Where Can We Buy Your Beer?

The cover of the Beer Map of Great Britain, 1970s.

With (give or take — counts vary) something like 1,600 breweries currently operating in the UK a common complaint is the difficulty for smaller operators of getting those beers to consumers.

Big pub companies, chains and supermarkets dominate the market, buying beer from a chosen few breweries willing to meet their demanding terms. In many regions one or two large players (e.g. St Austell) control many of the pubs leaving a fistful of freehouses to fight over. And, so we gather from interviews and off-the-record chat, new small breweries can sometimes find themselves muscled out by better-established players of more or less the same size.

Yesterday we got involved in some Twitter chat about beer from Devon (there’s a poll, actually, if you feel like voting) and a version of what seems to us to be a common conversation unfurled. To paraphrase:

A: There’s no good beer in [PLACE]!

B: Yes there is — breweries X, Y and Z are awesome!

A: But I’ve never actually seen those beers for sale anywhere.

B: Ah.

In this context we’re beginning to think the single most important bit of information a small brewery can share is intelligence on where we can actually buy their beer, if it’s anything other than fairly ubiquitous.

It might be in the farmers’ market in Fulchester every third Sunday of the month; it might be in the delicatessen in Dufton; the bottle shop in Barchester; or the Coach & Horses in Casterbridge. We will go out of our way (a bit) to find a beer that sounds interesting, or to try something new on our beat, but we need a few hints, ideally without having to email or direct message the brewery. (And sometimes, even when we do that, we get ‘No idea, sorry’, or ‘It’s should be in a few pubs round Borsetshire this month’.)

A daily updated page on the brewery website, Facebook page or Twitter would probably work best.

We certainly appreciate that in the case of cask ale, even if a brewery knows a pub has taken delivery, it can be hard to say exactly when it’s going to go on or, equally, if it’s already sold out. Even so, wouldn’t a quick exchange of info between publican and brewer — a text message or social media nudge — be mutually beneficial here?

But perhaps there are good reasons why this doesn’t often seem to happen.

In the meantime, if you don’t know where your beer is on sale, and can’t tell people who want to buy it, then it almost might as well not exist.

It’s Not Just Beer: the Craftication of Everything

Illustration: perfume.

Not being habitual wearers of perfume we had no idea there was such a thing as ‘niche fragrances’ until last week when we heard a report about them on the radio promoting this exhibition at Somerset House.

Now, bear with us as we stumble clumsily through the history of an unfamiliar world: for a long time, it seems, there were two types of fragrance — established brands, and cheaper substitutes, both equally conservative. Then, in the 1970s, a third way began to emerge:

L’Artisan Parfumeur was the result of a challenge, a plaisanterie. Due to his training as a chemist, a friend asked Jean Laporte if he could create a banana scent to wear with a costume of the same fruit to a gala evening at the Folies Bergères. This was quickly followed by grapefruit and vanilla fragrances… He experimented and created original scents with ‘natural essences’. With the success of his first line of fragrances, Jean Laporte was named L’Artisan Parfumeur – the craftsman of fragrance – by perfume enthusiasts.

It’s our old friend natural vs. chemical! And grapefruit! Accounts of the birth of artisanal perfume often also mention ‘passion’.

In the decades since niche perfume has become a significant segment of the market as summarised by Reuters:

Niche brands differ from their bigger rivals in that they focus more on the originality of the scent than the packaging and the image projected via a celebrity. They also usually use higher concentrations of perfume extracts and more natural ingredients which tend to last longer…

There are now niche perfumes designed to evoke everything from fairground log flume rides to a seduction ritual in Mali. Some are stunts, not really designed to be worn so much as collected and shown off, while others have become bestselling standards in their own right. The only rule seems to be that they shouldn’t smell of, you know… perfume.

You’ll be glad to know that niche in perfume, like craft in beer, ‘is ceasing to become meaningful as a descriptor’ at least in part because bigger producers have jumped on the bandwagon and also bought out smaller houses (Reuters again):

Estee Lauder Companies which owns Jo Malone – which used to be regarded as niche – just bought Le Labo and Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle and consolidation is set to continue as big groups hunt for what could be the next big perfume brand

But, anyway, perfume isn’t the point — it’s that this hammered home how easy it is to see everything from within a silo and thus fail to recognise that developments in your field are part of wider changes in society. Craft beer (indie beer, boutique beer, whatever you want to call it) developed at the same time as, and alongside, things like modern sourdough baking, natural wine, niche perfume, upmarket street food, gastropubs, and no doubt a thousand other class-bending trends in fields about which we know nothing.

Niche, the perfume world’s choice of descriptor, is an interesting one because in a sense this is about levering a space between, and maybe a bit to the left of, existing polarised segments.

  • Beer > Craft Beer < Wine
  • Perfume > Niche Perfume < Brand/Designer Perfume
  • Camping > Glamping/Boutique Hotels < The Hilton

Whether you like it or not, this bit in the middle seems to fulfil the needs of a generation whose members perhaps don’t understand class the way their parents and grandparents did, and who are every bit as appalled by tacky gilded visions of LUXURY as they are uninspired by the mainstream bog standard.

Suggestions for other sectors where boutinichecraftification has occurred, as well as for further reading, are very welcome — leave a comment below.

QUICK ONE: Experiences vs. Commodities

Sometimes you just want to watch whatever is being broadcast; other times only a particular film will do, even if costs. Is that also how beer works these days?

Last week the cultural and political commentator John Harris (@johnharris1969) took a pause from the frenzy of post election analysis to make an observation about beer:

Tweet: "The 'craft' beer worry. £3.50 for a can/bottle of Beefheart IPA (or whatever). This: £1.25 from Lidl, & very nice."

Our instinctive reaction to this was, frankly, a bit dickish: ‘Ugh, what is he on about?’ Much as we imagine he might have responded to a Tweet saying, for example: ‘Why buy the expensive new Beatles reissue when Poundland has a perfectly good Best Of Gerry and the Pacemakers for £2?’

But of course, in a sense, he’s right: if you aren’t obsessed with music, wine, clothes, or whatever, you shouldn’t feel obliged to spend loads more money on a version of that thing that is no more enjoyable to you than the readily available, budget version just because of peer pressure or marketing.

The problem is, once you do get into beer, the generic doesn’t always cut it. If you just want something to absentmindedly sup while you socialise or watch TV then whatever is on special offer this week is probably fine, but if you’ve got a particular yen to wallow in the pungency of American hops then LIDL’s Hatherwood Green Gecko just won’t do the job. If you’re really in deep you’ll probably even turn your nose up at about two-thirds of supposedly ‘proper’ craft IPAs, too. And you’ll be willing (every now and then) to pay a bit more for a particular experience — a rare beer, a curiosity, something with a particular cultural or historical significance.

QUICK ONE: Hyped/Ignored

Beautiful beer glass.

There have been a few times in the last year or so where we’ve seen a beer referred to as ‘hyped’ when we’ve literally only heard it mentioned once or twice.

Then the other day we saw someone complaining that a beer they liked had been ‘ignored’ and something seemed to click: is this all about a handful of prominent voices on social media?

The person we immediately thought of is Matt Curtis who has his own blog at Total Ales and also writes for Good Beer Hunting among other outlets. He was the first person we noticed mentioning Mills Brewing, for example, and literally within an hour or so of him doing so we saw someone complain that they were being hyped.

Two things bother us about this.

First, what’s Matt meant to do? Taste every beer in the UK and give each brewery equal airtime? He likes some beer more than other beer, some breweries more than others, and ought to be allowed to express a preference.

Then there’s the abdication of responsibility. As we’ve said several times now, don’t moan that no-one is blogging about a brewery you think is interesting — write about it yourself! If you don’t like how prominent a beer or brewery is, don’t contribute to that prominence by going on about it. And if you think a beer is being ignored, let people know about it.

Hype isn’t something you have to endure — it’s something you can create too.

Criticism: Generally Good, Personally Painful

Illustration: "Criticism". (Mouth spouting critical jargon.)

The debate about whether bad reviews help or hinder never goes away.

Broadly speaking there are two points of view:

1. Publicly criticising breweries is unhelpful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by harming struggling independent breweries in particular. And, anyway, it’s more fun to concentrate on writing about things you like — do these miseries who moan constantly actually even like beer?

2. Only writing positively about breweries is unhelpful. It plays into the hands of the bad guys by depressing expectations of the quality of beer from small, independent breweries in particular. And anyway, cheery-beery Everything is Awesome writing is boring — how can you trust someone who apparently never encounters a bad beer?

We linked to posts broadly aligned to each of those arguments in Saturday’s news round up but there are plenty of others. Here’s Jenn at Under the Influence, for example, arguing in favour of emphasising the positive.

We think that the tension comes from the difference between the general and the specific. Brewer X might agree in the abstract that honesty is the best policy, and that consumers ought to be demanding, perhaps on the assumption (subconscious or otherwise) that such a culture will favour their lovingly-made beer over lesser products. By all means, expose those charlatans!

But when Blogger Y states bluntly that, actually, Brewer X’s beer isn’t much good, it’s hard for Brewer X not to respond by kicking the wastebasket. Don’t they know how hard we work? Don’t they know how tough the market is?

If there’s a downside to negative beer reviews beyond that unpleasant thump to the chest for the brewer it’s that they might contribute to some hive-mindery, leading people to mindlessly dismiss a beer they would otherwise have enjoyed. But we think that influence is actually more likely to go the other way, generating positive responses to beers that aren’t really that amazing.

Meanwhile, at their best, what bad reviews can offer is a kick up the bum. We’re certain that, even if they play it cool, there are some breweries out there whose response to a run of criticism has been to review their approach and up their game.

Bad reviews also increase the value of good reviews: if everything is great, then nothing is great.

On balance, we think people should review beer in whichever way they feel comfortable — there are audiences for both approaches after all. We’re going to keep being as honest as we can, which means being disappointed more often than not, but we won’t judge anyone else for doing otherwise.

What really matters, and what really is good for the industry, is the idea that beer is worth thinking, talking and writing about, whether negatively or positively.