Last year, big players in the beer industry banded together to run a campaign called Let There Be Beer.
Its ostensible aim was to raise the profile of beer in general terms but, in practice, it ended up being a series of excruciatingly bald product placement opportunities for those who’d provided the funding, e.g. Carlsberg.
As far as we can tell, the public were indifferent — we didn’t see any mention of it among our ‘not beer’ friends on Facebook, for example — and beer geeks, on the whole, found it rather reprehensible. Regulators weren’t keen, either, which seems to have been the final nail in its coffin.
Johnson is outraged that the marketing strategy apparently relies on fooling ill-informed, well-intentioned consumers into buying what they think is the product of a small independent brewery. Broadly speaking, we agree, at least on the issue of transparency: of course there’s nothing wrong with big breweries attempting to ‘do’ craft, but misleading consumers by failing to clearly declare ownership of the brand is rotten behaviour.
What really interested us, however, is the idea that there’s an unexploited middle-ground between so-called ‘macro gak’ and full-on, high-falutin Craft Beer, capital C, capital B.
There’s long been a balancing act in beer — or, if you like, a tension. On the one hand, some in the industry, along with serious enthusiasts, feel aggrieved that beer is treated as second class, simplistic and unworthy. They believe that it deserves the same kind of infrastructure of connoisseurship as wine — books, magazine columns, arcane lore, celebrities, vintages, sommeliers, a place at the dinner table, specialist tasting glasses and rituals, and so on.
The AB-InBev/Labatt document describes Shock Top as a ‘fun, flavourful craft brand’, and perhaps that’s a bandwagon Craft Beer should jump on: fun doesn’t need to mean dumb; and respecting beer doesn’t have to mean putting it on a pedestal.
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.
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?