Generalisations about beer culture opinion

For Some, Local is Enough

On our recent travels ‘up country’, we asked a couple of fellow beer geeks in one city to tell us which local breweries were to be avoided, and both independently, without hesitation, named the same one.*

We were taken aback, then, when a friend told us it was his favourite. He is not a beer geek, but nor is he completely disinterested, so we tried the beer on his recommendation. “What do you think?” he asked. “Er…” we replied. What do you say in these situations? “It’s not really our kind of thing.”

In fact, it seemed seriously flawed and possibly infected. Our friend, meanwhile, was knocking the stuff back. “I like being able to drink something brewed just down the road,” he said between gulps. He either couldn’t taste the off-flavours or (more likely) they were overpowered by the satisfaction of having  ‘shopped local’.

Elsewhere in the country, we discovered that another friend had bought an entire case of bottled beer from a local brewery because the owners seemed like nice guys, and they’d enjoyed the samples they were given. “I really like it. What do you think?” Once again, we squirmed.

But does it matter what we think? Whether the beer is well-made and tasty?

If enough people enjoy the warm feeling they get from buying it, and derive genuine pleasure from drinking it, despite our sneering, then maybe ‘local’ is enough to build a brewing business around after all.

* No, we’re not going to name names on the basis of one pint and some second-hand opinion…

14 replies on “For Some, Local is Enough”

for me you can’t get more local than the Steinhauser in Aldi

the shop is ten minutes away by foot.

My local brewery just makes different types of bitter and is at least a 40 minute walk

Supporting a local brewery is a positive thing to do for many reasons, and not only beer related ones. But, as far as I’m concerned, all of them are subordinate to quality (and value).

I care little about how local a brewery is or not if they fail to offer something I will want to drink, or pay for, I simply take my money elsewhere.

I am happy to support new brewery and brewpub ventures, but there is clearly a time limit after which I expect them to have sorted out any growing pains.

The beer needs to start out at drinkable, or they at least need to have some of their core range dependable enough to drink.

I can take fluctuations in a core product as they aim for consistency, but outright nasty flavours?

There is an argument that you can train your palate to recognise faults in what other people would find drinkable, therefore spoiling your experience. In which case I defer to the wisdom of my better half:

“No Kiss for you if you’re drinking that “

I think there are two things at work here. There’s old-style localism, as in the Stockport drinker who drinks Robinson’s bitter in every pub he goes to, because that’s what they serve in ever pub he goes to. Another beer might be better – but if your main criterion for ‘good’ is ‘tastes like Robinson’s bitter’ it’s not very likely. Then there’s new-style ‘food miles’ localism, in which the local brewery is by definition the brewery to patronise (possibly in more ways than one). In that case it’s less a matter of the palate developing a certain way, more a matter of wanting to believe that something you think of as a Good Thing is good in every way (including quality). In practice the two are probably closer together than they sound, given that new-style localism isn’t likely to overrule your tastebuds unless your knowledge of beer is relatively limited.

One way or another, people will put up with some extraordinary things in the name of localism. (I never even used to like Marble beers, and even then I persuaded myself the problem was all on my side – it took me years to admit to myself that sometimes they were a bit rough.) A more extreme example is Shipstone’s of Nottingham, whose beer used to be legendary for (a) being served slightly off (b) tasting a bit sour and (c) giving drinkers a stomach ache or worse. I read an article in the Nottingham CAMRA magazine by a former barman, who reminisced – fondly! – about how when he started worked behind the bar he genuinely thought he was developing a stomach ulcer. Then somebody tipped him off that he didn’t have to have a beer every time somebody offered to buy him one, and the symptoms disappeared. Ah, Shippos’, eh? Those were the days… (cont’d p. 94).

It HAS to be (a)drinkable, (b)decent taste and (c)pretty consistent or there’s not much point in drinking it. All brewers are entitled to the odd off day/batch, but, in general, if they cant meet the abc, above, then they dont deserve my custom.

But for a lot of people, the bar for what tastes ‘decent’ is… I won’t say ‘low’, but maybe more generous. And inconsistency is either drowned out by local-ness or not perceptible.

I’ve drank in many “local” places for the atmosphere when the beer is 2nd rate but would never suffer crap beer for the sake of it being a local product. I live near Paris now and the “big” brewers are hundreds of km away but the handful of local brewers are all new “craft” style so yes, I always drink the local product

Working in a beer shop, I often get asked for recommendations, and it’s surprising how many people don’t even let you get past the phrase “This is from a local brewery – ” before they chip in with “Ooh, I’ll have one of those!”. I mean, obviously if I’m recommending it it’s not going to be a bad beer, but surely they would like to know what type of beer it is?

I like to support the local brewing community and all that, but if the beer isn’t as good as stuff from further afield, I’m not going to choose it just because it’s local.

I wonder if these are people who (like me) are interested in the “new wave” but are maybe a little overwhelmed and bewildered by the choice of styles (many unfamiliar) and breweries on offer. Going local is a easy shortcut, something to grab onto so as to make sense of the experience. I’m the same when confronted with a wall of obscure bottles: I’ll buy local if I’m abroad, or on the basis of the label design, or beer from countries that I like for non-beer reasons, lots of stuff that has little to do with the style. Especially as the “new wave” is partially about being open-minded about trying different styles. Do you notice the same thing with your customers?

This is a possible aspect of it, although most customers I’ve found this with seem to be relatively disconnected from the beer world (people picking up a few bottles for their dad, etc), so perhaps it’s generally more the novelty/pride of ‘local’ rather than the new-wave openness to various styles.

I do know what you mean though, I certainly like to try local beers when I’m on holiday/travelling to a different area.

I’m counting 6 brewers within a 3 mile radius of mine and at least 1 head brewer from more distant brewery who lives in that area and drinks in my local. 15 mile radius I’m onto dozens. Local may have helped brewers to set up but current market a new brewer needs to be far more to get any market share (or any real share beyond 2 or 3 very local pubs) . Of those 6 : 1 great, 1 good but brewer friends pick up faults I miss, 1 expanding too fast and quality control is bit hit and miss, 1 great but very new and small. Then 2 brew pubs one great one brews crap (ex brewer won awards since leaving, cheap crap is what he was ordered to make) . A local brewer I’d give far more chances than one further afield, a brewer doing say 4 barrels or less gets even more chances. Still a couple of semi local brewers id feel comfortable giving public slating.

I spoke to some new brewers a few months ago for an article and the theme of localism came up quite a lot regarding their business strategies – Handmade Beer in Carmarthenshire and Musket Brewery in Kent were both focused on building local loyalty, while New Lion Brewery in Totnes is actually an offshoot of a wider local sustainability initiative down there – part of the “Transition Town” movement – and they are exploring some interesting ways of keeping locals involved, e.g. trying to train tasting panels of their local membership. Funnily enough, Fourpure told me that they got their pilsner into the Marriott because American guests were asking for a “local London lager” and the bar only stocked Peroni!

As a side note, I wonder how big a new microbrewery can get before it no longer commands local loyalty? I live near Greenwich and used to get a little warm feeling about buying Meantime – that’s gone now that they are so big. Back in my hometown of Bath last Christmas, I felt a little guilty about not buying our traditional microcask of Gem (not enough beer drinkers to get through it) until I remembered that Bath Ales now owns about 20 pubs and is hardly a fledging start-up anymore.

Anyway the article is here if you’re interested:

We’re lucky here in Lewes – not only do we have a great traditional brewery (Harveys), we also have a plethora of dynamic new breweries nearby (eg Burning Sky) so I can stick to locavore inclinations but also have a wide choice – trad old best or more intriguing microbrewery saison.

[…] Kvalitetstestning för att öka kvalitén var ett annat argument. Från början skulle det vara en teknisk och sensorisk prövning. Den senare verkar utgå, jag gissar att ingen ville ha arbetet men kvalitet är subjektivt. För vissa människor räcker det med lokalproducerat. Ökända Åsundens bryggeri hade väldigt många anhängare och mer än en gång har jag blivit bjuden på deras öl av folk som var helnöjda med dessa infekterade skapelser, eller var de tänkta att smaka så. Lämna detta till oss konsumenter. (Deta med lokalkänslan er inte ett Svenskt fenomen.) […]

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