crafties, in the words of Mr Bisset, are “champions of considered, mindful drinking”.

Did we get a peep out of these people when the same arm-twisting was applied to Carlsberg Special? Nope, didn’t think so. So I can’t say my cup of sympathy is exactly overflowing. Welcome to the real world, crafties!