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What Do We Mean by ‘Variety’?

When we’re asked what we want from British beer culture we tend to say ‘Variety,’ but what exactly does that mean?

The story of Brew Britannia is arguably that of the journey — dare we say of progress? — from homogeneity to variety. A Which? magazine article from April 1972 sums up where thing were at back then:

Our tasters thought none smelt very strongly in the glass — none were either unpleasant or very pleasant… As far as taste went, the overwhelming impression of our tasters was that none of the keg beers had an very characteristic taste… We can see little reason for preferring one keg bitter to another…

But 43 years on, it’s not unusual to hear even hardened beer geeks emit the occasional whine about the ‘agony of choice’.

German postcard: a man struggles with the choice of beer in Munich.
“He who has choice is tormented.”

Have we, perhaps, ended up the wrong kind of variety or, worse, the mere appearance of variety? In a recent blog post, Matthew Lawrenson described one reason people might visit specialist craft beer bars:

Here, you are virtually guaranteed to see something different on every visit.  There will always be a beer you’ve never seen from a brewery you’ve never heard of. Even if their ultra-hopped Keg IPAs taste alarmingly similar to each other, it’ll be ‘different’.

Mr Lawrenson’s view of things tends to the cynical and we might argue that, to the really devoted hop-head, tuned into the world of IPAs and able (or claiming to be able…) to pick out specific varieties, those ‘alarmingly similar’ beers probably taste quite different — subtle differences are still differences. But, still, he may have a point — if to less obsessive people it seems that ‘They all taste the same!’ that would suggest we’re not so far from 1972 after all.

What other approaches to variety are there?

Meantime’s Alastair Hook has always been clear about what he believes British beer lacks, or was lacking: a range of styles. When he started brewing in the 1990s it was hard to find anything other than bitter or lager on draught. He and Mark Dorber were part of a generation that sought to revive old-style IPA, porter and old ale, and to introduce styles from abroad — wheat beer, dark lager, fruit beers.

If the 1970s were the era of the Big Six, this is the age of the Little Multitude — there are currently something c.1300 breweries operating in the UK, most pretty small. A variety of producers can lead to greater choice at the taps but only if each brewery really tries to do something different and embraces its own quirks. If, however, they’re all inspired by the same superstar beers, all use the same or similar yeasts, and the same or similar hops from the same fields via the same UK suppliers, the sense of difference might well end up being rather superficial. As we’ve put it in the past, true variety means the existence of beers not everyone will want to drink, and that not everyone will like.

As for big businesses, they tend to prefer brand diversity — it suits them to offer a range of essentially similar beers with different graphic design and stories representing the values of various ‘market segments’. (The Belgian lager for sophisticates, the Australian lager for lads, and so on.) Richard Morrice is a veteran industry PR man who has specialised in working with supermarkets and, when we interviewed him in 2013, he recalled the appeal of ‘premium bottled ales’ (our emphasis):

They offer the appearance of choice, at low risk, and, actually, with pretty good margins. As with food, customers started to demand more choice in the nineties. No-one wants to feel like they’re living in Soviet Russia.

And this seems to be carrying through into their attempts to get a slice of the ‘craft beer’ pie.

For us, at any rate, a choice of three or four decent examples of different styles, at different strengths, is generally variety enough. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

20 replies on “What Do We Mean by ‘Variety’?”

The craft beer boom has been going on for a while in the UK and I have started to suspect that “flooding the market” or “market saturation” is currently going on in the UK market. I do not know what’s the craft beer diffusion rate in the UK at the moment, but there are saturation-ish signs in the air at the moment. What my suspicion is that the craft beer niche markets are going to emerge, forcing some of the craft breweries to specialize even further. It might be that in the future, for example, there are some breweries which are highly specialized only in Stouts or IPA’s.

Had a real yen, reading this, for a pub that would consistently serve one golden ale, one best bitter, one old ale (maybe alternating with a mild), one strong bitter & one stout or porter; you’d think it would clean up. Doesn’t seem to happen, though. I can think of a couple of pubs which ostensibly have a huge range but actually offer a choice of four different golden ales, four different brown bitters and one or two oddities, usually from breweries you’ve never heard of. Not to mention the kind of bars Matthew talks about – places that offer a choice of six different golden ales and four different ‘fruit machine‘ experiments (usually from breweries you’ve never heard of). It’s a curious development – it’s as if having a larger number of pumps makes them more conservative.

Working on the updates to the last edition of my London guide back in 2012 I was looking to try to fill gaps in more far-flung suburbs by checking out as many GBG listings as I could. I particularly recall one pub, I’m not going to name it but it had one the local CAMRA branch Pub of the Year several times and was highly spoken of by locals. And I could immediately see some of its virtues as it was clearly a well-looked after and very comfortable place. This particular pub had eight handpumps — what choice, you might think. But on those handpumps were the following beers, at least seven of which I seem to recall were regulars: Sharp’s Doom Bar, Timothy Taylor Landlord, Greene King IPA, Greene King Abbot Ale, St Austell Tribute, Fuller’s London Pride, Adnams Southwold Bitter and Wells Courage Directors. It was that experience that got me thinking a bit more about variety and that counting the handpumps simply wasn’t enough. And no I didn’t list the pub.

The other thing to consider when talking about variety is customer demand. I manage a specialist beer bar with 12 taps (7 keg, 5 cask), 10 of which aren’t permanent. Today we had a pils, 3 pale ales, 2 IPAs , a black lager, a red ale, best bitter, dark mild, and a black saison and a imperial stout on. And even in a specialist outlet the ones that shift in big volume are the pales and IPA’s. Although I find it infuriating to go to a pub and have several 4% golden ales and 1 best bitter to ‘choose’ from I completely understand why it is that way from a commercial point of view. To an everyday pub why put something challenging (like a black saison) on that is a risk when you can put a pale on and know it will fly! Give the people what they want….

Because the one bloke who cares about being able to find a black saison will then start coming back every week, and bring all his mates. Even if people don’t want to drink a black saison, they tend to like to drink in pubs that sell them. Its extremely basic marketing.

Of course they do. Every group of lads have one bloke who is “into beer” far more than the others and hence dictates the choice of pub.

For every pint of black saison sold, the pub probably sells an extra 20 pints of pale ale or lager.

Different locations seem to require different amounts of compromise. Our local “craft beer bar” type place, the Pint Shop in Cambridge, will generally have a couple of fairly trad lagers and an acceptable-to-Guinness-drinkers stout (almost always Camden Ink), most of the rest of the keg lines will normally be pale ales below about 5.5%, and many of the cask options will tend to be fairly dad-friendly. They’ll often have one or two bits of proper beer-geek bait on, but seldom more.

Given that it tends to be the most out-there lineup in a generally conservative town, I personally wouldn’t mind a bit more adventurous stuff, but I’m also aware that this is Cambridge and not Williamsburg, and if they scared the horses too much then they’d probably not last very long…

We now have that “long tail” in bottled and canned products, and many beer-focused pubs are now stocking a very wide and eclectic range. But, by definition, you can only have on draught what is going to sell, especially where cask is concerned.

Incidentally, a few years back I was in a “real ale freehouse” which to my mind is a very congenial pub. There were eight cask beers on the bar, of which seven were golden ales from various breweries.

Choice is overrated. Or, to put it in a less polarising fashion, quality is more important than variety. Most of my favourite beer memories are from places where there were only one or two (superb) beers on offer. And my idea of a good night is finding a beer that’s so good that I want to drink nothing else for the rest of the evening. But Phil and others who’ve made the same point are right: often we have the illusion of variety, rather than actual variety. I think the “flagship-isation” of brewery marketing is a factor here: the best-selling beer from each brewery. It happens at GBBF too – only room for one or two beers per brewery, so they are nearly all represented by their best bitter.

The problem there being that tastes differ, so your two superb beers might be my two utterly tedious beers, and vice versa…

Complete gibberish. A “high quality” example of a style of beer I don’t like is completely worthless. The less beers you offer, the greater the chance of potential customers taking one look at the bar and turning around and walking out of the door. (or in britain, begrudgingly drinking a pint and then never coming back)

Quality is nothing without choice. Nothing.

A style of beer you don’t like? What would that be?

OK, on reflection I can think of a couple of styles I know I’m always going to have trouble with: lambic and Rauchbier. Indigenous styles – no. Since I ‘got’ hop-forward-modern-style beers, there’s been no British style of beer I don’t like, at least when done well. Although, as I said above, my ideal is a narrow choice of different styles, so we may not disagree all that much.

Jab, counter-jab, job done — can we leave the personal stuff there, please?

(Py — if you’d omitted ‘Complete gibberish’ your comment would have seemed quite reasonable and certainly less combative. But you probably realise that.)

But its not like its the first time I’ve had to correct this particular egregious logical fallacy. If people insist on talking abject bollocks over and over again despite being repeatedly corrected, they are likely to find that people’s patience wears rather thin and replies begin to get more to the point.

It’s not a logical fallacy, though – or not as far as I’m concerned. I’d rather have a high-quality example of a style I’m not crazy about than a mediocre example of a style I like. You’re saying there’s no difference between “what I believe to be high quality” and “what I like”. For me, there is. So what we’ve got here is a genuine difference of opinion – which you’re dismissing rather aggressively.

It is a logical fallacy. You’re repeatedly confusing your personal, subjective opinion with objective fact. Talking about the primacy of a handful of “superb beers” as if that is some kind of objective observation that every beer drinker would agree on.

Its really a very poor piece of thinking. Couching your personal preferences in the pretentious language of “high quality” in the hope that you fool us into mistaking your subjective opinion over what constitutes excellence in a beer style for an empirical fact is a lazy and patronising trick. To do so, you vastly underestimate the intelligence of our hosts and other commenters.

Couching your personal preferences in the pretentious language of “high quality”

…is precisely what I’m not doing. It’s only your assumption that there’s no logical difference between “this is good” and “I like this” which prevents you seeing this. That’s all.

But within the context of this discussion, which is centred around what pubs offer to customers based around whether or not they’re going to find something they like, there isn’t.

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