Is Your Lager Phone On?

If America is Jackson Pollock then the UK is Rolf Harris.

–Battle of the Craft Brewers: US vs UK

This feature on Dwink argues that the US is currently winning the rounds.  The most compelling aspect of this article is the section on availability of craft beer in the two countries– the UK dismally losing this round. “Penetration within the pub companies, mostly owned by banks not brewers, is constrained by the beer tie while many insist on centralised distribution through one of the big three logistic companies.” This is my frustration– even though the brewer-to-drinker ratio is greater in the UK, the selection of craft beer readily available in the just isn’t as healthy as in the US.  For this to change, we have to get more Brits drinking craft beer.

The other night Mr. Malting was at a metal show and the craft beer on tap was Sierra Nevada.  This is something I’m seeing with more regularity in trendier pubs and venues– American beer is becoming increasingly available. Everyone I talk to in my peer group, and most are almost inconvertable mega-lager drinkers, believe that the image of craft beer in the UK is the one insurmountable obstacle, but I’m sure distribution plays a bigger part.

I realize I long ago turned my lager phone off.  I don’t know how to reach all my lager and wine drinking friends, try as I might suggesting different beers.  The lager drinker who will opt for anything that’s around 4% or the wine drinker who’s not fussed as long as it’s red suddenly become very picky when presented with ale.   I can only conclude the reluctance is not about taste; it’s about image.

It is curious to note that among my friends and peers in the US there is absolutely no stigma to drinking craft beer.  On the contrary, it is cutting edge, hip, authentic.  I wonder if the way forward in converting a younger generation of beer drinkers will be through more American craft beer available here in the UK?

Isn’t that the way lager almost swept out real ale in Britain initially?  The imports were sold to Brits as the shinier, younger option?  In profoundly image-conscious Britain we need to think of a narrative that will resonate with younger Brits the same way the populist, American”Craft Brewer” video spot resonates with Americans’ identity as revolutionaries and independents, Davids to the industry’s Goliath.

To do this we really have to redefine our terms.  “Microbrew” and “real ale” have become problematic and exclusive.  Perhaps a more encompassing approach is to embrace “craft beer”?  We know that cask ale isn’t the only good beer around, despite its vitally defining role in British brewing, but this is a topic for another post.

My friends who went to All Tomorrow’s Parties tell me that Exmoor ales were served at the Butlins venues and the staff were encouraging punters and really offering the beers as locally made and an exciting “new” option.   Perhaps this approach–emphasizing food miles and green thinking, the authenticity of locality and context is the way forward?  I remain skeptical.  Part of me believes that many Brits would opt for a stylish import or a mass brand “no brainer” over something as seemingly unfashionable as real ale.  I would like to be wrong.

18 Responses

  1. Here’s the culprit (well one of them):

    Your first para is spot on. Here CAMRA should be acting but they don’t. Their underlying political perspective tells them more competition (Thatcher alert!) is a bad thing, failing to understand that “competition” in its passive sense means “opportunity to sell” – and that’s what the craft sector has a shortage of.

    • Hi Jeff…I have often enjoyed, in a kind of scab-picking way, looking at the pumpclip parade. There’s vindication there, alright.

      I confess I don’t know much about the business end of beer, but it’s elementary that if the small brewer is not able to compete it will be the large brewers and distributors who dominate the market. I feel a real sense of urgency that this must change. Is it not up to individual land lords to sell the beers they chose? What is the situation here?

  2. i was at the ATP festival at the start of December, and there were several stalls around the venue selling Exmoor and Cotleigh ales. unfortunately both brewers are the type to use a random name with little clue as to the style (names of animals in the case of Exmoor and names of birds in the case of Cotleigh), and the staff didn’t really know. it certainly was nice to have ale available though.

    i think there are a lot of young people interesting beer now, but it’s simply not available in enough places, and the attention over cask ale and pubs doesn’t help that – personally i’d like to see some decent keg stuff (e.g. Sierra Nevada!) in music venues, restaurants and the like, which is probably more practical in most cases

    • Hi Michael– thanks for underscoring this, since I wasn’t there it’s just passing on information. I do really love Exmoor beast– was that available? Though, you are right about the marketing there being quite conservative. There was a funny comment in the sh*tstorm that befell Protz recently over the BrewDog furor– someone said that most real ale is either named after an animal or weather. Really, this has to change! I don’t think it can be dismissed as unimportant if we really want a new generation of ale drinkers.

      I completely agree with you re. keg stuff. If it’s more practical, and can get craft beer into more places, let’s lose the stigma that keg is somehow not “real” beer.

      As my most recent trip to Meantime’s brewpub affirmed, some beers are just better on keg or bottle than in cask– Meantimes London Pale Ale being one!

  3. Mmm: Camra – and I say this as a member for more than 30 years, and as someone who writes on occasion for What’s Brewing – may now be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

    • Thanks for reading, Zythophile. I have a lot of respect for what CAMRA do, but I gave up my membership because I felt completely outside of the organization’s goals and core demographic.

  4. “Part of me believes that many Brits would opt for a stylish import or a mass brand “no brainer” over something as seemingly unfashionable as real ale”

    This is exactly why (head above the parapet – overrated, but still nice) Sierra Nevada can win over Carlsberg drinkers at gigs – it’s both fashionable and a no-brainer, as it’s keg (by which I mean you can rely on it).

    I remember a really good gig venue in Cambridge (sadly gone to the home for great gig venues in the sky) called the Boat Race that sold local cask ales, but they were only open from 8pm and the kids (mostly underage) were on JD and coke, Blackthorn and blackcurrant or pints of Stella. The cask beer, usually reputably sourced and certainly well-kept (as a new barrel always tasted super), did not have the throughput to maintain quality. And in a sweaty gig venue the ‘cellar temperature’ beer turned too hot pretty quickly.

    So kegged craft beer is the solution for the gig venue.

    More generally, I’m not worried about cask beer being the preserve of those above 25. How many people read The Economist before the age of 25? I hope hardly any. Are we to assume from this that, because Economist-reading is low amongst the young, that the august magazine faces unstoppable sales decline? Of course not – they’ll come to it. Same as with Radio 4, classical music and larger sums of disposable income.

    There is the interesting development of young, middle class, well-educated young people going for cask. I’m only 26 and I can say hand-on-heart *none* of my friends drink crappy, standard keg fayre such as Carling or Stella. The ATP thing does not surprise me – it is precisely this educated, liberal, twittering young folk who are concerned about authenticity and provenance and who are looking to cask in greater numbers. If I recall correctly, Pete Brown’s Cask Report makes these points but backed up with the hard stats my anecdotal points sorely lack.

    BrewDog, of course, smartly straddle the divide. Gig venues serving keg Punk IPA really ought to be a no-brainer – super name and terrific branding. That casketeers break out into beard-rash when they see it speaks volumes about how excellent quality can break barriers if the marketing is spot on.

    • I’ve never liked Sierra Nevada but I’m glad it’s around!

      So your friends who are drinking decent beer– how did they come to it? Or was it an effortless thing, given the easy availability in Cambridge of really beautiful beers?

      I like your optimism about disposable income. I listen to Radio 4, surely this should follow?

  5. (“I’m only 26 and I can say hand-on-heart *none* of my friends drink crappy, standard keg fayre such as Carling or Stella.” – I stress this is an observation, not a value judgement!)

    • Are you saying I need better friends?!? haha.

  6. ‘Or was it an effortless thing, given the easy availability in Cambridge of really beautiful beers? ‘

    That plays its part, though in truth many students don’t penetrate outside the city centre. It’s a self-selecting crowd who don’t consider the 10min walk to the Mill Road ale-triangle a trek-too-far.

    But it was my school friends who got me into good beer. When I was doing A-levels (ten years ago, i.e. I was 16), I had a mate called George whose dad liked his beer. We went to the pub when we were meant to be on a study period in the library (no-one checked) and he said ‘try a pint of this.’

    It was London Pride and tasted, at the time – though I still love a perfect pint – intense beyond belief. My faith in the nectar was heightened by my experience that ordering ale tended to get you under the requirement-to-show-ID radar, where mates ordering rum and coke and Stella would invariably get collared.

    Amongst our group, George and I got a lot of comments like ‘what’s that?!’ We’d give our pals a sip and they’d tend to order a pint themselves. It helped that the pubs serving beer tended not to be those frequented by loud, young mobs. Seeing a bit of youth in the place was often welcome to the landlord and we reciprocated by enjoying our beers, chats and playing the odd game of darts. We weren’t trouble. It was all pretty much as you still find in Germany with 16-year-olds.

    That’s it – how I got into beer. But I do find – and this is where Pete Brown’s ale value chain kicks in – a group becomes more ale-drinking if one ale drinker is in the group. They tend to go to ale pubs as the ale drinker chooses the venue and becomes seen as the ‘pub guru’.

    My best man Matt successfully persuaded his girlfriend (who doesn’t like beer) that they should go to pubs with decent ale because – in the main – it demonstrates a ‘wider fastidiousness’ in other areas (bogs, kitchens, wine choice, etc.) In the main I think this is true and becoming more and more true.

    Sorry, I’m blabbering again. God work is slow today ;0)

  7. It’s time we re-addressed this whole issue. The fact that the beer blogosphere has become so vibrant, fun, and cool, and the market stats I read on craft beer’s penetration among hip, affluent 30-somethings, has kind of made me forget this year how we’re talking in a bubble.

    I think we’re all becoming a bit too self-congratulatory – and I put myself forward as being guilty of that as anyone else. I just re-read the first ever post I put on my blog and am now worried I’m turning into what I used to rail against. The product is no problem at all. Image and industry structure are separate points and both need taking on.

    Let’s all take the message to the people in 2010!

    • I agree, Pete! I think the great thing about the internet is that it connects so many people and can powerfully redefine things outside of marketing company boardrooms, etc. In the Beer-o-sphere I often worry we are just chatting to each other. Of course that is necessary but I realize I would like my blog to be accessible to someone who doesn’t know that much about beer at all, someone who has found the blog by Googling “Berlin Wall” or “Pam Grier”– viral beervangelism in 2010!

  8. It’s quite funny how people write as though CAMRA has power: it doesn’t. The number of CAMRA members per pub in the UK is less than two. CAMRA does not force Pub Cos to refuse to take local ales from small breweries; they do it all by themselves, apart from Wetherspoons (like them or not).

    CAMRA’s policy is that pubs should all be able to take at least one beer from outside the tie. If that were implemented, then our microbrewers would have a much bigger market overnight. Where I live, the local Southport Brewery’s Golden Sands came first in the best beer category at the GBBF this year, but it’s difficult to find this award-winning beer in its hometown. All the licensees I’ve spoken to about this say it’s because of their Pub Co; none has blamed CAMRA (and some of them are quite happy to have a go at CAMRA if they see fit). As you know, this problem is not unique to Southport.

    It’s all very well saying CAMRA should “should be acting but they don’t”, but CAMRA cannot create greater “opportunity to sell”, seeing that the structure of the pub economy is very largely due to the Pub Co cartel and the law. CAMRA simply doesn’t have the kind of clout you seem to think. You won’t get the CAMRA hierarchy saying this, because doing so would be to admit that CAMRA is less powerful than people believe, including some who have posted here.

    I’ve been in CAMRA for over 20 years and I’m very aware of its many faults, but there’s no such thing as a perfect organisation? You have to work with the organisations you have – or start one of your own. Saying CAMRA should do things beyond its power is mere wishful thinking – or whingeing.

    • Thanks, RedNev for chiming in here. What laws are preventing pubs from stocking local craft beers? How are some pubs able to seemingly operate without a Pub Co? Is it an issue of mortgage and rent paying, distribution? Why are some pubs able to stock a healthy array of craft beer whereas most the selection is really lacking? I don’t expect you to answer all this but if there is a place on the web, etc. which discusses it that would be great to have a link.

  9. Lots of food for thought here, as always. We have a love-hate relationship with CAMRA, scared of the beardy weirdies but impressed with what they’ve achieved in the last 30 years. I have no evidence to back it up, but I do belive we wouldn’t be in a situation where most of us have good access to a good range of cask beers if it hadn’t been for CAMRA (see Ireland for alternate history)

    Also I’m not convinced that keg is easier to keep fresh. I’ve had some seriously ropey Meantime, for example.

  10. You may find this post I did on pubcos, etc., quite interesting and it touches on some of the questions you asked above.

    While I agree pubco choice is limited it is improving and has markedly done so over the last two years or so.

    But I wholeheartedly agree with RedNev and CAMRA that publicans probably ought to be able to buy one beer outside of the pubco tie – perhaps it could be for beer brewed within a 50-mile radius or something.

  11. A belated answer to your question to me can be found in this press release from CAMRA: this was the kind of thing I was refering to, the fact that PubCos were exempt from competition laws:

    Better late than never!

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