Pop Star Brewers

Adapted from Elvis Pez by Joel Kramer, from Flickr under Creative Commons.
Adapted from Elvis Pez by Joel Kramer, from Flickr under Creative Commons.

We live in strange times when brewers have their own television shows, sign autographs and form super-groups.

For most of the last few hundred years, insofar as anyone cared who was brewing their beer, they probably assumed it was the bloke whose name was on the bottles — Mr Whitbread, or Mr Boddington.

Then, in the 1970s, along came microbreweries. What made them news was often the stories of the people involved. A great part of the appeal of the Litchborough Brewery, launched in 1974, was the tale of an individual, Bill Urquhart, pushing back against the monolithic, literally ‘faceless’ might of the Big Six. Working at Watney’s, he had been part of the machine behind the red façade, but when newspapers wrote about Litchborough it was Bill they were interested in.

At a time when there was an active struggle between consumers (enthusiasts) and big brewing concerns, it was also another way to needle the secretive big-wigs of the Brewers’ Society. As far as they were concerned, the names of their brewers, like the alcoholic strength and ingredients, were not really any of the public’s business. Microbreweries were more transparent.

Alongside that came the rise of beer writing as we know it, through the pages of the Campaign for Real Ale’s What’s Brewing magazine, and the work of Richard Boston and Michael Jackson. This new art form (chortle) needed people and personalities if it was to be anything other than dry.

So far so good: consumer power, sticking it to the man, and something to read on the bog.

Where it might have gone wrong

At some point, personality-led marketing became ‘a thing’ and almost every product on the supermarket shelf now has to bear a signed personal message from the company’s CEO explaining how passionately they believe in sliced white bread or curry sauce. Investors want to know what the story is, and who will be the face of a ‘brand’, before they open their wallets.

Beer is no exception.

As a result, the bar has been raised for serious geeks. Where they might once have been happy name-dropping, they now expect to be able to hang out with and interrogate those who make their favourite beers.

This is a culture which disadvantages those who aren’t natural performers, even if they’re demons in the brewhouse. On our recent book tour, we heard more than one story of awkward meet-the-brewer events —  “He’s obviously cripplingly shy and there were lots of long awkward pauses. He didn’t want to be there.” But (massive generalisation) aren’t those are just the kind of people who are really good at focusing their attention, managing processes and achieving consistency?

Meanwhile, a handful of photogenic show-offs get more attention than perhaps they deserve, turning out beers which are too often advertisements in liquid form, conceived primarily with column-inches in mind. Advertisements that, apparently, people pay for.

The cult of personality doesn’t work for us — it emphasises presentation over product, and contributes to a culture where it can feel as if you’re not really into beer if you haven’t hung out with Greg Koch at a BrewDog shareholder meeting.

It can also seem just a tiny bit… creepy.

Baby, not bathwater

But a return to faceless monolith-ery isn’t what we want, either.

As a consumer, it can be helpful to know a bit about the brewers for various reasons. If you’ve got a name, then you can be reasonably sure it’s not being made in the Ukraine, shipped by tanker and re-badged. If Stuart ‘Magic Rock’ Ross took a job as head brewer at Greene King, for example, we’d be interested in the results. When a beloved brewery’s beer dips in quality, staff changes are often the reason. (Maybe the brewer-as-chef analogy makes sense after all.)

And, please, let’s not ruin beer writing for the sake of denying the oxygen of publicity to blowhards. We like reading articles about people, whatever their profession, so why wouldn’t we also enjoy such stories which have the bonus of added beer?

32 thoughts on “Pop Star Brewers”

  1. I knowing about the people behind the beer (be them brewers or owners) and meeting and talking to them–many have very interesting stories to tell. I also understand that they can be a pretty effective marketing tool, but, as a consumer I prefer beer doing most of the talking. That is why, like you, I’m not too keen on this almost cult of certain brewers, where the name becomes almost bigger than the beer. After all, a brewer can be replaced, without the beer suffering as a result.

    1. “After all, a brewer can be replaced, without the beer suffering as a result.”

      They can, but it’s surprising how often a beer/brewery has a dip or lift and then we find out later that the brewer changed. Sometimes, they’re just not as technically proficient, and, in other cases, they’ve reformulated recipes to their own taste. Thornbridge Jaipur would be one example.

      1. That’s why I say ‘can’.

        But come to think of it, doesn’t it happen to some extent already? Many of the most famous brewers have little if any involvement in the day-to-day job of making beer. So, technically, if they were to retire, and nobody messed with the recipes, there’s no reason why the beer should suffer much.

        The thing is that in many cases the head brewer is also the owner, who aren’t that easily replaced, and if they are, there’s is a bigger chance that it’ll affect the product.

        These leads me to another thing. Sooner or later, these pop star brewers/onwers will retire. What will happen to their breweries?

  2. I suppose the personality-led marketing thing is a sign that the products must be pretty much homogeneous. If you can’t differentiate on product qualities (or price) then identifying the brand with an individual is an obvious way of staking out some headspace.

    1. Disagree totally – like it or not, we live in an age where personality marketing is what people are interested in. But in itself that has absolutely no bearing on whether the product is good or bad. Take celeb chefs for example: Jamie Oliver’s recipes really work, whereas I’m not sure how interested Gordon Ramsay actually is in food at all. But both are more about personality than recipe in terms of their appeal.

  3. Yesterday I was very surprised to find a signed message from the CEO printed on the inside of the shoebox my new trainers came in, saying he’d love to hear from me, and including his “personal” company e-mail address. I think I’ll canvass his opinions on curry sauce.

    I’m definitely a fan of the personal approach to craft beer marketing, of knowing the people and the stories. However, there’s also a distance factor at work. I’m only interested in the stories of local brewers and breweries: ones that come from the same drinking culture I do. Knowing the background story of a foreign brewery or brewer has no effect on whether I’d buy their beer or not.

  4. What brought this on? I will have to think about the line of propriety you are proposing. Certainly rock star pretendy stuff is old and tired but I like your choice of “pop star” even if as only a further well placed mockery of the concept.

    You know what I like? Good folk. Brewers tend to be, for the most part, humans. Most brewers and owners of breweries (the second of which sometimes usurp the the title of the first) are good normal people who have something to say. Blowhards, as you robustly describe them) are another thing. The loud dullard who finally found a way from making money from being an irritant. Fortunately they are few and they make it very easy to avoid supporting them with the beer budget.

    I am not quite sure, however, about your call to arms: “…let’s not ruin beer writing for the sake of denying the oxygen of publicity to blowhards.” It would be quite easy to never risk ruination of beer writing and still not mention the name of a brewer or brewery owner. Would it not be better to put it positively (look at me acting like you!!) and state instead “let’s make beer writing more excellent by depriving the blowhards of their oxygen and the money they crave! Focus on the real, local and interesting!!!” I do like a good bio now and then. But only now and then as it can get in the way of the questions of whether the beer is good and good value.

    1. That monster comment thread from earlier in the week, on what we thought was throwaway post highlighting something someone else had written, triggered about six different lines of thought, including this one.

      1. Interesting. [Playing psychiatrist] Have you felt this way for sometime but only feel comfortable expressing it now or is this a new sensation for you?

        1. Heh. Not sure our feelings have changed much in the last few years, but, post book, we maybe have a clearer idea of where present day ‘fanboyism’ fits in.

          But maybe realising how indifferent we were to John Kimmich (though we’ve no reason to doubt he’s anything but a splendid fellow) was the trigger.

          1. I still have (i) no idea who he is and (ii) no interest in even Googling his name. I am sure he loves his cats.

  5. I wrote a post in March about the celebrity of brewers.

    I thought I was going to be woken up that night by a mob with torches and pitchforks.

    1. I seem to recall commenting on it, sticking up for that Mikkeller article in the NYT, which I found a good read.

      1. But is that the same thing? Is the sullen if branding Scandinavian the same as the dancing “you are not worthy” orc? Are there personalities which can draw us to a brand compared to these who repel us?

      2. My issue wasn’t with Johah Weiner’s writing. A well-written article and the subject matter of the article are not mutually exclusive. David Fricke might write an amazing exposé in Rolling Stone about Justin Bieber. The story might be fantastic, but Bieber is still a tool.

        1. I got the impression back then that you objected to the article on the grounds that writing about brewers in that way made celebrities of them — did I get the wrong end of the stick?

          1. No, right end.

            The impression I got from you was that because the article was well written, all was forgiven when it came to the subject matter. From my perspective, regardless of how well written the article is—and regardless if it elevates beer writing or not—I’m not sure how knowing the Bjergso brothers hate each is relevant to my beer drinking experience.

            What the article did do is raise the brothers profile, creating a demand for their beer, therefore potentially affecting the price of their beer. Not because it’s good, but because an article—albeit a well crafted article—was written about how they hate each other.

  6. One of the things that pisses me off with the whole rock/pop star brewer thing is how little time these people seem to spend at the mash tun and kettle. The beers they are feted for are invariably brewed by other people, or (say it quietly) state of the art, automated brewhouses (so uncraft don’t you think?).

  7. It’s an interesting position, I think part of this rock-starification (it’s a word now pah) of the brewers is due to an anti-marketing backlash, where ideas of selling with advertising and accountants (because god forbid they might enjoy beer) are an easy hit to reinforce buzzwords like ‘passion’ – so the personality of the brewer fills the void, and helps give the ‘scene’ a feel more like that of art and artists than a business.

    I think that part of this is also the rise of social media, that thanks to twitter, facebook and their like, we’re closer now to brewers, artists, et al than ever before so we become friendlier and perhaps even more reverential of their end product.

    1. That’s an important point — Bill Urquhart and the other microbrewers simply didn’t have the advertising budgets to compete with Watneys et al.

  8. I have exactly the same amount of interest in knowing the name of the man who brewed my beer as I do in knowing the name of the man who welded together my car. Or whatever.

    That’s not to say I don’t take note of the names of the breweries when I drink a beer I like and look out for them in the future, because there does seem to be a small correlation between finding one beer you like from a brewery and the chances of liking other beers from the same brewery, but wanting to know the name of the actual bloke pressing the buttons seems a little unnecessary, no?

  9. Max and Al make a good point – there’s a big difference between knowing the name of the guy who does the brewing (Dominic Driscoll, Ryan “bring back Ryan Kelly” Kelly) and investing in the image of the guy who’s the figurehead of the brewery. The latter may have the star quality & may be good at drumming up business, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with being good at brewing, or even being involved in brewing.

    I did a bit of a double-take at Ian’s comment about “an anti-marketing backlash” – for me a backlash against marketing wouldn’t involve the promotion of instantly recognisable brand images! But it’s true in a way – not just because these guys’ budgets are lower but because they’re trying to create an un-marketing-like image. BD’s stuff in particular is pure anti-marketing marketing.

  10. Just a thought, and one which I haven’t seen expressed in the article or the comments (apologies if I’ve missed it): it might just be the case that the in-your-face blowhards are genuinely enthused by what they do and can’t help shouting about it from the rooftops.

    1. That then makes them like used car salesmen who I am sure are also enthused. Doesn’t mean I am not turned off by these dancing orcs.

    2. As in, “I’m so enthusiastic about our beer, I just can’t help borrowing the label copy from Arrogant Bastard… or airbrushing my previous job as a brewer out of history… or making a vexatious complaint to Portman…”

      Enthusiasts are enthusiasts; blowhards are blowhards.

  11. when I saw the title I thought you were going to cover actual Pop Star (ok music industry) brewers, you know like Elbow, Iron Maiden, the Quo etc etc. but brewers who are “pop stars” is slightly perplexing.

    is this a london, craft,not following the right people thing, as I dont know any brewers in the celebrity category, or anyone who would describe/treat brewers in that way. so it feels like something thats happening in a different beery universe. most of the brewers Ive met are average people you wouldnt recognise, who are jolly chatty beery types and even more so after imbibing some of their own beer, they never like drinking someone elses :)

    so need some examples to work with, and not John Kimmich, Ive drunk that beer and I hadnt clocked it was meant to be a popstar brewer special.

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  13. Craig — I think we both had a reaction to that article — mine positive, yours negative — and are trying to explain it after the fact.

    I’d say that understanding the kind of people who are currently entering brewing — young, competitive, no formal training, marketing-aware — is helpful, and I didn’t read it as an endorsement. It seemed like rather a sly hatchet-job to me, in fact!

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