Pop Star Brewers

Adapted from Elvis Pez by Joel Kramer, from Flickr under Creative Commons.
Adapt­ed from Elvis Pez by Joel Kramer, from Flickr under Cre­ative Com­mons.

We live in strange times when brewers have their own television shows, sign autographs and form super-groups.

For most of the last few hun­dred years, inso­far as any­one cared who was brew­ing their beer, they prob­a­bly assumed it was the bloke whose name was on the bot­tles – Mr Whit­bread, or Mr Bod­ding­ton.

Then, in the 1970s, along came micro­brew­eries. What made them news was often the sto­ries of the peo­ple involved. A great part of the appeal of the Litch­bor­ough Brew­ery, launched in 1974, was the tale of an indi­vid­ual, Bill Urquhart, push­ing back against the mono­lith­ic, lit­er­al­ly ‘face­less’ might of the Big Six. Work­ing at Watney’s, he had been part of the machine behind the red façade, but when news­pa­pers wrote about Litch­bor­ough it was Bill they were inter­est­ed in.

At a time when there was an active strug­gle between con­sumers (enthu­si­asts) and big brew­ing con­cerns, it was also anoth­er way to nee­dle the secre­tive big-wigs of the Brew­ers’ Soci­ety. As far as they were con­cerned, the names of their brew­ers, like the alco­holic strength and ingre­di­ents, were not real­ly any of the public’s busi­ness. Micro­brew­eries were more trans­par­ent.

Along­side that came the rise of beer writ­ing as we know it, through the pages of the Cam­paign for Real Ale’s What’s Brew­ing mag­a­zine, and the work of Richard Boston and Michael Jack­son. This new art form (chor­tle) need­ed peo­ple and per­son­al­i­ties if it was to be any­thing oth­er than dry.

So far so good: con­sumer pow­er, stick­ing it to the man, and some­thing to read on the bog.

Where it might have gone wrong

At some point, per­son­al­i­ty-led mar­ket­ing became ‘a thing’ and almost every prod­uct on the super­mar­ket shelf now has to bear a signed per­son­al mes­sage from the company’s CEO explain­ing how pas­sion­ate­ly they believe in sliced white bread or cur­ry sauce. Investors want to know what the sto­ry is, and who will be the face of a ‘brand’, before they open their wal­lets.

Beer is no excep­tion.

As a result, the bar has been raised for seri­ous geeks. Where they might once have been hap­py name-drop­ping, they now expect to be able to hang out with and inter­ro­gate those who make their favourite beers.

This is a cul­ture which dis­ad­van­tages those who aren’t nat­ur­al per­form­ers, even if they’re demons in the brew­house. On our recent book tour, we heard more than one sto­ry of awk­ward meet-the-brew­er events –  “He’s obvi­ous­ly crip­pling­ly shy and there were lots of long awk­ward paus­es. He didn’t want to be there.” But (mas­sive gen­er­al­i­sa­tion) aren’t those are just the kind of peo­ple who are real­ly good at focus­ing their atten­tion, man­ag­ing process­es and achiev­ing con­sis­ten­cy?

Mean­while, a hand­ful of pho­to­genic show-offs get more atten­tion than per­haps they deserve, turn­ing out beers which are too often adver­tise­ments in liq­uid form, con­ceived pri­mar­i­ly with col­umn-inch­es in mind. Adver­tise­ments that, appar­ent­ly, peo­ple pay for.

The cult of per­son­al­i­ty doesn’t work for us – it empha­sis­es pre­sen­ta­tion over prod­uct, and con­tributes to a cul­ture where it can feel as if you’re not real­ly into beer if you haven’t hung out with Greg Koch at a Brew­Dog share­hold­er meet­ing.

It can also seem just a tiny bit… creepy.

Baby, not bathwater

But a return to face­less mono­lith-ery isn’t what we want, either.

As a con­sumer, it can be help­ful to know a bit about the brew­ers for var­i­ous rea­sons. If you’ve got a name, then you can be rea­son­ably sure it’s not being made in the Ukraine, shipped by tanker and re-badged. If Stu­art ‘Mag­ic Rock’ Ross took a job as head brew­er at Greene King, for exam­ple, we’d be inter­est­ed in the results. When a beloved brewery’s beer dips in qual­i­ty, staff changes are often the rea­son. (Maybe the brew­er-as-chef anal­o­gy makes sense after all.)

And, please, let’s not ruin beer writ­ing for the sake of deny­ing the oxy­gen of pub­lic­i­ty to blowhards. We like read­ing arti­cles about peo­ple, what­ev­er their pro­fes­sion, so why wouldn’t we also enjoy such sto­ries which have the bonus of added beer?

32 thoughts on “Pop Star Brewers”

  1. I know­ing about the peo­ple behind the beer (be them brew­ers or own­ers) and meet­ing and talk­ing to them–many have very inter­est­ing sto­ries to tell. I also under­stand that they can be a pret­ty effec­tive mar­ket­ing tool, but, as a con­sumer I pre­fer beer doing most of the talk­ing. That is why, like you, I’m not too keen on this almost cult of cer­tain brew­ers, where the name becomes almost big­ger than the beer. After all, a brew­er can be replaced, with­out the beer suf­fer­ing as a result.

    1. After all, a brew­er can be replaced, with­out the beer suf­fer­ing as a result.”

      They can, but it’s sur­pris­ing how often a beer/brewery has a dip or lift and then we find out lat­er that the brew­er changed. Some­times, they’re just not as tech­ni­cal­ly pro­fi­cient, and, in oth­er cas­es, they’ve refor­mu­lat­ed recipes to their own taste. Thorn­bridge Jaipur would be one exam­ple.

      1. That’s why I say ‘can’.

        But come to think of it, doesn’t it hap­pen to some extent already? Many of the most famous brew­ers have lit­tle if any involve­ment in the day-to-day job of mak­ing beer. So, tech­ni­cal­ly, if they were to retire, and nobody messed with the recipes, there’s no rea­son why the beer should suf­fer much.

        The thing is that in many cas­es the head brew­er is also the own­er, who aren’t that eas­i­ly replaced, and if they are, there’s is a big­ger chance that it’ll affect the prod­uct.

        These leads me to anoth­er thing. Soon­er or lat­er, these pop star brewers/onwers will retire. What will hap­pen to their brew­eries?

  2. I sup­pose the per­son­al­i­ty-led mar­ket­ing thing is a sign that the prod­ucts must be pret­ty much homo­ge­neous. If you can’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate on prod­uct qual­i­ties (or price) then iden­ti­fy­ing the brand with an indi­vid­ual is an obvi­ous way of stak­ing out some head­space.

    1. Dis­agree total­ly – like it or not, we live in an age where per­son­al­i­ty mar­ket­ing is what peo­ple are inter­est­ed in. But in itself that has absolute­ly no bear­ing on whether the prod­uct is good or bad. Take celeb chefs for exam­ple: Jamie Oliver’s recipes real­ly work, where­as I’m not sure how inter­est­ed Gor­don Ram­say actu­al­ly is in food at all. But both are more about per­son­al­i­ty than recipe in terms of their appeal.

  3. Yes­ter­day I was very sur­prised to find a signed mes­sage from the CEO print­ed on the inside of the shoe­box my new train­ers came in, say­ing he’d love to hear from me, and includ­ing his “per­son­al” com­pa­ny e-mail address. I think I’ll can­vass his opin­ions on cur­ry sauce.

    I’m def­i­nite­ly a fan of the per­son­al approach to craft beer mar­ket­ing, of know­ing the peo­ple and the sto­ries. How­ev­er, there’s also a dis­tance fac­tor at work. I’m only inter­est­ed in the sto­ries of local brew­ers and brew­eries: ones that come from the same drink­ing cul­ture I do. Know­ing the back­ground sto­ry of a for­eign brew­ery or brew­er has no effect on whether I’d buy their beer or not.

  4. What brought this on? I will have to think about the line of pro­pri­ety you are propos­ing. Cer­tain­ly rock star pre­tendy stuff is old and tired but I like your choice of “pop star” even if as only a fur­ther well placed mock­ery of the con­cept.

    You know what I like? Good folk. Brew­ers tend to be, for the most part, humans. Most brew­ers and own­ers of brew­eries (the sec­ond of which some­times usurp the the title of the first) are good nor­mal peo­ple who have some­thing to say. Blowhards, as you robust­ly describe them) are anoth­er thing. The loud dullard who final­ly found a way from mak­ing mon­ey from being an irri­tant. For­tu­nate­ly they are few and they make it very easy to avoid sup­port­ing them with the beer bud­get.

    I am not quite sure, how­ev­er, about your call to arms: “…let’s not ruin beer writ­ing for the sake of deny­ing the oxy­gen of pub­lic­i­ty to blowhards.” It would be quite easy to nev­er risk ruina­tion of beer writ­ing and still not men­tion the name of a brew­er or brew­ery own­er. Would it not be bet­ter to put it pos­i­tive­ly (look at me act­ing like you!!) and state instead “let’s make beer writ­ing more excel­lent by depriv­ing the blowhards of their oxy­gen and the mon­ey they crave! Focus on the real, local and inter­est­ing!!!” I do like a good bio now and then. But only now and then as it can get in the way of the ques­tions of whether the beer is good and good val­ue.

    1. That mon­ster com­ment thread from ear­li­er in the week, on what we thought was throw­away post high­light­ing some­thing some­one else had writ­ten, trig­gered about six dif­fer­ent lines of thought, includ­ing this one.

      1. Inter­est­ing. [Play­ing psy­chi­a­trist] Have you felt this way for some­time but only feel com­fort­able express­ing it now or is this a new sen­sa­tion for you?

        1. Heh. Not sure our feel­ings have changed much in the last few years, but, post book, we maybe have a clear­er idea of where present day ‘fan­boy­ism’ fits in.

          But maybe real­is­ing how indif­fer­ent we were to John Kim­mich (though we’ve no rea­son to doubt he’s any­thing but a splen­did fel­low) was the trig­ger.

          1. I still have (i) no idea who he is and (ii) no inter­est in even Googling his name. I am sure he loves his cats.

  5. I wrote a post in March about the celebri­ty of brew­ers.

    I thought I was going to be wok­en up that night by a mob with torch­es and pitch­forks.

    1. I seem to recall com­ment­ing on it, stick­ing up for that Mikkeller arti­cle in the NYT, which I found a good read.

      1. But is that the same thing? Is the sullen if brand­ing Scan­di­na­vian the same as the danc­ing “you are not wor­thy” orc? Are there per­son­al­i­ties which can draw us to a brand com­pared to these who repel us?

      2. My issue wasn’t with Johah Weiner’s writ­ing. A well-writ­ten arti­cle and the sub­ject mat­ter of the arti­cle are not mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. David Fricke might write an amaz­ing exposé in Rolling Stone about Justin Bieber. The sto­ry might be fan­tas­tic, but Bieber is still a tool.

        1. I got the impres­sion back then that you object­ed to the arti­cle on the grounds that writ­ing about brew­ers in that way made celebri­ties of them – did I get the wrong end of the stick?

          1. No, right end.

            The impres­sion I got from you was that because the arti­cle was well writ­ten, all was for­giv­en when it came to the sub­ject mat­ter. From my per­spec­tive, regard­less of how well writ­ten the arti­cle is—and regard­less if it ele­vates beer writ­ing or not—I’m not sure how know­ing the Bjergso broth­ers hate each is rel­e­vant to my beer drink­ing expe­ri­ence.

            What the arti­cle did do is raise the broth­ers pro­file, cre­at­ing a demand for their beer, there­fore poten­tial­ly affect­ing the price of their beer. Not because it’s good, but because an article—albeit a well craft­ed article—was writ­ten about how they hate each oth­er.

  6. One of the things that piss­es me off with the whole rock/pop star brew­er thing is how lit­tle time these peo­ple seem to spend at the mash tun and ket­tle. The beers they are fet­ed for are invari­ably brewed by oth­er peo­ple, or (say it qui­et­ly) state of the art, auto­mat­ed brew­hous­es (so uncraft don’t you think?).

  7. It’s an inter­est­ing posi­tion, I think part of this rock-star­i­fi­ca­tion (it’s a word now pah) of the brew­ers is due to an anti-mar­ket­ing back­lash, where ideas of sell­ing with adver­tis­ing and accoun­tants (because god for­bid they might enjoy beer) are an easy hit to rein­force buzz­words like ‘pas­sion’ – so the per­son­al­i­ty of the brew­er fills the void, and helps give the ‘scene’ a feel more like that of art and artists than a busi­ness.

    I think that part of this is also the rise of social media, that thanks to twit­ter, face­book and their like, we’re clos­er now to brew­ers, artists, et al than ever before so we become friend­lier and per­haps even more rev­er­en­tial of their end prod­uct.

    1. That’s an impor­tant point – Bill Urquhart and the oth­er micro­brew­ers sim­ply didn’t have the adver­tis­ing bud­gets to com­pete with Wat­neys et al.

  8. I have exact­ly the same amount of inter­est in know­ing the name of the man who brewed my beer as I do in know­ing the name of the man who weld­ed togeth­er my car. Or what­ev­er.

    That’s not to say I don’t take note of the names of the brew­eries when I drink a beer I like and look out for them in the future, because there does seem to be a small cor­re­la­tion between find­ing one beer you like from a brew­ery and the chances of lik­ing oth­er beers from the same brew­ery, but want­i­ng to know the name of the actu­al bloke press­ing the but­tons seems a lit­tle unnec­es­sary, no?

  9. Max and Al make a good point – there’s a big dif­fer­ence between know­ing the name of the guy who does the brew­ing (Dominic Driscoll, Ryan “bring back Ryan Kel­ly” Kel­ly) and invest­ing in the image of the guy who’s the fig­ure­head of the brew­ery. The lat­ter may have the star qual­i­ty & may be good at drum­ming up busi­ness, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have any­thing to do with being good at brew­ing, or even being involved in brew­ing.

    I did a bit of a dou­ble-take at Ian’s com­ment about “an anti-mar­ket­ing back­lash” – for me a back­lash against mar­ket­ing wouldn’t involve the pro­mo­tion of instant­ly recog­nis­able brand images! But it’s true in a way – not just because these guys’ bud­gets are low­er but because they’re try­ing to cre­ate an un-mar­ket­ing-like image. BD’s stuff in par­tic­u­lar is pure anti-mar­ket­ing mar­ket­ing.

  10. Just a thought, and one which I haven’t seen expressed in the arti­cle or the com­ments (apolo­gies if I’ve missed it): it might just be the case that the in-your-face blowhards are gen­uine­ly enthused by what they do and can’t help shout­ing about it from the rooftops.

    1. That then makes them like used car sales­men who I am sure are also enthused. Doesn’t mean I am not turned off by these danc­ing orcs.

    2. As in, “I’m so enthu­si­as­tic about our beer, I just can’t help bor­row­ing the label copy from Arro­gant Bas­tard… or air­brush­ing my pre­vi­ous job as a brew­er out of his­to­ry… or mak­ing a vex­a­tious com­plaint to Port­man…”

      Enthu­si­asts are enthu­si­asts; blowhards are blowhards.

  11. when I saw the title I thought you were going to cov­er actu­al Pop Star (ok music indus­try) brew­ers, you know like Elbow, Iron Maid­en, the Quo etc etc. but brew­ers who are “pop stars” is slight­ly per­plex­ing.

    is this a lon­don, craft,not fol­low­ing the right peo­ple thing, as I dont know any brew­ers in the celebri­ty cat­e­go­ry, or any­one who would describe/treat brew­ers in that way. so it feels like some­thing thats hap­pen­ing in a dif­fer­ent beery uni­verse. most of the brew­ers Ive met are aver­age peo­ple you would­nt recog­nise, who are jol­ly chat­ty beery types and even more so after imbib­ing some of their own beer, they nev­er like drink­ing some­one elses 🙂

    so need some exam­ples to work with, and not John Kim­mich, Ive drunk that beer and I had­nt clocked it was meant to be a pop­star brew­er spe­cial.

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  13. Craig – I think we both had a reac­tion to that arti­cle – mine pos­i­tive, yours neg­a­tive – and are try­ing to explain it after the fact.

    I’d say that under­stand­ing the kind of peo­ple who are cur­rent­ly enter­ing brew­ing – young, com­pet­i­tive, no for­mal train­ing, mar­ket­ing-aware – is help­ful, and I didn’t read it as an endorse­ment. It seemed like rather a sly hatch­et-job to me, in fact!

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