An Unworked Stream with Just Enough Gold

Panning for Gold

Believe it or not, we’re not completely stuck in the seventies, Life on Mars style: we’ve also spent a bit of time recently talking to the current generation of British brewers, and have a few more interviews scheduled. In particular, we’ve most recently been considering those parts of the industry which, if it hadn’t become a hated buzzword, we might have called ‘innovative’.

The critics are right, though — innovative isn’t the correct word, because there’s rarely anything new being done, even if it’s being presented differently. Let’s express it another way: we mean brewers who are producing beer for which there is apparently almost no market.

They’re making beer which hardly anyone has asked for; which most people won’t like; which will make some people downright angry; and cause many of their peers to look at them with raised eyebrows.

And yet… these brewers are paying the bills, it seems, and finding money to invest in their businesses too boot. They’re optimistic for the future and worrying less about finding new accounts than fulfilling outstanding orders while they await delivery of shiny new fermenting vessels. There was even tentative talk from one exhausted-looking brewer of taking a holiday abroad this year, for the first time in several years.

Maybe they can be likened to bands with ‘one thousand true fans‘? In his 2008 article of that name, Kevin Kelly suggested that was how many devotees a ‘creator’ needed to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

All breweries making freaky beer need to do is find the handful of freaks who will love it.

28 thoughts on “An Unworked Stream with Just Enough Gold”

    1. Yes, think so — guess that’s what the last line of the post is getting at.

      Some people like obscure things partly *because* they’re obscure, regardless of their intrinsic qualities. I’m not immune to that, though it tends to manifest in reading pulpy paperbacks and watching spaghetti westerns rather than in my taste in beer these days. It’s quite good fun to feel you’re watching a film or reading a book everyone else has forgotten about!

  1. But remember they don’t make these beers a second time, just replacing it with the next incompetency. So you just need a herd of suckers who believe this sort of thing represents quality brewing. When the bubble moves on to the next fad, the collapse will be impressive.

  2. are you talking about breweries that are just rubbish but somehow still manage to make a living (fair play to them, I would never deny someone’s right to make a living), or breweries that are all sound and fury and nice graphics but occasionally manage to make something that is rather interesting (but doesn’t have a place in the universe of the stolid beer drinker)?

    1. We’re talking about breweries which have built their business around, e.g. unfined beer (not only no proven market in the UK but the very idea makes some people ANGRY!) or brewing with wild yeast. (You’ll have guessed which two breweries less than thirty minutes apart we visited most recently by now…)

      So, yes, stuff which ‘doesn’t have a place in the universe of the stolid beer drinker’ is a good way of putting it.

      1. I would be amazed if either of those breweries was running on net profit. They’re both fairly new, apart from anything else – it takes years to finish being a startup.

        Had a Wild beer recently; it wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t particularly remarkable either. Which would be fine, if it hadn’t been massively hyped and rather expensive.

        1. We didn’t inspect the accounts! All we’re saying is that there’s obviously some kind of sustainable business there. Moor has been running in its current form, more or less, since 2006, and a lot longer than that before Justin Hawke took it over, and seems to be growing.

          Our point, more generally, is that it doesn’t matter whether you found the WBC beers you had remarkable as long as *some* people do. Here’s something they said when we interviewed them: ‘The fact is, ‘brown beer drinkers’ are well catered for — there are plenty of breweries making the type of beer they like and want to drink.’

          Having said that, if it’s all smoke and mirrors, and they’re running at a loss, maybe they ought to charge more for their beer…

          1. I’ve had most of the WB beers and find them exciting because they have flavours and tastes that I enjoy,, but then I like brown beer as well (I’m one of those boring people who likes all manner of beers), and I like beers from Moor and if Justin wants to go the unfined route then more power to his elbow (if there is a market for it there’s a market for it — if anyone is angry about it then they should get out more or just become a vlogger).

            There seems to be an innate conservatism in one part of the beer world that views anything ‘a bit different’ with suspicion— it’s a sort of ‘I know what I like’ or ‘it’s all PR’ attitude — whether it’s innovation, exploration or rediscovery (definitely the latter when we are talking about using Brettanomyces) then surely it’s to be applauded, whether it’s likes or not. The beer world would be poorer without brewers trying to push the limits of brewing or maybe as TS Eliot wrote: We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started.

  3. I hate that argument of Kevin Kelly’s. That model demonstrably works for artists who already had a following: if you’ve got a million people vaguely interested already, finding 1,000 diehard fanatics isn’t that hard. (Julian Cope sold 10,000 copies of an hour-long chant about Odin. Julian Cope used to be on Top of the Pops.) Finding those 1,000 people from a standing start is another matter.

    In brewing, I’m sceptical that any of the brewers you may or may not be talking about (an example would have helped) are actually making a living out of The Fans. I suspect a lot of them are keeping the show on the road out of a combination of startup capital, government grants and bank loans, followed at a later date by share issues, more government grants and more bank loans. Which isn’t a bad thing – it’s a perfectly respectable way to build a small business – but it can create misleading impressions.

  4. The irony is, the Wild beer I tried had a shouty BD-esque description about it having more of this and more of that and it’s so crazy it might just work, but what was in my glass was… brown beer. Quite an ordinary brown beer. Not bad, but nothing special.

    I’m not saying it’s smoke and mirrors, just that all new businesses run at a loss – or would run at a loss if they had to survive on sales alone – for quite some time. There’s nothing wrong with doing that – in fact, staying like that can be the smart thing to do: the longer you can do it, the more time you can devote to building up your image and laying the groundwork for a business that can survive on sales. It just means that “this business selling widgets is thriving” doesn’t necessarily translate as “this business is thriving by selling widgets”.

  5. The question is, how sustainable those business are in the long run? The model of some of them seem to be based on (and it may be a wrong appreciation on my part) coming out with a new beer every second week or so without any apparent concept behind it other than “how about doing this?”. How much steam can that have? When does freakish end and gimmicky begin?

  6. That’s a good question.

    I suppose you might equally ask whether just making the same fairly reliable product over and over is any more sustainable, in a market where lots of other people are already doing that, not least the huge multinationals.

    Will the section of the market that thrives on variety and novelty shrink or disappear? I can’t see it, though their tastes might change.

    1. I think the “old fashioned” (to give it a name) model has longer legs. They can still come out every now and again with a new product, or product line to attract new consumers to the brand, who could get interested in the workhorses, whereas fashions come and go (I believe this freakish/gimmicky beers are still very much a fad, nothing wrong with that, mind you) and aiming at a specific demographic is very risky. What will happen once the cool young crowd that are not buying craft keg get married, have kids and mortgages? Will they still be interested in those beers, or have enough disposable income to keep on going to the cool beer bars? Will the next generation want to drink the same stuff? On top of it, companies that make a more “rational” line of reliable products are in general more efficient in many aspects.

      That said, and since their name has been mentioned, it’d be interesting to see some numbers from BrewDog and the share that Punk IPA, for instance, has in the total sales. Someone mentioned to me once that 60% Dogfish Head’s sales came from the 60 Minute IPA, which is, in a way, rather remarkable for a brewery with such a wide portfolio.

      The impression that I get with many of this freakish beers is that they are to some breweries what super cars are to the car industry. Hardly anyone will be interested in buying, let alone be able to afford, a 700HP monster that can go from 0 to 100 in half a second, but it gets the brand mentioned in, not only, the specialised press. Same with these beers in a way.

      1. Oh, yes — the so-called halo effect.

        Just to refer to specific examples again, though, Moor have a core range of interesting but not especially weird beers. Their main ‘innovation’ (sorry) is selling them unfined. They’re sometimes hazy, but not always, and the brewer swears they taste better to his palate. That seems like a sustainable ‘point of difference’ but, if it proves otherwise, I guess he can just start using finings again.

      2. Hi Max
        that sales thing percentage happens with the regional brewers as well, look at Doom Bar, which makes up an incredible amount of their sales, yet Stuart Howe comes up with Coffee Stout, Thyme Pilsener etc, that’s not gimmicky (and I wouldn’t call Wild Beer gimmicky, they could go out and make a lot more money making highly accmoplished bitters or US hopped beers, it’s just they thought let’s see what happens if we do this here).

        How much of Fuller’s output is London Pride — I do wonder if there is all an element of irritation with the hipster, loudy, brazen PR that comes with some breweries like Dog Fishhead, BrewDog etc and what some people don’t like is the noise that the fanboys make whenever BD, for instance, put out a tweet with scamps in the title (that initially irritates me but it’s not addressed to me so it now goes over my head). Like a lot of breweries there’s good and bad beers, I remember a certain Czech beer writer declaring that Pardal was like bear urine, that didn’t go down well with the brewery’s reps out here, but he sung the rest of the brewery’s beers to high heaven. I could have written a post with my comments today (but more people will read them here…)

  7. I regularly buy bottles of both those breweries, and funnily enough had a pint of each in London this afternoon. I don’t really care about the gimmicks, I just think both make very good beer. Moor especially.

  8. There is an odd triangulation amongst beery discourse, money and experimentation that has yet to have a finger put upon it. Oddly, for a trade that wants to be taken as seriously as good wine, this sliver of good beer brewing acts more like vodka coolers (add ingredient X and, amazingly, it tastes like ingredient X!) followed by an uncritical analysis containing an implicit critique of critical analysis. Having family that includes newspaper editing, I am told there is no branch as corrupt as automotive journalism. Cars are one of the last great sources of ad revenue. Please continue to question deeply accordingly.

  9. I suppose what we’re *trying* to do, though it is difficult, is distinguish between the ‘significance’ of a brewery and the quality of its product. Even if the WBC beers stink (we don’t think they do, but don’t want to get into that…) they are ‘significant’ because they are a brewery specialising in barrel-aging/Brett/wild yeast/saison, which opened at a particular time, in a particular place, and which seems to be finding some success. They (groan) ‘say something’ about UK beer culture and where it’s been and is going.

    It only seems fair, really, to take our taste out of the equation because the first two-thirds of the book talks a lot about beers that we never got chance to taste. We’ve got no idea, for example, if Litchborough Bitter was any good, though we have secondhand reports. Ditto Watney’s Red Barrel!

  10. But to do that you have to get into why it is so difficult to distinguish amongst significance, quality and the other messaging in the marketplace. And it is not perhaps so much what the breweries say to the culture, however, as what the culture states in response. It’s not that it is simply confounded by the large flow of money – and side stream of the deft placement of small sums and small opportunities – but, let’s be honest, this is largely a pleasure trade to put it nicely or, less nicely, a booze soaked topic. Cash paid to some degree for intoxication to some degree is the fundamental equation.

    That being the case, does success, significance, quality or positive cultural response really depend all that much on how it tastes whether “real”, “craft” or “macro”? What does, after all, experiment or market share taste like?

  11. That needs (Discuss.) at the end.

    We know why Litchborough was significant: because it was the first properly commercial new brewing company to have opened in decades and inspired others. The beer could have tasted like dishwater (maybe it did, we’ll never know…) and it would still be important.

    It does get harder when the landmarks and milestones are less blindingly obvious, and it’s harder to be objective when you’ve met the people involved and come away with no reason to take them for confidence men or charlatans.

    Hopefully our selections and interpretations will make sense in the context of the book’s narrative, even if people don’t necessarily agree with them.

  12. “Discuss”? I thought that’s what question marks were for. ;-)

    I am not speaking of confidence men or charlatans, though no doubt there are a few as in any trade. I am suggesting I have never read a proper description of the nature of the greater discourse or, for that matter, any author who actually had a grasp on the actual nature of the brewing trade. Richard Boston probably came closest.

    1. Who could, really? Brewers who write books are brewers and speak from one perspective; drinkers are drinkers; ‘industry’ writers are too close; and ‘non-industry’ writers, even if they’d be better at antagonistic lines of inquiry, probably don’t understand enough to ask the right questions. (Viz. the risible quality of most beer journalism by generalist hacks.)

      We’re trying really hard to at least avoid sycophancy but, unlike police forces or government ministries, breweries are under no obligation to allow access. If we’re rude to them, or excessively annoying, they’d be entitled to slam the door in our faces, and no-one would care that there was a conspiracy to CONCEAL THE TRUTH! because it’s ‘only beer’.

      Side note: Boston fell out of favour with CAMRA when he took payment to promote British beer at a big, rather tacky lager-led festival, and thus came to be seen, maybe unfairly, as a brewers’ stooge. Needed the cash to kickstart The Vole, perhaps…

  13. Wild Beer Co just looked at what foreign beer styles had yet to be recreated by the new progressive wave of British breweries and did the obvious thing, and as a result leapfrogged to the front of the craft beer consciousness.

    I actually think that once the sour beer trend has run its course, we will have run out of beer styles to be the next big thing. What then? Consolidation? Some new trend?

    1. That’s the problem with ‘next big things’ — they only really seem obvious with hindsight.

      The ‘not really beer anymore’ end of the market (where e.g. WBC Ninkasi sits) has room to grow, for starters.

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