Bad Beer Won’t Save Beer

Some people argue that, for beer to prosper, it must defeat wine and cider in a battle that’s being played out in British culture.

A further twist to that argument is the old classic that your enemies’ enemy is your friend or, to put it another way, if you love beer, you ought to love all beer. Because it’s not wine.

We can’t agree with that.

If people are choosing to drink wine, cider, pear cider, spirits, fizzy pop or buttermilk, well, good for them; but we also believe that to know beer is to love it. In other words, lots of people who don’t think they like beer just haven’t tried a really good one.

People who find beer “too bitter” or bad tasting aren’t going to be won over by nasty beer. They already think it’s nasty and those products just confirm their prejudices. They might, at a push, be lured into drinking the odd bland beer, but that’s not going to convert them anymore than wallpaper turns people on to art.

What might convert people is really amazing, impressive, exciting beer. Colourful beer — perhaps literally so. Eyecatching beer with a story and sexy label. But, most of all, beer that presses the pleasure buttons because it tastes so damn good. Irresistibly so. This is component missing in so many brand extensions and big beer launches.

Consider this: three of our wine-drinking friends have independently said more-or-less the same thing to us in the last year and a half: that after tasting US IPAs on holiday they are interested in trying more beer. Doesn’t this opens up a whole different interpretation of the idea of gateway beers — not “easy drinkers” for beginners but a kind of shock therapy?

And maybe, if people don’t like beer any more, because they think other things taste nicer, then beer’s time as a mass product is over. That’s not the end of the world, though it is a sad thought.

16 thoughts on “Bad Beer Won’t Save Beer”

  1. Everything tastes better on holiday.

    I’ve been trying to get my girlfriend to switch from wine to beer and all I’ve got so far is:

    Jaipur, Kipling, High Wire and Punk IPA smell like bleach – I’m not even going to try it.

    Westmalle Dubbel smells like Christmas cake but tastes ‘too strong for beer’ (bit rich coming from someone who has no problem putting a bottle away of a 13% Sauvignon Blanc).

    Any regular brown beer smells and tastes like pond water.

    I just can’t win!

    1. Everything tasting better on holiday may be part of the reason there has been so much dire lager in the UK.

      I’ve spent years trying to convert my girlfriend and it has had the complete opposite effect. She used to have a few lagers and now doesn’t touch anything. When I insist on her tasting she takes such a pathetic little sip that it must evaporate through her nose before she gets to taste it.

      It breaks my heart to watch but like any spurned lover, I can’t let it go and know I’ll be back for more.

  2. I appear to be a muse – my mother will be proud ;o)

    I stand by what I said – craft beer is just a tall dwarf in a declining category that people are increasingly falling out of love with and that has to stop. It won’t be stopped by putting the hairiest, chewiest beer you can find in front of them and when they don’t like it telling them why they are wrong.

    It will be done by proving the depth and breadth of beer, proving how there is a beer that’s just as right for hot summer afternoon’s in a beer garden as a jug of Pimms, one that’s light and delicate enough to compliment the subtlest of fish dishes, rich and robust enough to be the perfect foil for the reddest of meats and warming and comforting to thaw the coldest of cockles in the depth of winter.

    For that to happen we need to celebrate all beer – wine hasn’t been in constant growth for the last 20 years or so by constantly sniping and telling people you’re wrong for liking a certain kind of grape – beer folks should learn from that.

    And there’s simple economics – if people continue to turn away from beer in massive numbers (as they are) can the micro’s afford to bring them back – no. You don’t have to love all beer but you should respect it unless you want to see the ability of the smaller brewers you revere compromised as there is no market for them to exist in.

    To love beer is to know it, and understand why it’s crucial not to accept people rejecting it for ciders, wines and spirits

    1. Not sure I agree with you here Kristy…no surprise there!

      A few points.

      First and small point, while the wine blogs and press is a bit more unified then beer it is not without it’s spats, its “anything but Chardonnay” ABC club, Merlot is dull comments etc

      Now my big beef with your statement. The beer market as a whole is declining, but the craft beer and real ale markets are increasing. People are getting bored of bland (mass produced, sometimes) beer and are moving to drinks with more flavour. Some are moving to wine some are moving to spirits and cider and some are moving to more flavourful beer, Some may even pick and chose depending on what is available.

      I don’t see the market as a whole as indicative of the ability of small brewery to be able to sell their beers. Those brewing good beers will continue to grow and those messing up or producing bland beer may not.

      Not all Micros produce good or interesting beer, and not all Macros produce dull insipid dishwater, this is not a big vs small or craft vs real ale thing it is Good beer (well made with some taste) vs Bad beer (porly made or formulated) thing.

      In my mind it is up to all brewers to up their game or lose out.

      One thing I do agree with you is the need to have a united front on the beer and food thing, and the beer is not the cause of all drinking problems thing, and the beer duty is excessive thing, these are things we can unite behind.

      I can’t bring myself to unit behind that all beer is great and all beer needs to be respected, cause it isn’t and and I don’t.

      1. Fair point Gregg. I’d say it’s no bad thing at all that the category as a whole is declining, so long as those who are making interesting beer can still thrive. Celebrate all beer? I just don’t see why.

        Continuing the wine parallel – when there’s an overall decline of wine drinking figures in traditional wine drinking countries, it generally coincides with a switch over to less wine of a better quality. If that happens with beer, then great – there are health benefits of lower drinking and a beer market based less on homogenised industrial product really is a good for all of us.

  3. I agree. While I can see the point that Pete Brown made about getting people ‘into’ beer (wrt. the GK IPA roll-out) it’s flavour that attracts most people and keeps them interested – the idea that there are so many different experiences available. The range of beers we served when I ran a Belgian theme bar (it wasn’t, but it gives you the idea!) was what switched people (male and female) on to it, usually through the recognition of a confused look, and an offer of a sample.

    Any beer that grabs people’s attention through a marketing gimmick is just a temporary thing, that same person drinking that flavourless drink will move onto the next one next time the drinks company fools them into it.

  4. I had a similar experience during a recent trip to America. A friend didn’t know what to get at a bar, so I got in some Avery Maharaja. He couldn’t believe a beer could taste as it did.

    With all this discussion of the GK advertising campaign recently as a ‘gateway’ to real ale, I too have wondered whether GK IPA really is a good ‘gateway’ beer (whether or not the campaign is good at getting people into pubs is another matter). I’m not sure whether GK IPA turns more first-time ale drinkers on or off real ale (frankly, I expect it’s probably the latter). I think I’d rate something like Punk IPA or Jaipur a better ‘gateway’ to good beer than Greene King. At least I know which I’d recommend to somebody.

    In his article Protz talks about these young drinkers getting into real ale. But are they really getting into it by drinking the likes of Greene King and Shepheard Neame, or Thornbridge and Magic Rock?

  5. I have to wonder what Sunday supplement Kristy is reading where they do balanced and detailed reviews of Lambrusco and Buckfast. They don’t get sniped at: they’re jokes in the wine world; bedtime horror stories for Robert Parker’s kids. And their beer equivalents exist.

    Congrats on your cultured and travelled friends, Bailey. I meet lots of people for whom the beer world opened up the moment they tasted Innis & Gunn. I have a special fixed smile I do, just for them.

  6. God knows who is right here. I reckon most people can find a beer they like, but equally, the getting there is just too much bother for a lot of people. I reckon too that Kristy has a point despite being somewhat mocked.

    B&B have said that they have wine friends that have had Damascan insight into the delights of beer by the simple expedient of drinking it in America. My experience of drinking in the US is that there is as much cack as good stuff there too.

    I doubt the route to truth will be found through the short Sharp shock of starting with challenging beers. Bit too much like cold turkey in reverse.

    1. “God knows who is right here.”

      Fencesitter.

      Re: US beer — you presumably first tried a US IPA after a good few years of drinking and appreciating cask ale. For many people (including us) they (IPAs specifically) can be revelatory, exposing the raw flavour and aroma of hops in a hard-to-miss way. Yes, once you’ve got used to them, the sheen can disappear, but that first taste can be a real eye-opener.

      I don’t think we’re suggesting *really* challenging or “hairy” beers — just beers whose flavours aren’t delicate. Unchallenging, in fact.

      1. I actually think the big bitterness of muscularly hopped new world pale ales can turn people off big time. Not always obviosly.

        I reckon Belgium has alot to offer in regards to hallelula moment beers which arnt palate bruising.

  7. I blame the decline of apprenticeships, and I think the rot set in with Gazza.

    Seriously (well, semi-seriously). Among young males, it used to be common knowledge that beer was bitter, and that the first few times you drank it you wouldn’t like it. But you kept at it, because you wanted to be a man and that was what men drank. It was the head-down, don’t-complain, serve-your-time apprenticeship mentality in a glass (as distinct from the Apprentice mentality, which is very different).

    When Paul Gascoigne first started being a laughing stock instead of a national hero, I remember reading about some shock! horror! binge he’d been out on. He and his mates had been alternating bottles and shots – bottles of Two Dogs and shots of Archer’s. My teeth are cringing just typing it – they might as well have been getting drunk on liqueur chocolates. It seems as if, at some point (in the 80s?), young men stopped bothering to serve their time with pints of something awful-tasting so as to acquire the taste of beer, and the brewing industry started letting them.

    I’d be very keen on more women – and more men, come to that – discovering decent beer. But the word is ‘decent’. And decent beer is almost invariably bitter, and hence an acquired taste.

    1. (Morning-after postscript)

      I realise that this all sounds horrendously macho and outdated, and totally irrelevant to the question of encouraging more women to give beer a go. I don’t think it’s entirely irrelevant, though. The old approach to initiating young men in beer – “shut up and sup up, you’ll like it when you’re older” – wouldn’t work on most (if any) women; these days it wouldn’t work on most men either. But it did work – it was a way to get new drinkers over the hump of an initially offputting flavour. That’s still the problem new beer drinkers face – it just doesn’t taste very nice, so they need incentives to stick at it. This is what I think Greene King have got right – that TV ad makes a pub look like a great place to be, *and* a place where people drink pints of beer. (Imagine a TV ad showing a woman drinking a pint of bitter. You’ll have to imagine it – I don’t suppose we’ll ever see one – but what a powerful statement that would make.)

      The key is finding ways to push & pull people over the bitterness hump, not planing the hump away and ending up with something almost but not quite entirely unlike beer.

      1. Phil — it came across as a commentary based on experience rather than lobbying for women to be thrown out of pubs, so I think you’re alright!

        Love the “bitterness hump”. Why should anyone force themselves over it when they can just drink sweet ciders? (See Tandleman above.) The best way has to be to a convincing presentation of the benefits of joining us ON THE OTHER SIDE… [theremin]

  8. My sister never liked whisky until she tried laphroaig.

    Now if you read books on whisky they tend to describe it as an acquired taste, and say that people should start with bland highland whiskies. Which might be good advice for someone who had never tasted whisky but for some reason wanted to get into it (because their friend never shut up about it, or because they like the image of it, perhaps?), but for most normal people it isn’t going to work because it doesn’t show them why whisky can be such a wonderful drink. Laphroaig isn’t to everyone’s taste, but many people will drink it and say “wow” and then be inspired to try other whiskies. Appreciation of more subtle flavours takes longer.

    It hadn’t occurred to me before that the same might apply to beer. A large part of the appeal of beer is that it is refreshing in a way that few other drinks are, and I think that is reason enough for most people to start drinking beer. For such people something relatively bland may be a good place to start.

    Of course, many such people never become interested in the more challenging beer styles, perhaps sticking to some god awful mass-market lager. So there is still a need for something to shock them into taking the next step into exploring all that beer can offer.

    For them, and for people who have never seen the appeal of beer as a refreshing drink (it amazes me that there are people who think wine is an appropriate drink for a hot sunny day, but there are), I agree with you – you won’t get them interested in beer by offering them something easy drinking.

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