Excluded From the Party

‘When I was up north recently, I spoke to another brewer who said that beer had split into two worlds and that there’s a party to which regional brewers are not invited.’ — Roger Ryman, Head Brewer, St Austell

There aren’t many flashpoints in British brewing but the invisible, fuzzy line between traditional-family-regional brewers (TFRBs) and ‘craft beer’ is one.

From the perspective of small brewers struggling to establish themselves, and that of their fans, when a 100+ year old brewery swings the weight of its distribution network and pub estate behind a new ‘craft’ sub-brand, that looks like bandwagon-jumping and perhaps even an attempt at sabotage.


This clever hoax caused many to flip their lids precisely because it played into people’s fears and expectations — if it had been true, it might not have been that surprising in a world which has given us Charles Wells/Dogfish Head DNA New World IPA.

For their part, TFRBs seem to take it rather personally, sometimes dismissing craft beer as a lot of silly superficial nonsense on the one hand, while desperately angling to join the club on the other. This statement from Stuart Bateman, as quoted by Roger Protz, offers one expression of those conflicting instincts:

I’m fed up with being told I can’t call myself a craft brewer because I’ve been brewing for more than two years… People who say that are denigrating the industry. I haven’t got a pony tail, ear-rings or tattoos but I’m producing craft beer…

When we spoke to Mr Ryman, he also said, with some sadness, that the manager of a craft beer bar in one of our major cities had told him he could never stock St Austell beers, however good or interesting they might be, because no-one would buy them. For those venues, and the customers they target, it is certainly not ‘all about the beer’.

And Craft Beer Rising (London, 19-22 February) is arguably the least hip of the wave of new non-CAMRA festivals precisely because it is so welcoming to brewers such as Thwaites, St Austell, Belhaven and Sharp’s.

Once again, it all seems to come down to that least tangible of qualities — ‘cool’. It is decided by a hive mind, not always on the basis of consistent logic; you’ve either got it or you haven’t; and, even if your products are selling like billy-o without it, it’s quite natural to yearn for that badge of status.

UPDATE 30/01/2015 11:00: Some sharp responses on Twitter in re: Craft Beer Rising.

Disclosure: we were paid to write an article for Craft Beer Rising magazine last year; Roger Ryman made us a cup of coffee and shared some beers with us.

37 replies on “Excluded From the Party”

The main reason Craft Beer Rising is lacking many of the newer, smaller breweries is the pricing. £1200 means many will not pay to be there.

There’s another element to it. Regionals have consistently produced pretty terrible offerings under their ‘craft’ brands. Which tars them all alas, even those who try to stay out of the more extreme ‘craftwashing’. I keep giving Greene King, Marstons, etc attempts a chance — tried beers from both at Craft Beer Rising last year and the result is always the same. Even Adnams, who ostensibly do it a lot better than many, produce ‘craft’ branded beers that punch well below the flavours of new-wave breweries. Their ‘top end’ products are comparable to the bottom end of of the trendy craft scene.
(In impact, not on quality… alas quality is a trickier subject in this context. The good brewers deliver both impact & quality.)

Mostly the regional ‘craft’ attempts aren’t ‘bad beer’ of course – they’ve been produced by expert brewers on state of the art equipment to exacting standards. And probably precise budgets too – which is likely where it falls apart.

The curse on the regionals is that they have to do even _better_ than a newer smaller brewery to get a foot in the door of craft beer nerd respect. But brewlength and budgets are against them. Even those who install smaller ‘craft’ brewkit don’t seem to be able to nail it. Yet.

And there’s a marketing element of course. Some have picked up the vibe, most haven’t. The attempts are sometimes laughable – so much so that the Greene King hoax was too close to reality to be immediately unbelievable.

It’ll all change the day that Greene King work out how to brew a beer with some actual hop aroma… and also get themselves a bearded 25yo brewer and put him on Twitter. 😉

The reason CBR doesn’t get the love that other events have is that it isn’t curated. It’s simply a beery trade show and anyone with a marketing budget can buy a patch of floor. But there’s a place for that sort of thing IMO. It gives big brewers a chance to craft themselves up a bit, but importantly it also gives smaller producers a platform in front of more powerful London/etc beer purchasers. And ‘crafty’ punters just need to set their expectations appropriately. I personally wish I could make the time to go to it, despite its shortcomings, the important thing is there will be good people there regardless.

Their attitude does smack a bit of sour grapes (I think I had that beer in London). It’s two completely different markets and I haven’t had a regional brewery “craft” offering that comes remotely close to the top rung of UK “craft”. They should just keep on with what they are good at, balanced, traditional, sensible beers for people that baulk a bit at 4.8%.

Of course, the irony of Roger Ryman’s comment about a craft bar being “certainly not ‘all about the beer’” is that’s what it’s supposed to be about. Perhaps the strongest indication yet that ‘craft’ has become a meaningless marketing tag.

I think Yvan’s point is spot on – previous experience suggests that traditional brewers might like the idea of “big bold flavours” in principle, they seldom really go in with both feet. So it could well be “all about the beer”, because in reality people who want to drink boldly flavoured beers are going to be taking a risk if they pick something from an established traditional brewery.

It’s the last line that’s telling though isn’t it. If you’re selling in supermarkets on 3 for £5 offers you’re not really going to be cool (though it does depend on how you view Brewdog I guess…)

But the likes of Ghost Ship, Proper Job are what I drink most of when not at the pub, precisely because they are OK value.

One of the things with Batemans is that they seem to think adding in sweet chocolate/coffee/hazelenut etc. syrups to their dark beers makes them ‘craft’. At least that’s the impression I got from the beers they were pushing at craft beer rising last year (the beers kind of reminded me of that beer episode of The Apprentice a few years ago).

Some of this stems from trying to read the American conception of craft beer across to the UK, which doesn’t really work. In the US, pretty much all the small independent breweries had disappeared, so craft encompassed anything that grew up as a reaction to “Big Beer”. In this country there was still a substantial segment of independent brewers, most of which produced distinctive beers that were markedly better than those of the nationals. Probably all of our surviving family brewers would be regarded is “craft” in US terms, whereas here the “craft” movement is to some extent a reaction against them. The mutual misunderstanding cuts both ways, of course, with many of the more vocal craft advocates struggling to recognise anything of merit in companies like Harvey’s and Taylor’s.

In a sense, the fact that “craft” offerings from regionals are less distinctive than those from the cutting-edge craft brewers is part of the point. Most consumers, in any market, don’t really want bold, extreme flavours, and it’s often the case that bigger companies pick up on trends and take the rough edges off them for wider consumption. There are many examples of this in the music industry, of course, with the hardcore fans complaining about selling out and dumbing down.

Mudgie is spot on as usual.

Sometimes the regionals do a great job of assimilating new ideas, with Ghost Ship and Proper Job and Batemans YellaBelly all doing a decent job of replicating that all important hint of grapefruit, and sometimes they don’t, like DNA and anything produced by Greene King.

St Austell complaining they can’t get their wildly successful beers sold at craft beer bars does seem a bit like multimillionaires U2 complaining they’re not allowed to enter Radio 1’s unsigned band competition.

I don’t think it was a complaint — more an observation about how they are perceived.

ok, but either way, you can’t expect to simultaneously sell the same beers in national supermarket chains and exclusive craft beer bars, something’s got to give.

Wish we’d interrogated this more but our impression was that even if he put his super limited edition sour kriek into kegs, he couldn’t have convinced the craft beer bar in question to take it. It’s the brand, not the specific beer, that is the problem. They’ve got a small brew kit on which they’ve brewed all sorts of oddities (it was a very convincing sour’n’salty gose on our visit) which are arguably more interesting than, say, BrewDog’s 5AM Saint.

Well I can certainly see that happening, although I think its a bit stupid. Either the bar manager underestimates the ability of his customers to see past the brand, or people really are just stupid.

Isn’t this more than cool? There is the natural jostling to carve spaces in which earnings can be maximized. In the UK version of craft, that means youth desperate to discover which new tree bark or tropical fruit note is in the saison. In the US it is slightly different with big craft this week purporting to define “quality beer” in a manner which excludes or at least moves the spotlight off the nanos and the experimentalists. Replication is now a value. In each market, the divide arises because each side really does not need the other, benefits from being separated from the other but is not yet prepared to break ties or set themselves up in opposition. I think that is coming. All sectors in each market make good beer – just as the macros do – but they are all making something very different that is becoming more and more distinct.

That is great. The comparable current situation in US big craft is the outrage that a food activist blogger forced the makers of Newkie Broon to use more malt. [How dare she operate outside the central authority of the BA and how dare she be that effective!] Controlling the conversation might soon be swapped out for more open accusation like that ad of yours. Sure would make good beer less precious and holy if anything.

Bit of an aside this, but I’m not convinced that the “divide is becoming more and more distinct” holds true for UK trad vs new-wave craft. If anything, there’s a great deal of filling in of the middle ground at the moment, what with normally trad brewers producing increasingly hoppy golden ales, people like Thornbridge getting pretty well accepted by the trad ale scene, big brewers launcing craft sub-brands, more pubs wanting to have a “craft” offer alongside their “traditional ales” and new breweries starting up that are neither one thing nor the other.

There are still extremes at both ends, but the middle ground is becoming increasingly busy. Which I think is a good thing…

I think many people are missing the point. This isn’t about being cool or not cool, and it isn’t about the taste, this is about breweries trying, and failing, to be two things at once.

I like many regional brewers and their beers, Adnams and St Austell to mention just two, and I frequently buy them in tescos and they’re my go-to beers in regular pubs.

But I wouldn’t drink them in a craft beer bar, because the entire point of a craft beer bar is to try something you CAN’T get in tescos or a run-of-the-mill pub.

It doesn’t make them any less “cool”, whatever that means, but you can’t be both a big brewery with wide distribution AND expect to be accepted in bars whose USP is small breweries with limited availabilities.

The same applies equally to Brewdog Punk IPA as well of course. That’s the key here.

I think people sometimes underestimate the power of human emotion — of vanity and pride.

What some brewers would like is to do what they do — brew the kind of beers they like, that sell quite well — without changing anything but also, at the same time, have people worship at their feet. Of course they want to be adored — who doesn’t?

Some get over that instinct and carry on as they were (probably the right approach); others grudgingly come half way, which is usually disastrous.

I’m not sure we’re really thinking of Mr Ryman: he’s an introspective bloke but not riven with self-doubt. You’ll note St Austell don’t have a craft sub-brand. That Bateman quote is more an example of what I have in mind.

Well, these things are a matter of scale. I think Batemans are probably less of a craft brewery than St Austells, because, to my mind, they produce less craft beers. On the Adnams-Greene King scale they’re probably somewhere in the middle.

However, its nothing to do with how long they’ve been around, its simply to do with the quality and style of beer they produce, and, to a lesser extent, how they market those beers.

Depends how it’s done. Some family brewers make a serious effort to brew more varied and interesting limited-run beers, Hydes’ Beer Studio range being a good example.

Others try to do “cutting-edge craft by-numbers” and end up making themselves look silly. It’s probably not in the DNA of “proper” brewers to do wild, wacky stuff. It’s like me wearing meggings.

And others continue to plough their own furrow without any acknowledgement of “craft” at all – Sam Smith’s, Arkells, Donnington. That of course may turn out to be a risk if there really is a sea-change in the market. Actually I’ve picked up a few comments recently that Sam’s have entered the “so square they’re hip” phase.

Incidentally, is this the first time py has ever said “Mudge is right as usual?” 😉

God, we’d love to interview Humphrey Smith!

We think they’ve played a blinder, actually, probably through stubbornness rather than cunning.

Sam Smiths do a keg wheatbeer, that’s pretty damn “craft”. Certainly not something you’d typically find in a boring brown beer pub of the mid 90s. They also sell expensive, strong, and widely acclaimed bottled beers, including an impy stout and several recreations and throwbacks. Another signature of a craft brewer.

I wonder if they’ve ever considered adding a hoppy IPA to their wide range of kegged products.

“So square they’re cool” might be the way to go, actually. Or more specifically, so oldskool they’re new-wave. The “archive recipe from 1859” routine seems like a great way for an old brewery to stake a claim to beer-geek cred (unusual style, high ABV, big flavours) while playing to their strengths – ie history and tradition – brand-wise.

FWIW Sam Smiths are a fairly regular sighting, nestled up against Kernel, Partizan, Wild Beer Co and so on, in both of my local crafty bottle shops.

>>You’ll note St Austell don’t have a craft sub-brand. <<

Not strictly, but Proper Cool IPA, does that still exist?

Yes, although it hasn’t really worked. Marketing-led, as we understand it, but still clearly branded as St Austell rather than, say, ‘The Cornish Craft Beer Company’ or something.

Haven’t they dropped the ‘Proper Cool’ and just called it IPA?

From the looks of your review of the Samuel Jones outfit they aren’t even doing the interesting stuff for their own estate.

Gratifying as it was to see the Greene King hoax greeted with hoots of mirth from the beer commentariate, I was most bemused to see only a few days later that a similar prank – a better one in my opinion! – passed mostly without comment from the same crowd.

This joke had us believe that real ale giant Black Sheep, backed by an army of ad men including Pete Brown, were going to launch a “crafty” beer called “My Generation” (an obvious nod to the “Download Generation”): apparently some sort of attempt to directly ferment Mumford & Sons, keg it, and sell it to a hitherto under-represented demographic of affluent but risk-averse white male 6Music listeners with middle-of-the-road tastes in absolutely everything.

The pranksters had even been so thorough as to set up a fake Twitter account for the venture, peppering it with faux cottage-industry Kickstarterisms about following ones dreams and so on, implying a completely implausible level of passion and personal risk given the capital firepower commanded by the *real* Theakston brothers, their commercial partners, and others of their ilk.

I’m left puzzling as to why we didn’t have such a good laugh about this, compared to the frankly amateurish Greene King prank, which was clearly dreamed up by some idiot on a train who’d just drunk two bottles of Halcyon to himself.

A girl invited me to a party once. I turned up with a bottle of Strongbow in one hand and a copy of Starless and Bible Black in the other (we knew how to have fun in those days) only to find that the party had been the previous night. Her Dad very kindly invited me to come in and watch telly with them for a while, but it wouldn’t have been the same.

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