A huge, gaudy, distinctive pump-clip is the speculative pub-explorer’s friend.
For benefit of readers from Mars, pump-clips are the badges displayed on handles in pubs. They barely existed until about 50 years ago but now they’re ubiquitous, increasingly ornate, and increasingly huge.
Which, though some may scoff, is great for people like us whose favourite way of finding pubs is wandering about with feelers twitching.
In Topsham the other week, researching our Devon Life column, we saw a pleasant looking pub but with only limited time before our train had to make a snap decision about whether to pop in. From the street, through glass, across several metres of floor-space, we could recognise the brands on offer and see that they weren’t terribly exciting. Without stopping, we were able to make a quick decision to push on somewhere else instead.
Yesterday news broke of yet another traditional brewery, this time Robinson’s, launching pointedly craft-style beers outside the main range. Like several others that have preceded it, this sub-brand featured perhaps the obvious signifier of 21st Century hipsterness: facial hair.
Our reaction to this was to think it was a bit obvious rather than to be annoyed by it but many others were.
Why? Well, for one thing, there are the general problems that come with established brewery craft sub-brands: the sense of desperation, the cringe-inducing self-consciousness (‘How do you do, fellow kids?’ as the popular meme has it), and also one thing that really does bother us: the fear that this is an attempt to trick people into buying what will turn out to be little more than bog standard bitter. That’s a wheeze that will work once but probably not twice, and can feel like a breach of the contract between brewer and customer.
(But we haven’t tried these beers and who knows, maybe they will live up to the promise of ‘craftness’ that the packaging makes.)
This kind of exercise also suggests to us that someone up on high thinks craft beer is a fundamentally superficial trend — that it is primarily about appearance and image rather than the quality of the product.
We also wonder if this particular approach betrays something more — actual disdain for craft beer drinkers. Not only are they superficial, it seems to say, but they’re vain: if they see a picture of themselves on the label, or perhaps of the person they want to be, they won’t be able to resist it.
Even if none of that bothers you, you might feel that this approach has become a bit hackneyed, like skulls and faux-graffiti. A case might be made for contract-brewers Flat Cap having started this back in 2012 we reckon this spate of hipstersploitation really started with Bath Ales’ craft offshoot Beerd back in 2013, which we don’t recall causing much annoyance — perhaps a bit of eye-rolling?
Charlie Wells Dry-Hopped Lager turned up in 2015 and seemed to rile people more, perhaps because the gulf between the stuffy parent company (Charles Wells) and the aspirations of the sub-brand seemed wider, even though the relationship itself was more transparent. The design, too, is more overt — not just a beard, which could mean anything, but also tattoos. And just call me ‘Charlie’? Sheesh. By all accounts (we haven’t tried it) the beer isn’t great either so that’s a full house of annoyances.
Later in the same year Yorkshire brewery Black Sheep came out with Pathmaker which has several positive things going for it. First, that’s supposed to be a portrait of brewery founder Paul Theakston on the label rather than a lazy caricature of a 21st Century hipster — that’s a first-time-round real ale beard! Secondly, it’s actually a pretty great illustration into which someone has clearly put a bit of thought and effort, unlike the effort above which looks like it was doodled on an iPad.
But, still, that’s probably two beard-based sub-brands too many, and we suspect there are other examples we haven’t noticed or have forgotten about. (Let us know below and we’ll add them.) And that’s before we even get to the bona fide craft breweries with beards on their labels, of which there are many.
Anyway, if we were a bigger and/or established brewery trying to impress younger drinkers, this is not how we’d do it. What we’d do is pay up-and-coming designers to create something genuinely interesting and genuinely original — something which style-conscious drinkers might actually find visually appealing in its own right, even if we didn’t get it ourselves. Labels are only a tiny part of the equation but it is probably best, on balance, if they’re not patronising or insulting.
Others are dismayed by the lack of respect for history and heritage: Pedigree, a brand invented in the 1950s, is a classic in its own way, so why pretend it was conceived in the 21st Century? (Note: they tried the retro look in 2012.) Why give Oyster Stout, one of the Marston’s beers that is better-loved among beer geeks, a would-be trendy name when the old one was quirky and interesting enough? And what’s with calling Pedigree ‘amber ale’ all of a sudden — is ‘bitter’ a dirty word now?
On a somewhat related note, colonial booze historian Dr Sam Goodman quietly rolled his eyes at the laziness of the new design for Old Empire IPA:
@BoakandBailey *notes use of elephant as shorthand for all things empire for future paper*
For our part, we instinctively felt it a misstep and, after a bit of chat over the porridge, decided that the problem was the potential confusion and disappointment for consumers. Someone who isn’t an expert but is vaguely interested in trying a beer similar to BrewDog’s might casually pick these up at the supermarket only to be let down by the contents. You might trick a consumer into buying once with misleading packaging (what we’ve previously called craftsploitation) but it doesn’t win repeat custom.(Note: we haven’t tried the new pale ale and maybe it really is a super-hoppy and bitter session IPA.) Meanwhile, those who prefer old-school beer are likely to give these a miss, or (see above) feel that their custom is not wanted.
Among those more soundly in the ‘craft’ camp the reaction was sharp. For starters, the design just isn’t as cool as its creators think it is, as Charlie ‘The Crafty Beeress’ Worthington confirmed when she asked a graphic designer pal what they made of the new branding: ‘I think the boat has sailed on all that distressed looking type stuff that BrewDog were doing 7 years ago.’ In desperately seeking relevance they’ve somehow made themselves less relevant.
Others were insulted by the suggestion that people who make a point of buying and drinking craft beer are actually just idiots buying labels who can be duped with a wave of the brand manager’s wand. For what it’s worth, we don’t think they’re actually after craft beer drinkers, though — just people who might be vaguely aware of the idea and don’t like ‘old man’ beers. Which, of course, leads to a sense that this is just a crass attempt at co-opting a thriving culture by an organisation that, as Richard Coldwell observes, is a modern equivalent of Whitbread or Watney’s in their 1970s pomp.
So, that’s everyone annoyed, for different reasons. Probably not the intended result.
The funny thing is, beneath all the hoo-ha about the clumsy re-brand, there is actually something interesting going on: Pedigree is now bottle-conditioned. That’s a material change that might — let’s even say will probably — improve the quality of the product. It’s certainly not something they had to do and, we suspect, is a deep-level gesture to beer geeks, and especially to CAMRA members. We’ll give it a go when we get the chance and report back.
We think this is a laudable move — the more information the better — even if we’re not wholly convinced by the fetishisation of beers that have to be consumed within eight minutes of leaving the brewery, at great inconvenience to distributors and outlets.
But why are they doing it? We’d guess it’s because, in a market where lots of breweries — lots of London breweries, even — are making beer similar to and (give or take) as good as Brew By Numbers, they need to do something to stand out. This isn’t about looking better or more interesting than, say, John Smith’s, or Carslberg — that battle is won — but about competing with Beavertown or Five Points.
The same perhaps goes for Manchester’s Cloudwater whose wonderfully transparent recipe development process isn’t a challenge to AB-InBev but to the other cool kids, and especially to those who were cool a decade or more ago.
When BrewDog came along raging at both Big Beer and the CAMRA-affiliated bitter-brewing microbrewery fraternity (you can debate the sincerity of that rage amongst yourselves) they could score points easily: it didn’t take much to seem fresh. But nowadays, it requires a big gesture, like publishing all their recipes in a free e-book, to maintain their dominant position.
The flurry of high rankings that followed that summer gathering—most awarding 18, 19 or 20 out of 20 and accompanied by profuse thanks to ‘Chris_O’—put the beer into the Top 50 chart. That might have been a blip except those events brought it to the attention of Edinburgh beer lover Craig Garvie. He is an enthusiastic character often to be seen at beer festival in a colourful bowler hat, steampunk shades and with his beard dyed one shade or another. A particular fan of strong stouts, he knew he had to get his hands on GKHSR.
We were prompted to research and write that piece because we, despite paying fairly close attention to British beer, had never heard of Old Chimney’s brewery or come across any of their beers on sale anywhere, ever.
On a related note, we were pondering writing something longer in response to this Tweet…
So basically what comes first the beer or the marketing?…. god i wanted to throw up typing that…