Gauging the Mood of the British Beer Scene

Twitter polls are ‘garbage’ as we were repeatedly reminded throughout the US election but, still, this might tell us something:

Twitter poll screengrab (link above).

Despite the pervading sense of gloom, perhaps the result of ennui on the part of hyper-vocal, deep-insiders who spend too much time thinking about all this stuff, the majority of the 502 respondents don’t seem to think a disaster is looming.

Now, it is worth considering the following points:

  1. Our followers are into beer which might translate into being blindly positive about its fortunes. Although, equally, it probably means they’re more aware of the bad news too.
  2. Some people might think a shake-out which sees, say, 10 per cent of breweries cease trading is good news. Equally, some people might feel pessimistic precisely because they think brewery numbers are going to continue increasing.
  3. The 8 per cent who think it’s about to go pear-shaped nonetheless represent a good old chunk. Inside information, or just miserable devils? We wish we’d done this last year, and will definitely do it next year, to monitor the change.
  4. Some of the reasons people gave for being anxious are interesting and, again, subjective: by far the most common concern is that American-influenced styles are pushing out traditional British ones; others were concerned about pubs which remain in trouble despite the brewery boom.
  5. Historian David Turner doesn’t think we’ll get a shake-out and instead predicts a plateau.

For our part, that poll and the rest of this week’s discussion is enough for now to confirm our gut feeling that, though 2017 is going to be bumpier than 2016, it’s not going to see some kind of beerpocalypse.

Breweries and bars will close, certainly, and we’ll keep logging those events, but we also know that plenty of new ones are on the way.

There might be some structural changes — perhaps further polarising of the market, for example — but that won’t look like a collapse.

We’d certainly be somewhat surprised if the launch of the Good Beer Guide in the autumn isn’t accompanied by news of a further rise in the overall number of breweries, for better or worse.

Keeping a List, Checking it Twice

Various bits of beer news in the last few months have prompted a fresh round of declarations that the good times are over, the hangover is coming, the ‘shake out’ is due.

It’s certainly true that after a decade when it felt like the news was almost entirely good — new bars, new breweries, more beer styles! — there has been a bit of a dip in levels of excitement.

Our gut feeling is that it’s overly pessimistic to assume everything is about to come crashing down and that the gloominess is to some extent personal: people are exhausted and bored. (See also: the death of beer blogging.)

Having said that, it is also likely that some ventures commenced in the white heat of 2010-11 are reaching their natural end. That is to say, they’ve either succeeded, in which case they’ve ceased to be new and exciting, have settled into a groove, or perhaps even been sold on; or they’ve folded because the people behind them have run out of money and/or steam, or just want to try their hands at something else.

Our contribution to the collective fretting, which we hope will provide a picture of what’s going on and help maintain perspective, is a table of good and bad news which we hereby commit to keeping up to date throughout the next year.

Please do get in touch if there are things you think need to be recorded on either side — specialist bars opening or closing, breweries folding, and so on. We’re especially interested in total brewery numbers for Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester, if anyone has those at hand.

So far, a week into January 2017, it doesn’t look so bad. But let’s see.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 January 2017: Binge Britain, Birmingham Beer Bash

Here’s all the writing from the last week we’ve found most stimulating, from reflections on children in pubs to a peek behind the scenes of how tabloid newspapers cover Binge Britain.

For the Pool Zoë Beaty writes about her time as a junior reporter dispatched on to the streets to find photographic evidence of young women over-indulging in alcohol:

We were asked to ‘find the woman, crawling on the pavement with vomit-flecked hair’ (a line which has always stayed with me). They wanted fights. They wanted bodily fluids. They wanted short skirts and high heels – anything that fitted the ‘scantily clad’ caption they’d already written… The true reflection of the night – the hundreds of other people having a brilliant time, aside from that one girl who fell over and is subsequently ridiculed – doesn’t fit the mould they’ve already created for young British working-class women…

(Via @philmellows.)


Breweries to watch -- logo collage.

In what has become an annual fixture Richard Taylor of the Beercast has posted his list of breweries to watch in 2017. He works in the industry (for BrewDog) which may give his observations either more or less credibility depending on your point of view but we tend to find him balanced and astute, and he uses this list as a way to highlight some over-arching trends and issues.


A rubber duck in a pint of beer.

The Bearded Housewife who last week gave us a run-down of how to find child-friendly pubs in East London this week returned to the topic in the philosophical abstract: why do people have a problem with children and pubs and can this argument ever be resolved?

Why would we not say badly-behaved people are a big minus point? Is it that we assume bad behaviour on the part of children is inevitable? Is it that we, perhaps subconsciously, exclude children from the set of ‘people’? If the former, the statement [that you don’t well-behaved children] starts to lose a portion of its unassailability… unless your benchmark for bad behaviour is absurdly low, it’s not reasonable to avoid pubs on the basis that any children in them are likely to be, or become, badly behaved, any more than it’s reasonable to avoid, en mass, pubs with football fans because you think they’re likely to kick-off.


Cloudwater DIPA V3 -- collage of images.

There have been quite a lot of blog posts about Cloudwater’s decision to cease brewing cask but not millions as some have over-excitably suggested. Peter McKerry rounds them up here but we wanted to pick out just one to read if you don’t have time for the full set. Martyn Cornell, a CAMRA member since the 1970s and a beer writer more or less since the cradle, ties the matter into CAMRA’s Revitalisation project and uses his authority to cut through some of the customary delicacy:

I’m not totally convinced Camra can be saved in the long term, given the online comments I read from craft beer drinkers who clearly see Camra members as dull, boring, elderly people drinking dull, boring, elderly beer. The problems with recruiting young activists to the campaign have been apparent for years – and the  really dreadful statistic from the revitalisation project consultation is that under 3 per cent of responders were under 30. I’m in the ‘dull, boring and elderly’ cohort myself, but I love, eg, Cloudwater DIPA as much as I love Fuller’s Chiswick. However, I fear anyone turning up to a Camra branch meeting is more likely to meet someone like Tim Spitzer, former chair of West Norfolk Camra branch, than someone like me. I am sure Mr Spitzer has done an enormous amount of good work for the cause of real ale in the Norfolk region and, having been a Camra branch chairman myself, I know what hard work the job is. But his rant in the latest edition of Norfolk Nips, the local Camra magazine, is certain to guarantee that anyone under 40 who reads it will decide instantly that the campaign holds no welcome for them.


Birmingham Beer Bash glasses.
By Francis Clarke from Flickr under Creative Commons.

We’ve been predicting that Birmingham will be the next city to gain a thriving craft beer scene for a couple of years and it has seemed to be getting there. But now, following on from the loss of the The Craven Arms as a beer-geek-friendly destination, comes news that the Birmingham Beer Bash will not be taking place in 2017. (Link to Facebook.) We don’t read this as a death knell for British beer — we know from speaking to David Shipman that it was always a huge effort to put on and left the organisers out of pocket, and the decision to run another has been touch and go each year — but it’s certainly bad news.


But, then again, there is also the news that BrewDog has closed its central London bottle-shop and this from Craig Heap in re: Cardiff’s best-known craft beer venue:

We’re going to start keeping a tally of good news vs. bad news — perhaps 2017 is when the hurt begins?

Accessibility, or Why People Don’t Like Beer

Detail from old beer label: BITTER ALE.

A bit of discussion broke out in the comments on Monday’s post about what is or is not ‘accessible’ beer.

When we were first getting into beer as young twenty-somethings it was via Greene King IPA, Leffe, Erdinger and Hoegaarden, all of which are considered bland by modern standards. For us, they were just stimulating enough without being scary. (We still like Hoegaarden, the others less so.) In our experience, then, there is definitely something in the idea of so-called gateway beers.

But we also know people who didn’t show any interest in beer until they’d tried a really hoppy IPA. In their own way, a different way, they are gateway beers too: as well as being extravagant and flowery, they are often also on the sweet side, whatever the raw IBU data might suggest. Balanced, if you like, only with lots on both sides of the scale. If your palate is used to cocktails, spirits, wine, cider, coffee or other strongly-flavoured drinks, they don’t necessarily seem overly intense or alcoholic, while at the same time challenging ideas of what beer has to be.

(Thinner session-strength beers with lots of hops, on the other hand, can be a challenge, with little body or sweetness to protect the tastebuds from sheer sap-sucking dryness — it took us a while to get used to pale’n’hoppy, which is now pretty much our favourite thing in the world.)

When people tell you they don’t like beer, what reasons do they give? We tend to hear:

  1. It’s too bitter!’ Even of quite sweet beers, so we’re not always sure it’s actually bitterness they mean. ‘Brownness’, maybe? Or perhaps just a general nasty staleness.
  2. ‘It’s too much — I get bloated and sleepy.’ A matter of volume. People still don’t feel comfortable ordering halves and, when they do, they’re often poorly presented. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, people also seem to find fizzier beers less soporific, and more refreshing.
  3. ‘I’m just not a beer person’, or variations thereon. If you’re trying to portray a glamorous riviera lifestyle on Instagram or Facebook, beer doesn’t seem to quite cut it.

So accessible beer, for many people, might be relatively low in (perceived) bitterness, possibly served in smaller measures, and attractively presented (glassware or packaging). And for others who recoil at ‘fanciness’ it might mean a pint of Doom Bar, which we find utterly boring, but which it turns out has a lot of very sincere, even evangelistic fans.

Which explains a lot about supermarkets and multi-nationals are taking these days — not, perhaps, a race to the bottom but a race for the accessible end of the market.

Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?

‘Imagine if German beer geeks had dominated the discourse since the 1990s and decided that Burton Pale Ale was a type of Gose.’

That’s a thought-provoking suggestion from Robbie Pickering, AKA @robsterowski. Here are the thoughts it provoked, in a roundabout way.

There is a comparative lack of straightforward-but-better takes on mainstream German styles such as Pilsner even in the midst of the current excitement around brewing. The trend post 2005, or thereabouts, has been for British brewers to ape the American obsession with high ABV, highly aromatic IPAs and the like.

We know how we got here – it’s what Brew Britannia is all about, summarised in this 2012 blog post that kicked that project off – but what might have happened differently in the past for us to be somewhere else today?

Continue reading “Alternate History: Pilsner Instead of IPA?”