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. They were con­sid­er­ing it as long ago as 2010. It isn’t a high pri­or­i­ty for them.

    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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