The balance of power

An only semi-relevant picture of some delicious, delicious Kölsch.

It’s not necessarily the case that people hate big, successful breweries; just that they cut new, small breweries a lot of slack.

It’s hard not to get excited when new breweries open, reading  breathless tweets announcing the arrival of kettles and fermenters, or the success of test batches. We’re illogical, emotional creatures and can’t help feeling a sentimental warmth towards the underdogs.

Sometimes, though, things are bit rocky to start with. As craft beer consumers, do we have a ‘duty’ to turn a blind eye to exploding bottles and off-flavours? No, but we don’t mind doing so for a  while because, in most cases, we understand how hard it is. We want them to succeed and enjoy being along for the ride.

When a brewery gets established, achieving regional, national or even international distribution, we start to feel less sentimental. They’re big boys now and ought to be able to take a bit of constructive public criticism. It’s probably at this point, too, that we stop repeatedly trying their beers hoping to find a good one. Frankly, there are too many good beers out there for us to waste our hard-earned cash on those that have already burned us, and drinking every beer twice is hard work when there are more than 4000** of them in the UK. We’ve done our bit, now we want them to do theirs. (As Pivni Filosof put it rather bluntly, “get your shit together or close down“.)

When a brewery gets really big — i.e. monolothic and powerful — the gloves are off. It’s not personal, it’s just that they’re no longer juveniles, and are subject to the law of the land like any other grown-up. We, the consumers, become the underdogs, the little guys in this relationship, and can surely no longer be expected to make any allowances for bad recipes or quality control problems.

Coincidentally, Alan at A Good Beer Blog has just posted on a related subject. Great minds, &c..

** Estimated figure based on 900+ breweries in the UK each brewing 3-5 beers.

12 thoughts on “The balance of power”

  1. No sentimentality here. If you’re taking a product to market, it needs to be right. I don’t expect a pork pie that’s not quite cooked through or a shirt that has sleeves which stay on most of the time.

    There’s no excuse for releasing bad beer, no matter what the size of the enterprise. One of our local brewers (Blue Monkey) IIRC spent the best part of a year on test batches that were binned before having the confidence to release their first commercial batch.

  2. I reckon that esitmate would only be for “regular” beers and not take into account specials and one offs. The true number of UK beers available at any one time could be double that, especially when you think of how prolific some brewers can be!

  3. Simon — ooh, harsh. Fair point, though, and there are plenty of breweries whose beers are crap to start with, stay crap, and who we never for one moment expect to improve. Brodie’s are an example of a brewery who were always good, often interesting, and just needed a bit of practice. Would have been a shame to write them off based on a couple of early misfires.

    Steve — yes, true, was thinking of regulars. Wonder if there’s a proper figure somewhere?

  4. It all depends on the honesty of the brewer. There are people who after a couple of years of successful homebrewing, decide to become commercial brewers thinking that there’s not much difference between “cooking” 20l at the weekend and brewing 200l batches of the same beer over and over and over again. Those are a problem because they have no bloody clue about what they are doing, don’t quite understand the concept of quality control and more often than I wish it happened, don’t know why some batches are dodgy.

    As Simon above says, there are some brewers who invest a lot of time and money polishing their recipes and getting to know the equipment they work with before putting a single bottle for out in the street. And I believe that that is the least all of us should demand from all new brewers.

    Of course, as it happens with new restaurants, there are always a few things at the beginning that could be fine tuned, huge inconsistencies in quality is not one of them, specially not when those new brewers expect you to pay same price you pay now for beers that are reliably good.

  5. PF — generally, we agree, but we wouldn’t want to set the bar so high so that no-one ever has the nerve to give it a try. It takes a lot of capital to start even a small brewery and if we expect them to run without making a penny for as long as it takes to nail the recipes, etc., it’ll lock many out of the game. We don’t mind a bit of inconsistency, especially early on, as long as there is openness about it, i.e. dialogue through social media.

  6. It’s true, but many homebrewers don’t seem to understand that the difference between what they do and a commercial brewer goes way beyond the size of the batches. When you are brewing at home you can afford doing something different every week, you can afford playing a bit with the recipes. When you expect people to give pay for your product you must already have a very, very good grasp of the concept of consistency and you must do your best to minimise big fluctuations between batches.

    There are alternatives to the “invest an ef load on professional gear, spend a year learning how to use it, start selling your beer”. I know of a couple of Spanish micro brewers who are, or were, using the facilities of other breweries.

  7. “We don’t mind a bit of inconsistency, especially early on, as long as there is openness about it, i.e. dialogue through social media.”

    Some new breweries don’t want to use social media though, and they shouldn’t necesarilly have to if they are just targeting a local market.

    Re accurate numbers, I think that would be tricky as I’d guess that every 2-3 days the total would change one way or another. GBG lists total regular cask beers produced by all breweries at time of print, but that’s just a snapshot and not teh entirety of the total

  8. Steve — no-one has to do anything, of course, but if a brewery is faceless, then it’s a lot easier for people to criticise them without feeling a pang of guilt.

  9. according to beernews.org’s Adam Nason you are collectivly a he 🙂

    Nothing really to disagree with above. I think consistancy is hugly important but I think more important is quality. If beers are swerving all over the place but fault free thats one thing, however if they are full of brewing faults thats something alot worse.

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