Alternate Spoons in the Craft Continuum

Craftwork point of sale materials at Wetherspoon's.

We went to our local Wetherspoon pub twice last weekend and found its craft makeover quite startling.

As usual, what drew us through the door in the first instance was a craving for beer that isn’t local. Oh, yes, local beer is great, and very worthy, and all that, but blimey, can it get monotonous. During the regular Spoons real ale festivals, even our fairly conservative branch usually has something pale, hoppy and from up north on offer. On this occasion, Rooster’s Union Gap, at a mere £2.25 a pint, fit the bill admirably.

But we were also keen to see if the craft-beer-ification of the chain that kicked off at the beginning of October had reached Penzance. It has, and how. What amounts to a sub-brand, Craftwork, has its own logo which appeared on staff T-shirts, beer menus and posters; and a fridge which had previously been filled with various ‘world lagers’ was stuffed with cans and bottles from BrewDog, Sixpoint, Goose Island, Rogue, Lagunitas and Adnams’ craft spin-off, Jack Brand. The designated keg font for craft beer was dispensing Devil’s Backbone American IPA.

When we started blogging back in 2007, we would have been astonished and delighted by a pub with a range like this, even in London, but, these days, we’re a little more critical (or maybe spoiled). For starters, there is a transparency issue. This is how the Devil’s Backbone beer is advertised on their website:

Devil's Backbone American IPA as advertised on the Wetherspoon website.That’s consistent with point of sale material in the pub, too. The problem is, it isn’t brewed in Lexington — it’s produced at Banks’s in Wolverhampton — and therefore isn’t American. Now, to be fair, the (rather good) in-house magazine does have an extensive feature explaining all of that, but a note on the menu and keg-font lens, as for the beer festival international collaboration beers, would feel more honest.

Then there’s the fact that, despite the dazzling array of brands, the range is actually rather lacking in variety — all amber ales and IPAs. We’re not suggesting that it needs to compete with the offer at the Craft Beer Co, for example, but why no stout? (The terms of their massive contract with Guinness, we suspect.)

Then there’s the most important issue — the quality of the beer. Lagunitas IPA, at £2.49 a bottle, has a bit of something about it (weedy peach syrup) and we’re not ashamed to say we’re fans of BrewDog Punk (boozy Lilt, also at £2.49) but Rogue Amber is just pointless — no better than any bottled standard British best bitter from the supermarket, despite its sexy packaging. The same goes for the kegged DB IPA. We’d rather drink Ruddles.

On the whole, this is probably a positive development, giving more choice to consumers outside major cities, and to regular Spoons drinkers, at prices everyone can afford. If only it felt a bit more… sincere.

38 thoughts on “Alternate Spoons in the Craft Continuum”

  1. Does this surge in “craft” offers at Spoons mean that their cask offer might suffer? I regularly visit 3 or 4 Spoons near me to aee what they are up to, and anecdotally the cask offer has been less interesting recently,fewer brands at any one time and the frequent appearance of Doom Bar and Broadside alongside the staple Ruddles and Abbot.
    Their recent beer festival seemed to feature an inordinate number of one-offs and beers “brewed especially for our festival”, instead of interesting beers which might,in response to customer feedback, be made more widely available in their estate.
    More parochially, the last time I was in Penzance the major factor behind the £1.99 Sixpoint cans’ sales seemed to be “‘Ere boy, which one a them cans is the strongest”….Spoons’ brand planning is running ahead of some customer attitudes, perhaps?

  2. It’s time for the bourgeoisie to move on from craft. Find a new niche. It’s been democratised and is now available and affordable to all.

    There will always be a sad lament of the folk that remember Benidorm before it filled with English pubs and greasy spoon caffs. But heh ho, there’ll be another place soon enough that’s exclusive enough & mentioned in the travel section of the posh papers.

    Either wait for the next bandwagon or start a new one? I say we pic k a new adjective to put in front of the word “beer” and all start using that. Then we can argue about its meaning and stuff for a few years before Spoons nick it.

      1. I’m happy with that word, Py. Alternative beer. Got a ring to it. Shall I begin? Round 1.

        Go then, define alternative beer, bet you cant ?

      1. Sainsbury’s had an own label geuze back in the early 90s, so such things are not beyond the realm of possibilities.

    1. The poncerati generally look for something that the working class like (say beer) ponce it up and then drink it ironically whilst smugly sneering at those poor wretches who don’t ‘get it’.

      When they move on, it won’t be to a new definition of beer, they will ditch beer completely.

      1. After ruining beer, burgers, scotch eggs & crisps I fear what they will attempt to gentrify next. It’ll be organic free trade artisinal craft, but what? And how do we stop them? What form should the revolution take? Peaceful or violent? Once we grasp power what do we destroy first?

      1. If these new products stick around in Spoons then yes. But, as I’ve said before, some aspects of “craft” will be assimilated by the mainstream, some will remain the preserve of specialists, some will fall by the wayside.

        1. I also predict that in future some things will happen and some other things won’t happen.

          What do I win?

  3. I remember having a Stone Black Ale at a Wetherspoon’s a year ago or so. If it hadn’t said that it was brewed at Adnam’s on the pump clip (like this: https://lh3.ggpht.com/-5qScxmhoSrc/Uo3Or_pMzTI/AAAAAAAACR0/HSMhKGMWRJA/s1600/adnams-stone.jpg), I would have assumed it had been imported from the US. I wonder whether even less transparency than that is maybe related to some fear that beers perceived as domestically brewed would sell worse than US craft beer from a cool, relatively well-known brand.

  4. I agree about the missing/misleading origin info for the DB IPA, but I’m not sure about sincerity. To me, saying you’d like JDW’s to be more sincere is a bit like saying you’d prefer them to run smaller pubs with more character – it’s setting them up to fail, and/or criticising them for not doing something they never set out to do.

    I think they’ve taken a good hard look at the mass market end of ‘craft’ – which is all about IPAs and amber ales – and used their existing relationships with brewers to grab a chunk of it; the BD tie-in is the icing on the cake. And the results seem pretty good to me – both the Jack Brand rye beer & the T.I.L. keg pils that I had in Bury(!) the other day were more than drinkable. Surprised your view of the Lagunitas was that dim, incidentally; I haven’t had it, but didn’t Lagunitas use to be* one of the ones people really rave about? Have they been taken over or something?

    *Grammer.

    1. “didn’t Lagunitas use to be one of the ones people really rave about”

      We’ve not been that convinced the few times we’ve had it on draught in London. It’s fine, but we wouldn’t go out of our way. It has some very vocal fans, though, and people seem to like the company’s DIY attitude.

  5. I’ve always been surprised by the lengths Spoons go to to attract the CAMRA/ticker and now craft market. Seems like a lot of effort for what must be a small fraction of their customer base. If they offered only RuddlesDoomBarAbbott + one guest would they see a great fall in profits? Sometimes (eg festivals, Christmas) it feels like they’re trying too hard, as quality can suffer.

    1. It’s a huge amount of free publicity and goodwill, though. If CAMRA was routinely critical of Spoons it could end up as a Grotneys situation given their high profile.

    2. It only takes one member of a group of blokes to be picky about their beer, and the whole lot will go elsewhere. Its worth it for spoons to try and keep everyone at least vaguely satisfied.

      and as mudgie says, by throwing a bone to camra by maintaining a façade of some real ale drinkers paradise (all beers coming soon), they get an incredible amount of free marketing and publicity. make a big deal about your choice of three and a half mediocre ales and camra will eat out of your hand.

        1. Your name is sexist because it deliberately excludes the possibility that you could be a woman as a means of propagating the subjugation of women through a system of hegemonous patriarchy.

  6. I’ve always thought Rogue Ales American Amber was crap, even “fresh” bottles from the Bacchanalia in Cambridge have been lacking something. It’s much, much better in cans though, it’s got more body and a decent resiny hop character. It’s still not that great a beer though, they should have stocked Dead Guy or Yellow Snow IPA…

  7. If they’re going to stock anything, I’d rather it be from a British brewer. Isn’t that the entire *point* of the UK craft beer revolution, that we can actually brew fantastic beer in this country and don’t have to import it from the US or Belgium?

    I actually think spoons are still missing the point to some degree, this just feels like another “world beer” push, just with a marginally more adventurous selection of world beers.

    1. Agree on this, I think.

      Another thing that I’d associate with “doing craft properly” is a constant interest in finding newer and better stuff to offer your customers, and in offering them as diverse a range of beers as possible. This isn’t the same thing as replacing Peroni with an English “craft lager” and having Camden Pale on keg for ever.

      So for my part, while it’s nice to be able to get something that tastes like grapefruit in a wider range of locations, given the choice I’ll still go somewhere where having a “craft beer selection” is driven by personal enthusiasm rather than corporate policy.

      1. That’s not a particularly realistic request for spoons though, even for idealistic beer blog commenters.

        TBH, its still not going to make me go in there, because there are plenty of far nicer pubs in every city of the UK that offer a similar selection or better.

        1. “That’s not a particularly realistic request for spoons though”

          It wasn’t meant to be. Just an observation re “craft going mainstream” etc.

  8. Firstly I have to say that I totally agree with Phil’s (Bury thanks you for your visit btw) analysis: Spoons are doing their bit and having dipped into the craft water with Sixpoint, have put together a rather cunning plan to go forward. And I’m not even sure what they could do to pass muster as “sincere”. The DB branding, as I commented on its launch, is a bit of a smoke and mirrors trick, albeit one that Spoons refuses to accept. I wouldn’t mind but it’s pretty poor and I believe sales aren’t very promising, either.

    Lagunitas is a complex treat and a real coup for them. How often does a pubco get to please both the beer geek and ordinary punter by selling something that good that cheap? And Sixpoint sales continue to climb despite many, ahem, respected bloggers writing them off as a failed experiment not that long ago.

    I can get British craft beers. What I can’t get or rather couldn’t get before is the likes of Rogue, Sixpoint and Lagunitas. As long as it’s quality, we need more of it, not less!

  9. These new additions will make Wetherspoon pubs the best place to get craft beer in a few parts of the country, pubs in general may be wising up a bit, but there are still some dire places in terms of choice.

    The best part for me is the price, Lagunitas and the other cans and bottles for those prices is amazing, cheaper than in the off trade.
    I also think Brewdog’s T.I.L is a great new addition, I always had to opt for the likes of Heineken if I found myself in Wetherspoon wanting a pint of lager, now I can get T.I.L for the same price.

    Saying all that, I don’t think it will all be there forever and agree that it’s just an extension of the “world beer” catergory for them.

    The DB is also pants but not surprising, I was not expecting a hop bomb, perhaps “normal” drinkers will like it though?

  10. When mainstream breweries consider there’s a sufficient market in craft they’ll replicate it and, hopefully,make it cheaper than the rip-off much of it is today.
    In the meantime I genuinely couldn’t give a monkey’s where a beer is brewed so long as it tastes good.
    Seriously,that nonsense is for tickers.

  11. I was recently in the Glasgow uberSpoons (The Counting House, by George Square) and noticed that as well as the standard craft/world range, it had quite a lot more not on the standard list (70 bottles according to their website) although they are actually a bit hidden away. And another six or seven craft kegs (all Scottish, I think). That’s as well as the usual eighteen cask lines.

    It’s normally more expensive for real ales than most other Glasgow ‘Spoons (£2.70 as against £1.99 in some places) but their FB is advertising a “festival clearance” with several at 99p a pint. And I thought I was doing well at £1.29 a pint in another one. And, the “Devil’s Backbone” brewers (the real American ones, not the Black Country ones) are scheduled to appear this afternoon.

  12. While I reallly disapprove of the misleading branding of the Banks’s/Devil’sBackbone beer, I’ve tried it for free a couple of times (it’s on the meal deal, and the food was actually pretty good!) and I was surprised how good it was. Once it had warmed up a bit, I thought it was a good fresh, well-balanced, pretty-bitter, pretty-hoppy decent US-style Pale Ale. I didn’t think it was either wishy-washy, as some have said, nor could I taste the unwelcome effects of Banks’s old English ale yeast. I can see how the serving temp would leave you thinking it wasn’t much cop, but I’d recommend braving the frostbite & let it warm up in your hands & try it again!

    Incidentally my local JDW tonight had GK Abbot, Broadside, GK Ruddles & a Jenning’s seasonal – does seem dumbed down & national brand heavy.

      1. Oh OK, now you’ve put it like that, I can only apologise for my faulty tastebuds 😀

        I’ve had 2 pints, a few weeks apart, in 2 different pubs – both were fine & better (in flavour & condition) than the cask beer I also tried the same night.

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