Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Is Brewing a Gentlemanly Profession?

1935 Whitbread IPA advertisement.

There is, it seems, an unwritten rule that says breweries are not supposed to criticise each other, perhaps because they feel under attack from so many directions — the public health lobby, HM Treasury, raters/bloggers/writers — or simply because, in the loosest sense, they work together, and have to get along at festivals and industry events.

And yet the internet, and Twitter especially, is full of oblique, bitter digs at entire schools of brewing (boring ‘twiggy’ bitter or, on the other hand, ‘awesome’ craft beer’) or at specific ‘overrated’ competitors, often using extremely easy-to-decipher coded references. In person, and off the record, the criticism is often much more direct.

When Brewdog broke ranks back in January 2012, they made themselves very unpopular (and apparently fair game?), but weren’t they really just saying publicly what all brewers think privately? That their beer is best and everyone else is doing it a bit wrong?

14 replies on “Is Brewing a Gentlemanly Profession?”

I remember some 20 or so years ago having a conversation with the head of a family brewery during which we discussed another, near-neighbour family concern, and both of us gradually and very carefully edged towards declaring that we didn’t rate that other brewer’s beers at all. It couldn’t be declared upfront and outright, but once we both knew we felt the same way, honest opinions could be expressed. However, I don’t think this man felt ALL his rivals were poor: just that this particular rival made generally very dull and unexciting beers.

No, they weren’t just saying their beer was best, every brewer is perfectly entitled to do that. They were deliberately spreading malicious disinformation about every other British brewer in order to draw attention to themselves. They went around shit-talking British beer, making out none of it was worth drinking (“British beer is sick and we are the fucking doctor”), especially to audiences in other countries who didn’t know any better. That is why they are so despised.

I don’t think BrewDog is the illustration of this phenomenon. When a large and ambitious firm co-opts “punk” for a flagship product, you know it isn’t punk. BrewDog is all about the brand in the way that ketchups and laundry soaps are. Which means they stand apart or at least stand with folk like self-described leading experts and other tiny drum beating promoters.

The whispering curse is a real thing. A few years ago, I sat with a couple of NY brewers who have since expanded their market impressively share a glass of highly praised and priced art beer and watched their faces drop and then turn to sneers as they realized how they had just been taken. What is remarkable is not the sneer as it was well deserved but that they otherwise held their tongues. What other trade buffers and protects the false inflated prices of others? What other industry sees competitors not pick apart dubious claims? The presumption is that those with their tongues held are reserving their right to do something similar but I sense that it is actually that they are all doing something similar, that a reasonably established brewery is sufficiently profitable and pleasurable that one would not want to rock the boat and draw attention to that other aspect of the gentlemanly professions, the ease.

weren’t they really just saying publicly what all brewers think privately?

Yes and no, but mainly no. By talking loudly about boring brown beer – and intense hoppy golden beer – they certainly found a gap in the market (and a chink in CAMRA’s armour), but it was a gap that was already being exploited in a smaller way by people like Gazza Prescott; all BrewDog really brought to the party was volume.

And, let’s face it, BD did a lot more than just say openly that they didn’t much like Spitfire. In fact I think the idea that their marketing strategy had anything to do with honest criticism is misplaced. BD have made some excellent beer; James and Martin are clearly very bright, and I’m quite prepared to believe that in person they’re decent, trustworthy and generally nice guys. But when you think of BrewDog (the firm, the brand) you don’t think of honesty. Bigging themselves up, slamming everyone else, making wildly exaggerated claims, then asking the rest of us to buy into what they say anyway – even though they clearly don’t actually, literally, believe it themselves – because, hey, vision, passion, awesomeness! It’s all a bit Bandar-Log for me.

Alan – there’s honour among thieves! I suspect that what you’re describing is pretty normal. I know that when I was working in trade publishing I’d sometimes hear of some really mind-boggling rip-offs. But you’d hardly ever talk about them even in private – only after a couple of drinks, and even then only after making sure that the other person would share your disapproval. You’d certainly never air them in public – who knew what the other person might find to throw back at you?

“And, let’s face it, BD did a lot more than just say openly that they didn’t much like Spitfire. In fact I think the idea that their marketing strategy had anything to do with honest criticism is misplaced. ”
Strongly agree with this. If BrewDog were just trash-talking about beers they don’t like it wouldn’t draw half as much ire. The issue is that they seem to be actively trying to generate factionalism and promote the idea of a clash of incompatible cultures in a manner that’s detrimental to pretty much everyone except themselves.

Phil: exactly. When I say gentlemanly professions this sort of discretion might be the hallmark of what make a trade one of them.

We don’t really have negative advertising in Britain do we? I think it’s another thing Brewdog imported from America!

Working as a brewer I know how many things can go wrong and even though my QA is better than most (and I have the certificate to prove it) if I started to throw stones I can’t help but think I’d only be asking for someone to put my windows in!

Not that this doesn’t stop we going off on one on occasion, but I try and limit it to breweries that I know are big enough to take it on the chin.

Also I certainly don’t think every other brewer is doing it wrong. I’ve got a lot of respect for many other brewers, including brewers that make beer aimed a different markets.

“We don’t really have negative advertising in Britain do we?”

I’ve got a very vague recollection of it being a big deal, as in newsworthy, when, in the early nineties, a car company ran an ad directly criticising a rival.

The problem with that approach is that, if you say “ours is just as good as a Golf, but two grand cheaper”, it makes people think “so what is it about a Golf that makes it worth two grand more?”

You do have all those ALDI comparison ads at the moment, but it is generally quite rare.

I’ve worked in a few industries and none are as collaborative as brewing. It amazes me when our head brewer says, “Oh, Joe Blogs from Some Other Family Brewer is coming to look at our new bit of equipment as they’re thinking of putting in something similar.” Instinct might tell you “NO! For god’s sake, lock the doors and tell them it’s sh*&!” But in reality, beer and pubs’ main competitors aren’t each other, it’s social and economic changes we’re at risk from. The ‘enemy’ is cider, wine, RTDs, spirits and, indirect threats such as the cinema, TV, online gaming and whatever else tempts people during their spare time. I’ve grown to recognise it’s lovely that we can mostly all get along (PR stunts aside). Yeah, we love getting one up on each other, but it’s usually done on a level playing field, with a nod to competitors for a job well done.

The old-fashioned family brewers were well-known for helping each other out, as for example with other brewers supplying beer to Boddington’s pubs when their own brewery was damaged by bombing in the war. I get the impression most modern micro-brewers are much the same. It’s only the ones who indulge in dodgy sales practices or who knowingly brew crap beer who get the cold shoulder.

We did hear an interesting story, from the late seventies, of a brewer who was having trouble sourcing yeast. The owners of the local family/regional brewery wouldn’t help officially, but the brewers themselves were quite happy to supply him with yeast out of the back door, on the quiet.

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