Geeky bubble, overpriced beer

Sign advertising real ale in London, 2007.

Peo­ple some­times crit­i­cise ‘craft beer’ for being a bub­ble or niche; for being the pre­serve of a small group of geeks, obsessed with obscure, strong beers; pay­ing out­ra­geous prices for them in trendy, spe­cial­ist out­lets; and not inter­est­ed in ‘nor­mal’ drink­ing in their local. Now, why does that sound famil­iar?

…the Fox in Her­mitage… [boasts] a bat­tery of beer pumps that would keep a CAM­RA-man bor­ing away for hours… Three brews from Courages, Lowen­brau lager on draught, Wor­thing­ton, Mor­lands and even John Smith’s York­shire bit­ter at 36p a pint. That’s just a sam­ple and I’d not even heard of some of the bot­tled vari­eties… The pints in the White Horse – a less pre­ten­tious and more typ­i­cal vil­lage pub – are from Mor­lands. Bet­ter kept in my opin­ion than at beer­ara­ma down the road, and only 29p for bit­ter in the pub­lic, as against 34p in the saloon in the Fox.

The Dai­ly Express, 6 August 1978.

The Goose and Firkin found a ready mar­ket, pre­dom­i­nant­ly young, afflu­ent and mobile with most cus­tomers com­ing from out­side the area. The Cam­paign for Real Ale called the pub ‘too crowd­ed, too noisy and too expen­sive’. Prices were cer­tain­ly aimed at the top end of the mar­ket, with beers such as Mind Ben­der and Knee Trem­bler made at much stronger lev­els than most nation­al brands.

The Finan­cial Times, 24 Feb­ru­ary, 1982.

Only 33 per cent of those ques­tioned had heard of CAMRA… and 70 per cent said they would not go out of their way to find a pint of ‘real ale.’

NOP Mar­ket Research: The British Pub 1977, as report­ed in the FT, 29 July 1977.

The Cam­paign for Real Ale… achieved con­sid­er­able pub­lic­i­ty and was large­ly respon­si­ble for forc­ing the brew­ers to re-think their mar­ket­ing strate­gies. How­ev­er, of the 78 per cent of beer sales clas­si­fied as draught, only about 14 per cent is account­ed for by ‘real ale’. This share is like­ly to be main­tained but it is not expect­ed to expand great­ly.

The Finan­cial Times, 21 March 1979.

In the Shires Bar oppo­site Plat­form Six at Lon­don’s St Pan­cras Sta­tion, yes­ter­day, groups of earnest young men sipped their pints with the assur­ance of wine tasters… There were nods of approval for the full bod­ied Sam Smith Old Brew­ery Bit­ter, and mur­murs of delight at the nut­ty flavour of the Rud­dles Coun­ty beer… In one cor­ner sat four young men sip­ping foam­ing pints. They were mem­bers of CAMRA… and prove their ded­i­ca­tion by trav­el­ling three nights a week from Ful­ham in South West Lon­don – four miles away. One of them, 22-year-old accoun­tant Michael Mor­ris, said: ‘This place beats any of our local pubs.’

The Dai­ly Express, 03 April 1978.

The real ale champs launched a bit­ter attack on greedy pub land­lords yes­ter­day – and end­ed up over a bar­rel them­selves… The Cam­paign for Real Ale slammed pubs that cashed in on the craze then admit­ted that its own Lon­don pub charged at least 10p too much for an extra-strong brew.. the beer that caught CAM­RA’s experts on the hop was the 70p-a-pint Theak­ston’s Old Peculi­er served up at the Nag’s Head in Hamp­stead… But land­lord Steve Ellis was quick to scotch claims that he was prof­i­teer­ing… “We have to buy Old Peculi­er through an agency and it costs us a lot,” he said… [Roger] Protz said sev­er­al pubs in Cen­tral Lon­don had been barred from the guide for cash­ing in on the real ale revival… One White­hall pub charged 51p for a pint of Rud­dles Coun­ty and anoth­er in the West End sold Fuller’s Lon­don Pride for 44p. Both beers cost up to 9p less else­where, said Mr Protz.

The Dai­ly Mir­ror, 18 April 1979.

30 thoughts on “Geeky bubble, overpriced beer”

  1. I’d argue it’s a ‘beer bub­ble’, rather than a ‘craft beer bub­ble’. There’s too much preach­ing to the con­vert­ed in beer. Sure, it’d be great it there was a bit more under­stand­ing on the whole CAMRA ‘ver­sus’ craft thing, but I’d rather all the ener­gy was expend­ed try­ing to attract new peo­ple to beer (the exact same peo­ple who are cur­rent­ly put off by beer snobs – and invert­ed beer snob­bery!)

  2. Protz said sev­er­al pubs in Cen­tral Lon­don had been barred from the guide for cash­ing in on the real ale revival

    That’s the spir­it.

    I love these glimpses of CAMRA Man going in search of Rud­dles Coun­ty, Lowen­brau and even John Smith’s York­shire bit­ter! Mind you, I’m old enough to remem­ber this peri­od, and it’s true – Rud­dles was spo­ken of in hushed tones, and Old Peculi­er was prac­ti­cal­ly leg­endary (not least because it was prac­ti­cal­ly impos­si­ble to actu­al­ly get it).

  3. Three brews from Courages, Lowen­brau lager on draught, Wor­thing­ton, Mor­lands and even John Smith’s York­shire bit­ter”

    Not exact­ly cut­ting-edge stuff, is it? And the beer buffs of the peri­od would still have giv­en respect to the Mor­lands local down the road sell­ing real beer for less. Pos­si­bly on grav­i­ty too.

    The thing about the cur­rent craft beer bub­ble is that, for many (not all) of its afi­ciona­dos, it total­ly cuts itself off from the wider beer hin­ter­land.

    I’ll be say­ing more about this when my cur­rent sur­vey on pop­u­lar cask beers con­cludes over the week­end.

  4. its not a bub­ble in Lon­don its a full blown explo­sion of pubs sell­ing craft beer.strangly enough they all seem to be busy.i won­der if there is a con­nec­tion . cheers

  5. its a full blown explo­sion of pubs sell­ing craft beer” – I assume you mean “craft keg” when you say this? And is it real­ly an explo­sion – what per­cent­age of the total pubs in Lon­don sell “craft beer” and how do you define it? Let’s have a bit of con­text please.

    1. No – the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of so-called craft bars in Lon­don sell a good range of cask beer too, from main­ly new small brew­eries.

  6. Well said John. This is the non­sense we hear when in fact there are few. They reck­on there are around 2000 pubs in Lon­don. So what per­cent­age would it be? Less than 10% I’d imag­ine. If you define it tight­ly, less than that.

    Lon­don is far more afflu­ent and can sus­tain much high­er prices. It is not typ­i­cal. Also it has wok­en from a long sleep.

    1. If the num­ber of pubs in (Greater) Lon­don is pro­por­tion­ate to the num­ber in the coun­try as a whole, there will be one for each 1,200 peo­ple, so some­thing between 6,500 and 7,000.

  7. I have to say that, hon­est­ly, the beer boom in Lon­don in the last few years has tak­en us by sur­prise. Think­ing of Lon­don geog­ra­phy in terms of trans­port hubs, there are now pubs which sell them­selves on their beer offer with­in five min­utes walk of sev­er­al big sta­tions where, pre­vi­ous­ly, there was very lit­tle:

    Strat­ford – Tap East
    Euston – the Euston Tap (join­ing the Bree Louise of long­stand­ing fame…)
    Vic­to­ria – Cask
    Ley­ton­stone – The Red Lion
    Waltham­stow Cen­tral – two open­ing before Christ­mas, one Antic (the Che­quers) and the oth­er run by a for­mer Antic land­lord (the Bell); join­ing the William IV at Bak­er’s Arms
    Cam­den Town – Brew­dog
    Liv­er­pool Street – Brew­dog again (for­mer­ly Mason Tay­lor)
    Brix­ton – Craft Beer Co
    Angel – Craft Beer Co
    Hol­born – Craft Beer Co, Hol­born Whip­pet

    …and oth­ers I can’t think of off the top of my head. Num­bers are small but, in many cas­es, they are far and away the best pubs in the area (often in GBG and win­ners of local CAMRA awards, if those are mean­ing­ful indi­ca­tors to you).

    In East Lon­don, which we know best, the most strik­ing thing is that, along with ‘craft keg’, pubs like this have sig­nif­i­cant­ly improved the choice to con­sumers in terms of the vari­ety of styles on offer, and espe­cial­ly in terms of the range and qual­i­ty of cask ale.

    It was a strug­gle to get a good pint of cask ale in Ley­ton­stone for many years (though some might have point­ed to Wether­spoons). The Red Lion offers sev­er­al, at a range of strengths, usu­al­ly includ­ing some­thing dark and some­thing very pale.

    When (if ever) would peo­ple be jus­ti­fied in say­ing there is a craft beer (or even just ‘beer’) boom under­way? What would indi­cate to you that this was out of its bub­ble and worth get­ting excit­ed about?

  8. What about the Nichol­son’s pubs as well? The ones around me have ‘craft keg’ as well as a very good selec­tion of cask.

  9. It all depends what you mean & what you’re mea­sur­ing it by. I think it’s quite a big change that two pubs near me serve Brew­Dog beers on keg. There has­n’t been a mas­sive improve­ment in beer range & qual­i­ty to go with that, though, because both those pubs have been serv­ing a good range of cask beer for years. See the sec­ond half of Tan­dle­man’s com­ment – Lon­don may just be com­ing up from a low start­ing-point.

    1. It’s def­i­nite­ly the case that Lon­don had sunk pret­ty low in terms of num­ber of brew­eries and spe­cial­ist beer-focused pubs.

  10. Take the gen­er­al point but that’s a slight­ly rum list of ‘big sta­tions’, and your five minute walks are a lit­tle opti­mistic in some cas­es! Far­ring­don is the main ‘big sta­tion’ for Craft.

    1. Heh. Impor­tant rather than big? (And some of them are impor­tant to us more than to oth­ers maybe…)

  11. Yeah, no real change in Lon­don pub scene from 5 years ago when it was a choice between the Wen­lock, Quinns or plucky upstart The Rake.

    Now ONLY 10% of pubs in the cap­i­tal are con­cen­trat­ing on sell­ing “craft”. Plus, since Pit­field left, there all the Lon­don micor-brew­eries have shut. Noth­ing to see here or cel­e­brate, cer­tain­ly.

    1. Now ONLY 10% of pubs in the cap­i­tal are con­cen­trat­ing on sell­ing “craft”. Plus, since Pit­field left, there all the Lon­don micor-brew­eries have shut. Noth­ing to see here or cel­e­brate, cer­tain­ly”

      Sor­ry James – I gen­uine­ly don’t under­stand what you’re get­ting at here. Could you elu­ci­date?

  12. The changes in the Lon­don pub scene are pret­ty much demo­graph­i­cal­ly led: where you’ve got an area with plen­ty of young, afflu­ent, edu­cat­ed, vague­ly hip­ster­ish peo­ple, bars with a “craft” beer offer­ing are open­ing. I can think of three in the Richmond/Twickenham area in the past year. (It’s not a co-inci­dence that at least one, the Sus­sex Arms, has a vinyl-focused sound sys­tem, than which noth­ing is cur­rent­ly more hip­ster­ish.) Out­side those areas, I doubt much is hap­pen­ing.

    1. Yes, and that is pre­cise­ly the phe­nom­e­non I have described in the past as the “urban beer bub­ble”. To those at the epi­cen­tre of it, it feels like the Sec­ond Com­ing. How­ev­er, I’m sure there are huge swathes of the out­er Lon­don bor­oughs where noth­ing remote­ly like this is hap­pen­ing.

      1. The whole point of this post is that almost every­thing starts as a ‘bub­ble’. Trends and crazes get a lot more cov­er­age than their actu­al reach might war­rant, because they’re inter­est­ing and excit­ing, which may or may not then trig­ger them going main­stream.

        1. I mean, was­n’t there a point when only Lon­don hip­sters with trendy jerkins and real­ly curly shoes were drink­ing hopped beer while most peo­ple stuck to ale..?

  13. an area with plen­ty of young, afflu­ent, edu­cat­ed, vague­ly hip­ster­ish peo­ple” – that’s almost all of Lon­don these days.

  14. Why must peo­ple insist on sneer­ing at every­thing good? The renewed pub­lic inter­est in decent beer is just get­ting start­ed and already peo­ple are say­ing “oh, it’ll nev­er catch on” as if they active­ly want us all to be drink­ing crap­py macro­lager for the next 30 years as well.

  15. Actu­al­ly what I find inter­est­ing is that a lot of the suc­cess­ful ‘craft’ places *aren’t* nec­es­sar­i­ly in obvi­ous­ly promis­ing loca­tions. Cask, for exam­ple, might be clo­seish to Vic­to­ria, but in a way that Vic­to­ria com­muters are going to chance across. The Brew­dog in Cam­den is also in a back street, with fair­ly low foot­fall, in a premis­es which had appar­ent­ly failed in past bar incar­na­tions.

    So these places are attract­ing peo­ple more as ‘des­ti­na­tion pubs’ rather than as part of hub areas (for the most part)

  16. craft beer to me is keg and cask.In lon­don 5 years ago there were about 5 pubs with inter­est­ing beer it was a night­mare so yes we start­ed from a low base but have came on in leaps and bounds.Check out Des De Moor,s excel­lent list of Lon­don pubs most of them serv­ing my def­i­n­i­tion of craft beer.i

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