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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