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beer in fiction / tv opinion

Beer: a flash in the pan?

On our recent trip to London, we found ourselves pondering the sustainability of the current craze for craft beer.

At the Southampton Arms, as befits our great age, we sat in the corner saying things like “What does he think his hair looks like?”; “Eee, she’ll catch her death in them trousers — they don’t reach her ankles!”; and “Is that lad wearing leggings and cowboy boots?” The crowd was young and fashionable and, for the most part, drinking cask ale from dimple mugs.

We have a suspicion that, in two years time, when beer has had its moment in the spotlight and, say, the eighties wine bar has made a retro comeback, or everyone’s drinking Sahti, or whatever, some of these people will deny ever having touched a pint of ale. Maybe they’ll secretly admit they didn’t like it at all and only did so to look cool.

Even if we are witnessing a mere trend, however, it will be impossible to put beer back in its box. After all, wine didn’t disappear from the collective consciousness when the Dagmar burned down. The heady euphoria of ten new breweries a week and can’t go on forever, but Britain’s beer landscape will have changed for good by the time the fad passes. A hidden demand for good beer will have been flushed out and many will have become (to some extent) beer geeks for life.

It’s hard to have a fling with beer: to know it is to love it.

8 replies on “Beer: a flash in the pan?”

If the relative health of cask beer (and the wider craft segment) is a niche, the hipster element of that is a niche within that. And, as you might expect, the ‘hipsters’ are not a homogeneous group, encompassing the Shoreditch Twat of Nathan Barley fame and any young, (usu.) middle class person who doesn’t shop for clothes at M&S or Hackett.

Though the US hipster scene got all on board with supposed blue collar, Springsteen-esque posturing and started chugging back Pabst Blue Ribbon, the London hipster has taken fashion tips from the states but has tended to be far more European in cultural tastes (this is a ludicrous over-simplification, of course). So there’s a lot more focus on German squat chic and electronica, expensive food markets and ruinously pricey cocktails and beers. Partly, this is because bars and restaurants have figured these people have considerable disposable income and can afford higher priced, premium margin goods, which are then marketed (or in a bar’s case ‘curated’) to add cachet.

Overall, though, cask/craft’s performance is linked more to generally increasing demands for quality and greater consumer awareness of choice. Microbreweries’ fortunes have been boosted considerably more by publicans lobbying pubcos to allow them to vary their offer and pubcos’ willingness (in turn) to do so.

There are many who may dislike it for a variety of reasons, but the number of pubs to drink a decent beer from an interesting range has noticeably increased over the past five years even as countless pubs have closed. Pubcos’ decision to focus on improving the offer by offering choice to the consumer (given their reliance on property value hikes has gone the way of all flesh) has been key here – and far more important in pushing beer forward than its adoption by hipsters in freehouses.

The upshot is, even if the ironic jug-holders give up on beer, the mainstream drive to get choice to the consumer will see a greater variety of beers served in ever more surprising venues. Who’d have thought five years ago that Tesco would sell a 9.2% hop-forward US style double IPA?

I was in the Jolly Butchers in Stoke Newington at the weekend, drinking a beer by another new London brewery (Moncada, rather good), and feeling much the same thing about the clientele there…

I often wonder of the local real ale scene in and around Sheffield has reached saturation point as the real ale pubs are the ones which are thriving, with new ones opening up with great regularity.

Happily however I don’t think it’s got trendy yet. The clientele of many of these places is actually fairly normal (with a smattering of beer nerds). And it’s worth noting that with the exception of Will Hawkes in the Independent, the national media hasn’t really caught onto the growth of real ale and “craft” beer properly.

Thanks for comments, all. For clarity, we weren’t having a pop at hipsters here — anyone younger than us not dressed in walking boots and anoraks looks pretty hip from where we’re sitting. (Although, Alan, that link is great — thanks!)

Personally, I don’t think something getting trendy is a bad thing. It can be annoying in the short term (“Hey, hipster! We were here first!”) but it’s those brief crazes which get beer into the public consciousness.

I keep making this comparison but, if you look at the rise of punk music, most of the real punks (i.e. hipsters of their day…) had abandoned it by the time the Sex Pistols got signed. The rest of the world then enjoyed several years of great punk-influenced albums, without all the anxiety over which trousers to wear this week.

The rest of the world then enjoyed several years of great punk-influenced albums

Not convinced we did – the really great albums of the period were by people like Magazine and Joy Division, who had decided punk was dead about the same time as the rest of us Sounds-readers.

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