They Have Beards, Don’t They?

Beardo and Mojo beers from Robinson's.
SOURCE: Robinson’s/Beer Today

Yesterday news broke of yet another traditional brewery, this time Robinson’s, launching pointedly craft-style beers outside the main range. Like several others that have preceded it, this sub-brand featured perhaps the obvious signifier of 21st Century hipsterness: facial hair.

Our reaction to this was to think it was a bit obvious rather than to be annoyed by it but many others were.

Why? Well, for one thing, there are the general problems that come with established brewery craft sub-brands: the sense of desperation, the cringe-inducing self-consciousness (‘How do you do, fellow kids?’ as the popular meme has it), and also one thing that really does bother us: the fear that this is an attempt to trick people into buying what will turn out to be little more than bog standard bitter. That’s a wheeze that will work once but probably not twice, and can feel like a breach of the contract between brewer and customer.

(But we haven’t tried these beers and who knows, maybe they will live up to the promise of ‘craftness’ that the packaging makes.)

This kind of exercise also suggests to us that someone up on high thinks craft beer is a fundamentally superficial trend — that it is primarily about appearance and image rather than the quality of the product.

We also wonder if this particular approach betrays something more — actual disdain for craft beer drinkers. Not only are they superficial, it seems to say, but they’re vain: if they see a picture of themselves on the label, or perhaps of the person they want to be, they won’t be able to resist it.

Even if none of that bothers you, you might feel that this approach has become a bit hackneyed, like skulls and faux-graffiti. A case might be made for contract-brewers Flat Cap having started this back in 2012 we reckon this spate of hipstersploitation really started with Bath Ales’ craft offshoot Beerd back in 2013, which we don’t recall causing much annoyance — perhaps a bit of eye-rolling?

Beerd Brewery pumpclips from 2013.
SOURCE: @beerdbeers on Twitter (29/05/2013)

Charlie Wells Dry-Hopped Lager turned up in 2015 and seemed to rile people more, perhaps because the gulf between the stuffy parent company (Charles Wells) and the aspirations of the sub-brand seemed wider, even though the relationship itself was more transparent. The design, too, is more overt — not just a beard, which could mean anything, but also tattoos. And just call me ‘Charlie’? Sheesh. By all accounts (we haven’t tried it) the beer isn’t great either so that’s a full house of annoyances.

Charlie Wells Dry-Hopped Lager.
SOURCE: Charles Wells.

Later in the same year Yorkshire brewery Black Sheep came out with Pathmaker which has several positive things going for it. First, that’s supposed to be a portrait of brewery founder Paul Theakston on the label rather than a lazy caricature of a 21st Century hipster — that’s a first-time-round real ale beard! Secondly, it’s actually a pretty great illustration into which someone has clearly put a bit of thought and effort, unlike the effort above which looks like it was doodled on an iPad.

Pathmaker poster 2015.
SOURCE: Black Sheep.

But, still, that’s probably two beard-based sub-brands too many, and we suspect there are other examples we haven’t noticed or have forgotten about. (Let us know below and we’ll add them.) And that’s before we even get to the bona fide craft breweries with beards on their labels, of which there are many.

Anyway, if we were a bigger and/or established brewery trying to impress younger drinkers, this is not how we’d do it. What we’d do is pay up-and-coming designers to create something genuinely interesting and genuinely original — something which style-conscious drinkers might actually find visually appealing in its own right, even if we didn’t get it ourselves. Labels are only a tiny part of the equation but it is probably best, on balance, if they’re not patronising or insulting.

36 thoughts on “They Have Beards, Don’t They?”

  1. Keep the old branding, but add a new beer to your range that is genuinely in-style, is a much better strategy than shoving a lacklustre bitter in cringingly awful packaging and trying to pass it off as a “new-wave IPA” when one sip will tell you its not.

    The success of a beer is ultimately going to depend almost entirely on how it tastes.

      1. I agree, but why do so many breweries fail so hopelessly at this, but then go ahead and release the product anyway? Do they really think some snazzy new branding is going to fool anyone? It just makes them look incompetent/cynical/hopelessly out of touch. They’d be better off abandoning the whole thing.

        Do you think they don’t realise? That they take a sip of the odd-tasting bitter they’ve packaged up as a “west coast pale ale” and think “oh yes, the kids will love this”.

        1. To an extent, yes, I reckon some of them do think those beers are pretty far out. My sense is that many brewers at bigger/older breweries are so focused on achieving consistency and balance that they end up super-sensitive to spiky flavours and extremes. Some probably do think BrewDog beers, for example, are a bit silly and vulgar.

          Equally, there are loads who, in their spare time, drink Cantillon and all that, so maybe that’s a generalisation too far.

          Probably more often it’s a combo of that, cautious board members, and sales/marketing not trying to keep supermarket buyers happy.

          1. They need to recalibrate their taste-buds – the more widely known brewdog beers aren’t even remotely extreme, they’re just as consistent and well-balanced as a good pint of Landlord.

            There are so many bollocks truisms that get trotted out over and over again in the beer world, the idea that bitter is balanced and accessible whereas craft beer is extreme and challenging is one of the worst ones.

            I don’t know why sales and marketing would be pushing for a beer that isn’t going to sell very well to any demographic. Where is the logic in trying to launch a beer to appeal to drinkers with more modern tastes, only to then deliberately sabotage your own product by making it taste of a style of beer they won’t like? Surely no-one is actually that daft?

          2. This doesn’t tally with my experience of brewers at old family breweries. They’re perfectly well aware of what all the modern styles are supposed to taste like and I’m sure that they’re perfectly capable of brewing them. Lots of the younger ones homebrew that sort of stuff. The idea that they’re a bunch of fuddyduddies is as much of a sterotype as bearded hipsters at craft breweries. There’s much more overlap than you might think between the brewers at old and new breweries.

            The big difference is that in the older breweries the brewers don’t have full control. The stick in the muds are further up the command chain.

  2. Not beard-related (possibly beard-adjacent), but has that Charles Wells DNA beer been discontinued? I think that’s the first what’s-this-it’s-got-a-good-beat beer I noticed.

    1. Charles Wells pubs are definitely one of the more challenging pub chains in which to find a drinkable pint. Three mediocre bitters and a range of overpriced lagers. Thank god for the Triple Hopped IPA.

      1. As a Family Brewer, I think Adnams have done a good job with their Jack Brand range.
        For an established Micro, Salopian seem to have got their craft arm spot on.
        Wylam seem to have made a pretty good stab at transitioning from trad to craft.

  3. Py — I agree that ‘balanced’ is too often used as a synonym for bland but Punk IPA isn’t balanced — it’s got the accent squarely on hop aroma and flavour. A beer like St Austell Tribute has a bit of a hop accent but is almost as much about malt; whereas Proper Job from the same brewery is, again, all about hops. So balance is a real thing, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all as some like to suggest. And a beer like Doom Bar is arguably unbalanced too, being all about malt/sugar, so it’s not as if every bitter can make that claim.

    BrewDog does have tame beers (5AM wotsit, whatever the lager is called) but Dead Pony, Punk, Elvis Juice, and all those others, are still really quite startling to people brought up on brown bitter and the odd golden ale. (You should see my Dad’s face when he tastes Punk.)

    That question of why beers designed by committee end up being so crap puzzles us too but we are told supermarket buyers and their tasting panels reject anything too intense, extreme or strong, so beers that LOOK a bit craft but only TASTE a bit that way are basically perfect for that market.

    Historically the ‘proper’ craft beers supermarkets have stocked have tended to be relatively conservative, e.g. Meantime’s German style lagers (great, but not boat-rocking) or Pete’s Wicked Ale. Which is why we had our socks knocked off by Sierra Nevada Pale Ale when that turned up in ASDA c.2003, I guess, although it’s pretty tame beer by 2016 standards.

    1. This is all very much a case of “if you are used to X and consider that particular combination of flavours to be balanced, then anything that is different from X is therefore unbalanced”

      The combination of flavours that represents balance is subjective, surely?

      Punk IPA might seem intensely citrusy and challengingly bitter to someone who has been drinking nothing but Doom Bar for years, but so might Doom Bar seem intensely sweet and challenging (to keep down) to someone who has grown up on Punk IPA. Its a matter of perspective – they may both be beer, but they are as different from each other as cider and lager.

      I think this is the problem in why aged camra types don’t really understand the craft beer movement- too many people talk specifically from their perspective, but don’t seem to be aware that many people’s perspective may be completely different.

      1. I think you’re reading a value judgement into ‘balanced’ which isn’t there. (Or should be — of course some people do use it that way.)

        BrewDog aren’t aiming for balance with Punk — they’re aiming to make a hoppy beer that is in-your-face hoppy.

        When breweries describe their beers as ‘face-meltingly sour’, they’re not aiming for balance.

        With a beer like London Pride, Fuller’s is — they don’t want any one aspect to dominate; they’re after something rounded.

        Balance is a real thing, even if perceptions of what constitutes balance might change over time.

        1. Its not necessarily a value judgement, but it IS quite clearly a subjective judgement as to where the centre ground lies.

    1. There was one with Simon Rimmer (celebrity chef) and Alex James promoted the Lidl range, although they didn’t put his name on the bottles. Oh, and of course there was Morrissey Fox which featured actor Neil Morrissey and chef Richard Fox on the label, tied into a Channel 4 programme.

      Bet the Hairy Bikers do one soon.

      1. Good shout, hope so, i’ve got a couple of regulars who look just like them so i’d have to stock it for teh lulz

    2. Possibly doesn’t fit with healthy eating/responsible drinking trends? If you’re a celebrity chef/businessman maybe there are fewer ethical dilemmas when trying to flog loads of branded cookware or cous cous than alcohol.

    3. Trooper is the obvious one – and there’s a couple of other band-related ones, Elbow (Robbies), New Order (Moorhouse – they should probably stick to music), Madness appear to have created their own company to control branding, even if the beer is brewed at Portobello.

      I’m sure I’ve seen various micro-tie-ins (presumably single gyles, or at least only very locally distributed) but the only one that comes to mind is also perhaps the most random, a Wild Weather beer endorsed by the rugby player Kyran Bracken.

  4. At least they didn’t do a Marstons and savage the heritage of their existing brands, thus pissing off everyone.

    What’s interesting here is that many (most?) of the best craft brewers don’t actually use this ‘crafty’ visual language – Cloudwater, Burning Sky, Buxton, Marble, Kernel, Thornbridge, etc. all have distinctive branding which is a long way from skulls and beards – and only really Beavertown and (maybe, sort of) Magic Rock who do.

    1. Do any craft brewers use this silly mess? Most just seem to have the same simple logo, with different beers distinguished by different colours.

      It seems to me that the crafty brewers seem to just copy their childish iconography off one another.

    2. Well I’d throw in Tiny Rebel and Anarchy as the kind of “punk” ethos that Robbies are invoking/taking the mick out of. With a dose of the revamped “blobby” Freedom branding in there as well.

      Actually, I don’t know if it it’s just me but I think the Mojo branding works quite well. But I suspect it will be tainted by the Beardo which is just awful. If you’re going to do this kind of mickey-take then it has to be absolutely spot on, and it’s not.

      Cloudwater’s an interesting one in the way that the language on the bottles seems to be diverging from the pump/fount clips. But they have got a great logomark (Red Willow is another example) which really helps clean up your design given the small space available on clips and bottles if you don’t need to waffle on with your full brewery name.

      One I’ve always admired is Curious, which has an unusual challenge in having branding that works for beer as well as >£25 bottles of sparkling wine. It may be very plain, but you can recognise it in a fridge from across the bar, and that is something that’s very underrated. And they’ve stuck with it since they started doing beer in 2010.

  5. How many times in one article can two beer bloggers qualify their statements with “we haven’t actually tried these beers”?

    While I agree many larger breweries do seem to be capitalising on the craft beer movement, at least do your research properly and criticise those who really are just doing it for the money (dare I mention Hop House 13).

    A quick Google search, for example, will show you that the Charlie Wells character is based on the brewery founder, who ‘shockingly’ also had a beard, and as a former seaman probably a few tattoos too. The brewery is also known in their local area as Charlie Wells, so that covers their reasoning too.

    You’re absolutely right that great craft beer shouldn’t be exploited but let’s at least be grateful that it’s shaking up the industry as a whole, and that the larger independent breweries are doing something interesting (subject to opinion) than nothing at all.

    If they didn’t, then soon enough the only ‘craft beers’ available might be brewed by AB InBev or SAB Miller.

    1. Its still a rather dull beer with incredibly naff and borderline insulting branding, regardless of their “reasoning”.

      I’m glad that several of the big brewers/pub chains are waking up to the demand for craft beer, but I’d really rather they worked on actually producing and offering better beer, rather than offering the same beers but clumsily rebranded to appeal to “hipsters”.

      The ironic thing is, there is actually no need to rebrand at all. Craft beer drinkers are perfectly happy to drink beers with more classic artwork. Its the taste that counts, isn’t it.

  6. For what its worth, remember when bitter was considered so extremely bitter only the English drank it. Balance is in the eye of the beholder and I find myself revisiting bitter after many years drinking also anything that wasn’t bitter. However, back on topic I really don’t need a fancy brand/label to try something new. Something St Austell seem to have cracked.

  7. Possibly a bit of a tangent here but I’m quite surprised at how bad some of the bigger brewers (in collaboration with supermarket buyers) are at getting the “craft” tastes right. I work in food manufacturing and usually find that we’re fairly good at hitting the tastes and trends of the moment when developing convenience foods, and products are certainly developed in real kitchens with talented chefs, even if they are trimmed by accountants and compromised by the scaling up process before they hit the shelves. And the supermarket buyers expect us to be in tune with the latest celebrity chef/blogger/instagrammers. At least the intentions are good.

    In contrast, so many of the big brewers get it wrong. It’s not just the patronising way in which everything has been re-branded with “IPA” printed in the forefront, it’s also that the “craft” shelves with the cans and 355ml bottles are stocked with more of the same sub-standard beer. I’m not that picky when it comes to supermarket beer; give me a shelf full of Sierra Nevada and Brewdog and I’ll be satisfied for a quick and easy fix, but I get quite offended when I see that the Sainsbury’s buyer has chosen to stock about 8 different brands of “craft” lager, some imported, some macro craft, just to fill the shelf space. I get the impression that the buyer in this instance probably doesn’t even drink beer, and certainly doesn’t think craft beer is anything more than a fad.

  8. I have to say this is pretty poor stuff from you two. Given they are 6% and 5.5% they are probably going to be more that “bog standard bitters” in disguise. I’ll be getting hold of them next week and giving them a go (which is more than you’ve done obviously).

    Anyway, apart from that what amused me with all this huffing and puffing elsewhere (perhaps summed up by this quote “The image of craft beer is riddled with unfair cliches about beards, pricing, bubbles and so on…”) is that those moaning about unfair cliches are very often the same people who quite happily brand CAMRA people as all beards, bellies and sandals. A whiff of hypocrisy is in the air I think.

  9. Robinson’s made a hoppy IPA and decided to have a bit of fun with the branding, no worse than brew Dog taking the piss out of guiness when they brewed a stout.

  10. “Labels are only a tiny part of the equation but it is probably best, on balance, if they’re not patronising or insulting.”

    Wasn’t the whole point of the early Brewdog labels, and Stone labels that they were patronising and insulting? That was what made them cool.

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