Don’t Worry, Be (Mostly) Happy

Illustration: (mostly)

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For the last year or so we’ve been slowly chewing over a single big question: how healthy is British beer culture?

You might remem­ber, if you’re a long-time read­er, that we first wrote about the idea of healthy beer cul­ture in 2013, but that was a set of bul­let points. This post expands on those ideas with anoth­er five years’-worth of evi­dence, expe­ri­ence and think­ing.

We should con­fess that our start­ing point is one of mild frus­tra­tion at the per­va­sive idea that British beer – and beer cul­ture more gen­er­al­ly – is ail­ing. We see var­i­ous wor­ries expressed on social media, and in blog posts and arti­cles, each one dis­crete and per­son­al, but adding up to a mass of anx­i­ety. If you’re in this bub­ble it can feel like the end times.

To pro­vide fuel for this spe­cif­ic blog post we asked our Twit­ter fol­low­ers to tell us what, if any­thing, made them wor­ried for the future of British beer. Some state­ments echoed things we’ve seen said many times before, while oth­ers flagged issues we had not con­sid­ered. Quite a few effec­tive­ly can­celled each oth­er out, high­light­ing the absur­di­ty of think­ing about British beer as a mono­lith. There is no sin­gle idea of what healthy looks like, and no vic­to­ry that won’t feel like a defeat to some­body else.

In this post we want to focus on some of the most com­mon­ly expressed fears, ques­tion whether they have a basis in real­i­ty, and con­sid­er the the like­ly impact of those that do.

Let’s begin with a sta­ple of beer com­men­tary for the past 25 years or so: the  per­ils of the pur­suit of nov­el­ty.

One: Always New, Always Shiny

Illustration: taps in a pub.

We – Boak & Bai­ley – tend to cel­e­brate styl­is­tic diver­si­ty. It seemed excit­ing to us that even in a small, dis­tant town like Pen­zance, where we lived until last sum­mer, it was increas­ing­ly easy to find draught beers at a range of ABV, across a spec­trum of colour, express­ing dif­fer­ent degrees and vari­eties of hop, malt and yeast flavour.

A con­trary view might be, though, that the more beer styles there are, the few­er tru­ly great exam­ples there will be in each cat­e­go­ry. What if more choice across 150 styles just means less choice for fans of any par­tic­u­lar one?

Then there is the ques­tion of keep­ing those styles in appro­pri­ate bal­ance. How can we be sure, for exam­ple, that the increas­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of gold­en ales won’t crush tra­di­tion­al bit­ter into the ground?

There’s cer­tain­ly no deny­ing that beer styles do dis­ap­pear, com­ing into and going out of fash­ion over the course of years or decades. The demise of mild, the biggest sell­ing style before the 1960s and now hard to find on draught out­side cer­tain hold-out regions, is one notable exam­ple.

But rest assured that bit­ter, which usurped mild and was itself usurped by lager, is not, for now, scarce.

Every Fuller’s pub sells Lon­don Pride, and most Sam Smith pubs have Old Brew­ery, to name two exam­ples. In Bris­tol, throb­bing with craft beer vibra­tions, there is nonethe­less plen­ty of Bass, Greene King IPA, Doom Bar, Courage Best, Bath Ales Gem and But­combe.

And here are the ten best-sell­ing cask ales in Britain as of August 2017 accord­ing to CGA:

Brand Val­ue of sales
Doom Bar £137m
Greene King IPA £89m
Lon­don Pride £69m
Abbot Ale £36m
Deuchars IPA £35m
Pedi­gree £28m
Wain­wright £24m
Land­lord £25m
Trib­ute £22m
Old Speck­led Hen £21m

Of those, only two approach gold­en ale ter­ri­to­ry (Deuchars, Wain­wright); two (Land­lord and its trib­ute, Trib­ute) are more amber than brown; and Abbot is notably strong. But none on the list are espe­cial­ly flo­ral or cit­rusy, and all are essen­tial­ly vari­a­tions on bit­ter or pale ale at between 3.7% and 5% ABV.

In our view, if you live in Eng­land and can’t go out and find a pint of bit­ter with rel­a­tive ease, or even a choice of bit­ters, then you’re being fussy about pubs, fussy about beer, or per­haps just plain awk­ward.

On the flip­side, we’re also baf­fled by the sug­ges­tion that hazy IPAs have some­how come to dom­i­nate. It’s inter­est­ing that Adnams has brewed one as an exper­i­ment, and we were amused to see that Alec Lath­am encoun­tered a cask ver­sion of the style at a region­al beer fes­ti­val, but, equal­ly, we can go weeks with­out see­ing one on sale.

This real­ly is a case of where the so-called ‘bub­ble’ might be dis­tort­ing per­cep­tions. NEIPA is high­ly vis­i­ble on social media, and very present in a par­tic­u­lar sub­set of spe­cial­ist bars. Even so, we’ve yet to find a sit­u­a­tion in which, even if one or more NEIPAs were on offer, there weren’t also plen­ty of oth­er options avail­able. Brew­Dog Bris­tol might have three NEIPAs on at once, but will also have four dif­fer­ent lager sub-styles, stout, and a choice of amber ales.

Regard­less of their reach, we’re yet to be con­vinced NEIPAs are more than a pass­ing obses­sion, like black IPA before them, or that they have untapped main­stream appeal. We haven’t seen much evi­dence of them flood­ing super­mar­kets, or turned up in Wether­spoon pubs – both key barom­e­ters of broad­er accep­tance, which is cer­tain­ly a nec­es­sary step before any­thing like dom­i­nance.

Ses­sion IPA, on the oth­er hand, we do fore­see muscling in on bitter’s turf. Essen­tial­ly one-dimen­sion­al, they are easy drink­ing if you have some tol­er­ance for bit­ter­ness, and the typ­i­cal ABV puts them right at home along­side big brand lagers and cask bit­ter. One staff mem­ber at a tra­di­tion­al fam­i­ly brew­ery told us that man­age­ment there is all-but obsessed with ses­sion IPA, and there’s evi­dence of this ten­den­cy appear­ing in tied pubs up and down the coun­try.

* * *

Anoth­er obser­va­tion we’ve heard many times over the years, from many dif­fer­ent brew­ers, is that cus­tomers and pubs won’t buy the same beers twice, which makes it dif­fi­cult to estab­lish a core range and a steady trade.

From the per­spec­tive of brew­ers and retail­ers the pur­suit of nov­el­ty is a con­crete, prac­ti­cal prob­lem, as it has been since the gen­e­sis ‘guest ale’ cul­ture in the 1990s, and the extreme man­i­fes­ta­tion in scoop­ing and tick­ing. How can a brew­er oper­ate if their cus­tomers demand a new beer every time? Some cheat, brew­ing essen­tial­ly the same beers with dif­fer­ent names, or blend­ing two beers to cre­ate a third, or chuck­ing caramel into a pale beer to cre­ate some­thing that at least looks new. Oth­ers dri­ve them­selves half-mad attempt­ing to inno­vate, brew­ing with ever-weird­er ingre­di­ents, or strange tech­niques.

Of course it’s nat­ur­al – healthy, even, if we can use that word yet again – to be inter­est­ed in new things. To want to try them, at least, and if you’re lucky to enjoy unfa­mil­iar sen­sa­tions and flavours. This is how the next porter, mild, bit­ter or gold­en ale is dis­cov­ered.

But we also think there’s some­thing else going on. When a cus­tomer says they want some­thing dif­fer­ent or new, and when a pub­li­can relays that request to a brew­er, we’re cer­tain that at least some of the time what they’re real­ly say­ing, in a gen­tle way, is that they haven’t yet found a beer they real­ly love, which is a step up from mere enjoy­ment.

The stereo­type of the end­less­ly flit­ting beer geek might have some basis in real­i­ty but, speak­ing for our­selves, when we find a beer we like in a pub, in great con­di­tion, we tend to stick with it for the ses­sion, or even over a few ses­sions, until the cask is dead. Tim­o­thy Tay­lor doesn’t strug­gle to shift Land­lord, even at a pre­mi­um price, and Beaver­town can’t brew enough Neck Oil to meet demand.

Or, blunt­ly: if a brewery’s core range beers don’t seem to be earn­ing repeat orders it might be because, even if they’re excel­lent in every way, they need a lit­tle more work to attain that mag­ic qual­i­ty that inspires loy­al­ty, or at least the desire for a sec­ond pint of the same.

Two: Too Many Breweries – the End is Nigh!

Illustration: too many breweries

When we wrote Brew Bri­tan­nia there was white-hot excite­ment in the air. Brew­eries were open­ing every­where, every ten min­utes, in places nobody ever expect­ed to see such a thing. They were brew­ing every­thing from black IPA to sai­son, using every vari­ety of hop on the mar­ket, while some exper­i­ment­ed at the far edges of con­ven­tion with hazy, sour, wild, weird beers. Pubs were boost­ing the diver­si­ty of their offers and craft beer bars were appear­ing not only in more and more cities but even small towns, such as New­ton Abbot in Devon. It felt like a gold­en age.

Even then, though, there were peo­ple fret­ting about how long it could last. This 2013 blog post from Dave Bai­ley (a com­mit­ted and open-heart­ed indus­try com­men­ta­tor as well as an inter­est­ing brew­er) made the case:

The total vol­ume of beer being con­sumed in the coun­try has been declin­ing for some time. Despite this there has been a steady increase in the capac­i­ty of micro-brew­ing. Yes, this is part­ly dri­ven by an ever increas­ing demand from drinkers, which in turn, it could be argued, has been inspired by the increas­ing choice that has occurred… Local­ly to me there con­tin­ues to be a dis­turb­ing increase in the num­ber of brew­eries. I’m not even going to quote a num­ber, as to be hon­est, I’m not sure it is pos­si­ble to count… Here you see I’m start­ing to be neg­a­tive, hav­ing start­ed this post on a fair­ly pos­i­tive slant. I find it dis­turb­ing because I do not believe it is com­mer­cial­ly sus­tain­able. Real­ly, I sim­ply don’t believe it is.

Many of those who respond­ed in the com­ments agreed with that analy­sis: “The ‘bub­ble’ is cer­tain to burst soon and unfor­tu­nate­ly, may take some tal­ent­ed brew­ers with it, leav­ing some medi­oc­rity behind.”

But these doom­say­ers were wrong, or at least made their call too soon. When that post appeared the Cam­paign for Real Ale’s count of UK brew­eries stood at around 1,100. Almost five years on that num­ber stands at more than 1,700. In oth­er words, if there is a bub­ble, it wasn’t ready to burst in 2013.

Five years ago, it turns out, there was unsus­pect­ed room for growth in places such as Lon­don, which went from hav­ing a mere hand­ful of brew­eries to the lat­est count of 112, and Bris­tol, which had around sev­en brew­eries with­in its city bound­aries in 2013 but now has a fluc­tu­at­ing fif­teen or so.

It seemed back then that the lim­it­ed num­ber of free taps open to the mar­ket across the British pub indus­try was fatal­ly low and that too many brew­eries were already com­pet­ing for them, dri­ving down prices and qual­i­ty. But many of us under­es­ti­mat­ed the poten­tial for the rise of the microp­ub and the brew­ery tap­room (of which more lat­er), and per­haps also the poten­tial for craft beer to pop up in sur­pris­ing places – chain hotels, for exam­ple, or noo­dle bars.

And, on bal­ance, we can’t find any par­tic­u­lar rea­son to think the clap of doom any more like­ly in 2018 than 2013, oth­er than that if you say “It’s going to rain” every sin­gle day you will even­tu­al­ly be right.

After all, entire cities remain rel­a­tive­ly short on brew­eries-per-head, such as Birm­ing­ham (thir­teen brew­eries for 1m peo­ple) and Cardiff (five for 450k), and also have vacan­cies for the kind of uncon­ven­tion­al free-of-tie venues that might sup­port them.

That’s not to say that indi­vid­ual brew­ers haven’t had, and aren’t con­tin­u­ing to have, a chal­leng­ing time.

In March 2018 Dave Bai­ley announced that his own brew­ery, Hard­knott, was to cease pro­duc­tion on its own plant though the brand is to live on in some form. He is less opti­mistic than us, writ­ing: “It con­tin­ues to frus­trate me that many com­men­ta­tors in the indus­try are herald­ing how mas­sive the craft beer thing is, and yet stu­pe­fied by what appears to me to be an inevitable like­li­hood of mas­sive attri­tion of many small brew­ers as they realise that mak­ing mon­ey at this daft job is the pre­serve of very few.”

Dur­ing 2017 we did our best to keep a log of every brew­ery clo­sure in the UK – to real­ly focus on the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion – and there were a few notable casu­al­ties. Cot­tage Brew­ing in Som­er­set and Tom Wood’s in Lin­colnshire, for exam­ple, both went into admin­is­tra­tion, while Ballard’s shut up shop after almost 40 years trad­ing.

If we were to draw a con­clu­sion from those and sim­i­lar announce­ments it would be that there is a par­tic­u­lar squeeze on con­ser­v­a­tive, local­ly-focused brew­ers found­ed in the wake of the real ale boom of the 1970s. These are brew­eries whose beer has nei­ther the nation­al cult rep­u­ta­tion of, say, Tim­o­thy Tay­lor, nor the nov­el­ty of the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of craft brew­ers.

Brew­eries will con­tin­ue to come and go. Some will find their niche, make their name; oth­ers will strug­gle, and even­tu­al­ly suc­cumb. From where they are sit­ting this might not feel like evi­dence of a healthy cul­ture but from a con­sumer per­spec­tive, we’re afraid to say, it prob­a­bly is.

Three: Quality is Poor

Illustration: quality.

The word ‘qual­i­ty’ comes up time and again in the con­ver­sa­tion. What is the good of all these brew­eries, and all this choice, if the beer you spend rather too much on is mediocre, or even bad? If the qual­i­ty isn’t there.

Before we got into this one, how­ev­er, we want­ed to probe what peo­ple mean by ‘qual­i­ty’, our impres­sion being that like ‘craft’ it is a vague term used by dif­fer­ent peo­ple to sug­gest dif­fer­ent things. To this end we ran a sim­ple poll on Twit­ter and these were the results:

It’s evi­dent that to most respon­dents ‘qual­i­ty’ is about tech­ni­cal prowess. It sug­gests that a beer is well-engi­neered – that a brew­ery QA tester or com­pe­ti­tion judge would find no con­crete flaws. It isn’t sour, hazy, but­tery, and so on. (Unless of course it is meant to be, and adver­tised as such.)

As a sub­set of that, oth­ers tend to use it to refer to how the beer is deliv­ered at point-of-sale, espe­cial­ly in rela­tion to cask ale and the old-fash­ioned cel­lar skills need­ed to present it at its best. (A well-made beer can be ruined by care­less han­dling; and a mediocre one, it seems, ele­vat­ed through the skill of a good pub­li­can.)

For anoth­er, small­er group, qual­i­ty refers to some aspect of the beer beyond the tech­ni­cal: is it excit­ing, orig­i­nal, inno­v­a­tive, inter­est­ing, per­haps a bit ‘fan­cy’? These peo­ple, we would guess, also enjoy con­sis­tent beer with­out obvi­ous flaws, but would rather drink a less than tech­ni­cal­ly per­fect NEIPA for exam­ple than, say, a very pre­cise­ly brewed but restrained 3.7% Eng­lish bit­ter, or a basic lager. In fact, we ran a Twit­ter poll with that spe­cif­ic thought in mind, the results of which are some­what inter­est­ing, if less use­ful than the above:

We do know from our own expe­ri­ence that find­ing a good pint of cask ale can be dif­fi­cult, even in brew­eries’ own pres­tige pubs where it ought to be a giv­en, and that too many bot­tles and cans can be sub­stan­dard.

But is there real­ly any rea­son to think that, on the whole, the qual­i­ty of beer – in either the tech­ni­cal sense or in terms of sheer char­ac­ter – is any worse now than 30 or 40 years ago? In 1985, for exam­ple, Roger Protz wrote in his reg­u­lar col­umn for What’s Brew­ing, the Cam­paign for Real Ale news­pa­per, of what he called ‘Our Ail­ing Ale’, report­ing on a con­ver­sa­tion with CAMRA co-founder Gra­ham Lees:

What’s hap­pened to ale in this coun­try, Protz?” he demand­ed. “It tastes like warm tea.”… Dur­ing the course of the next few days… Gra­ham returned again and again to what he saw as the sad decline of the qual­i­ty of our much of our cask beer. I did not dis­agree with him, for I too have become increas­ing­ly con­cerned by beer that is as unde­mand­ing on the palate as it is demand­ing on the wal­let… [Many] have lost their zip and char­ac­ter. Bod­ding­tons, Brak­s­pear, Gales and even – and I say this with ter­ri­ble reluc­tance – Adnams, seem to be pale shad­ows of their for­mer selves… Even when the beer is with­out blem­ish, it is too often served so bad­ly that you might as well sit at home and put up with ‘stewed card­board’ home brew.

It’s a fact of life that things were always bet­ter a decade or two ago, and peo­ple will be say­ing the same a decade or two in the future, too.

We do sus­pect that some cel­lar­ing skill has been lost. This is a point Steve Dunk­ley, brew­er and for­mer cel­lar­man, makes fre­quent­ly:

I start­ed in the trade when I was 18, and I learned from some­one who’d been doing cel­lar work for years. The pub I was work­ing at also sent me on a course to get qual­i­fied in it, and I learned a lot. Not just the guide­lines of how to stil­lage a beer, but also what’s actu­al­ly going on inside the cask, and how its affect­ing the beer. I also learned how to strip and rebuild most dis­pense equip­ment, and the impor­tance of clean­li­ness on it. Back then there were only about 300 brew­eries, and the bar I worked in tried to get as many dif­fer­ent beers as pos­si­ble each year, I remem­ber break­ing the 600 mark one year! With­out know­ing about beer itself, there was no way that we’d have been able to keep beer in good con­di­tion. Just because it’s bright does­n’t mean it’s right, and a chill haze does­n’t mean it’s drain pour. Even back in the 90s. Under­stand­ing that leads to good beer going over the bar, and we built up a rep­u­ta­tion for it… I think these days we’re in desparate need of cel­lar staff. Qual­i­ty is such an impor­tant issue in a flood­ed mar­ket, and brew­ers can eas­i­ly point the fin­ger at the end of the chain.

With the death of the brew­ery-pub tie there are also few­er oppor­tu­ni­ties for pub­li­cans to real­ly get to know a hand­ful of stan­dard beers very well, which issue is only com­pound­ed by the ten­den­cy to nov­el­ty (see part one, above) and wider ranges of beer in indi­vid­ual pubs and bars. This is a par­tic­u­lar bug­bear of Good Beer Guide pub-crawler Mar­tin Tay­lor:

One of the themes of my blog… is that the explo­sion of choice is rarely ben­e­fi­cial to qual­i­ty… The argu­ment for head­ing for pubs with many pumps seems to be that any­one who cares about cask would have at least half a dozen on, to which CAMRA mem­bers cask drinkers will grav­i­tate, leav­ing the local bar with Doom Bar and GK IPA (pro­vid­ed on suf­fer­ance) to serve soup to Car­ling drinkers… And read­ing CAMRA mag­a­zines it’s hard not to be per­suad­ed that more is bet­ter, with Pub News focus­ing on quan­ti­ty and rar­i­ty, and qual­i­ty bare­ly men­tioned.

He is right, we think, and our feel­ing is that choice across town – dif­fer­ent ales from dif­fer­ent brew­eries in dif­fer­ent pubs – is prefer­able to a whole world of options in a sin­gle pub.

Over­all, though, we sus­pect there is a lot more that is very good in 2018 than there was in 1978. It’s just that it’s hard­er to find among all the noise and excite­ment; and we have all become so much more demand­ing and expe­ri­enced as con­sumers.

Very much signs of a healthy cul­ture.

Four: Beer Excludes

Illustration: beer excludes.

Anoth­er issue that came up more than once in response to our Twit­ter query, and at inter­vals in the wider dis­cus­sion, is the fear that beer was becom­ing elit­ist and exclu­sive.

And when it comes to the sharp end of High Craft Beer – lim­it­ed releas­es, fes­ti­vals, events, sub­scrip­tion ser­vices, and the very most spe­cial­ist bars – this is cer­tain­ly true.

Yes, the most expen­sive beer is rel­a­tive­ly more afford­able than wine of equiv­a­lent cachet, and, yes, almost all sec­tors have a high-end out of reach to all but the wealth­i­est or most ded­i­cat­ed fol­low­ers. It is also pos­si­ble to access craft beer on a bud­get with suf­fi­cient know-how.

But the fact remains that peo­ple on lim­it­ed incomes are exclud­ed from the full range of the expe­ri­ence, and that will only become more of a prob­lem if those who seek to bump the price of beer upwards are suc­cess­ful.

(Some busi­ness­es are tired of scrab­bling for prof­it and see get­ting cus­tomers to pay more as an obvi­ous fix; oth­ers regard this as a nec­es­sary step towards improv­ing pay and con­di­tions in the brew­ing and hos­pi­tal­i­ty indus­tries; and yet a third group looks at it as a step towards rebuild­ing beer’s self-esteem, by rein­vent­ing it as a ‘pre­mi­um prod­uct’.)

This is a rare instance of where those who talk about beer might be able to do some good, how­ev­er, by high­light­ing an impor­tant fact: craft beer (def­i­n­i­tion 2) is only a small part of beer cul­ture, and per­haps not the best part.

In the past we’ve referred to Schrödinger’s Craft Beer, pok­ing fun at the view that craft beer is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly:

  1. A niche inter­est engag­ing only a hand­ful of peo­ple and venues, unde­serv­ing of all the atten­tion it gets; and
  2. A loom­ing exis­ten­tial threat to tra­di­tion­al British beer and pubs which must be stopped!

But we’ve looked into the box and… It’s num­ber one. Craft beer is sig­nif­i­cant, and still has room to grow, but it is not the be-all-and-end-all. Not many peo­ple drink craft beer, and even few­er peo­ple drink only craft beer. We cer­tain­ly don’t, inter­est­ed as we are in the phe­nom­e­non, and even the Craftest of the Craft talk breath­less­ly about, say, Fuller’s ESB, or even bot­tled Bud­weis­er.

We revis­it­ed a pre­vi­ous post on this sub­ject and, on fur­ther reflec­tion, would now express the prac­ti­cal solu­tion like this: don’t prop­a­gate the idea that price or exclu­siv­i­ty are syn­ony­mous with qual­i­ty, and make an effort to cel­e­brate the afford­able.

* * *

Beyond price there’s also the exclu­sion due to gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty, eth­nic­i­ty, age… In short, like it or not, beer remains the realm of the mid­dle-aged white man, into which oth­ers are expect­ed to inte­grate rather than being accom­mo­dat­ed. And so they don’t both­er.

Sex­ist brand­ing is just one aspect of that – one which con­tin­ues to throw up con­stant dis­ap­point­ments, often from unex­pect­ed quar­ters, as peo­ple strug­gle (we think sin­cere­ly in many cas­es) to get their heads around the fact that what was unre­mark­able in 1998 makes them look bad in 2018, or that ‘ban­ter’ doesn’t trans­late to those who don’t know you and aren’t in on your jokes.

But progress is being made.

The turn­ing round of Cas­tle Rock’s Elsie Mo was one big step. A promi­nent tar­get for crit­i­cism, the World-War-II themed pump-clip was redesigned as a trib­ute to women who served in the war rather than a lazy call-back to pin-up porn of the past. Robinson’s, though, seemed unre­pen­tant, and defi­ant, mak­ing a pub­lic stance against “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness”. Except that this week they too came round to the idea, announc­ing (albeit clum­si­ly) plans to rebrand their pop­u­lar gold­en ale:

The cur­rent label was designed in homage to the clas­sic 1940’s Mem­phis belle style pin up ‘nose art’ of WW2 air­crafts which was so icon­ic of the era. How­ev­er, it is no secret that, in the wake of the #MeToo move­ment and the back­lash against sex­u­al harass­ment and abuse, Dizzy Blonde has been the focal point of the sex­ism debate in the beer indus­try. Despite the fact that Dizzy Blonde is a much-loved brand by many, we don’t have our heads in the sand. It is time to acknowl­edge that the pre­sen­ta­tion is not uni­ver­sal­ly accept­ed by a soci­ety that strives for, and cel­e­brates, equal­i­ty.

Those who want to see change should take heart from this. If it does­n’t speak to a fun­da­men­tal shift in val­ues it at least reveals the cal­cu­la­tions busi­ness­es are mak­ing, weigh­ing the short term risk of annoy­ing a small group of anti-PC types against the longer-term ben­e­fits of attain­ing broad appeal, and of stay­ing in step with their indus­try peers.

The kind of small­er brew­ery whose mar­ket­ing machines amounts to the head brew­er at the kitchen table with a lap­top on Sun­day night might take longer to change, or per­haps not. We know of at least one pub­li­can – by no means grand­stand­ing­ly ‘woke’ – who has pri­vate­ly told brew­eries with sex­ist brand­ing that if they won’t change their designs, their pub won’t sell it, because it embar­rass­es them to have it on dis­play, and to have make excus­es for it, in 2018.

Here, the cul­ture is expe­ri­enc­ing grow­ing pains, but will be fit­ter and stronger at the end of the process.

Five: Pubs are Endangered

Illustration: closed pub.

The clo­sure of pubs, and strug­gle of those that sur­vive, is a huge wor­ry for many peo­ple, and is some­thing we addressed in the epi­logue of 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub:

We feel unfash­ion­ably opti­mistic for the pub. It’s sur­vived this long, after all, despite bombs and the Band of Hope, and pubs remain the jew­els of our high streets and vil­lages, giv­ing char­ac­ter and life to our towns and estates.

Opti­mism is a strong word and, of course, we serve it up with a cart­load of caveats: per­haps there will be few­er pubs; some par­tic­u­lar beloved pubs might be among the casu­al­ties; and per­haps the sur­vivors will need to change in ways that make some pub-lovers uncom­fort­able. But we are cer­tain there will still be pubs, they will still serve beer, and they will con­tin­ue to be part of the cul­ture in this coun­try.

And, in fact, we expect to see new pubs con­tin­ue to open. Now, they might not be the kind of pub on which enthu­si­asts are fix­at­ed – vague­ly Vic­to­ri­an, just on the bor­der of grub­by, with snugs and snob screens – but they will be pubs, like it or not.

We’ve writ­ten at length about microp­ubs, not least devot­ing an entire chap­ter of 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub to the trend, and so won’t go over it all again. By way of an update, though, the founder of the microp­ub move­ment, Mar­tyn Hilli­er, has appar­ent­ly reined in his ambi­tions, low­er­ing his pre­dic­tion for the even­tu­al num­ber of microp­ubs from 5,000 to 500. (As quot­ed in an excel­lent arti­cle by John Porter in the lat­est edi­tion of CAMRA’S BEER mag­a­zine.) This feels about right, allow­ing for the fact that they can go as eas­i­ly as they arrive, giv­en that they rely on the ener­gy of indi­vid­u­als, and often on the avail­abil­i­ty of a par­tic­u­lar prop­er­ty on espe­cial­ly gen­er­ous terms.

There are good and bad microp­ubs, just like any oth­er kind of pub. The best, among which we’d count our local, The Drap­ers Arms, feel more like ‘prop­er pubs’ than many oper­at­ing in con­ven­tion­al set­tings. With­out pub com­pa­nies or brew­eries press­ing down on them their own­ers are able to offer more inter­est­ing beer, at com­pet­i­tive prices, and express their own per­son­al­i­ties more freely. (For bet­ter or worse.) In that con­text, sur­round­ed by a buzzing crowd, you soon for­get that you’re sat in a retail unit. They real­ly do have that ‘beer­house’ feel.

Then there are brew­ery tap­rooms. We have to be frank here: they are not gen­er­al­ly to our taste, feel­ing too sparse, too aus­tere­ly indus­tri­al, to ever replace the warmth of a decent pub. But they are anoth­er valid response to the restric­tions of pub own­er­ship, and pro­vide yet anoth­er option for drinkers who don’t feel at home in tra­di­tion­al booz­ers for what­ev­er rea­son.

There are also brew­pubs – an idea once thought dead in the water, but now mul­ti­ply­ing at a sur­pris­ing rate. There is Wether­spoon (still grow­ing, albeit at a slow­er pace) and its imi­ta­tors, the ‘pub­ness’ of which can be debat­ed end­less­ly. And of course, craft beer bars, though out­side the biggest cities, it’s hard­er than ever to tell where they end and microp­ubs begin.

A type of pub we’re par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in is the new-build out-of-town brew­ery fam­i­ly din­ing house. They’re the kind of place beer geeks, even those only mild­ly afflict­ed, tend to avoid wher­ev­er pos­si­ble. They rarely have excit­ing beer being pri­mar­i­ly focused on food, and often the only way to reach them is by car. They tend to sit on retail parks or on the out­skirts of town sur­round­ed by acres of park­ing space, per­haps attached to a bud­get hotel, or serv­ing an estate of brand new pri­vate hous­es. Mar­gin­al though they might seem they are by no means insignif­i­cant.

We’ve opened approx­i­mate­ly 80 new builds in the past six years”, said Greene King’s press office in an email, while Marston’s told us: “Our new build strat­e­gy over the last five years has deliv­ered over 20 new pubs each year across the whole of the UK”. So from just these two firms that is around 200 new pubs in the last six years.

They seem pop­u­lar, too, despite their appar­ent remote­ness. Those we’ve vis­it­ed, regard­less of when we’ve vis­it­ed, seem to be per­ma­nent­ly busy, whether it’s with foot­ball fans in search of big TVs, fam­i­lies out for a Sun­day roast, or pen­sion­ers hav­ing tea and cake on a week­day after­noon.

But are they good pubs? As build­ings, they tend to be plain or, worse, tacky in the Prince Charles neo-his­tor­i­cal style. They gen­er­al­ly lack char­ac­ter, despite the local inter­est infor­ma­tion boards and point­ed­ly local names.

But – but! – the best of them gain a huge amount from real­ly being used, by peo­ple out in num­bers, hav­ing fun at vol­ume.

If the build­ings are giv­en chance to wear and weath­er, and if a lit­tle more per­son­al­i­ty is ever per­mit­ted to leak through the brand­ed sur­face, there’s no rea­son these couldn’t become as beloved and char­ac­ter­ful as any 150-year-old pub.

If there is a threat to the con­tin­ued exis­tence of the idea of pub it might be the habit of drink­ing at home. In 1980 on-trade sales rep­re­sent­ed 87.7 per cent of the mar­ket; by 2001 that had fall­en to 65.7 per cent; and in 2016 it was a mere 48.4 per cent. (SOURCE: BBPA.) So, in plain terms, we’ve gone from near­ly all beer being con­sumed in pubs to less than half.

This ten­den­cy is under­stand­able with a decade long freeze on UK wages, chang­ing mod­els of employ­ment which offer less secu­ri­ty, and an over­heat­ed hous­ing mar­ket. We couldn’t afford to drink in the pub every night, even if our bod­ies could stand it, and bot­tled or canned beer at half the price of the pub is sim­ply too tempt­ing to resist.

But, again, we can’t be too gloomy about this: why is there any on-trade at all if the price of booze is the only impor­tant fac­tor? Of course it isn’t. Peo­ple need to meet oth­er peo­ple, and they need to spend time some­where that isn’t home or work. Give them bet­ter beer, and more fun places to drink it and, and they will find the mon­ey to pay for a good night out.

Pubs are an impor­tant part of a healthy beer cul­ture – more so in the UK than in some oth­er parts of the world – but if drink­ing at home gets peo­ple engaged with beer, and pubs can find a way to offer the best beer expe­ri­ences, then it’s all part of the bal­ance.

Six: Cask is Endangered

Illustration: casks.

In the blog post he wrote in the wake of the Revi­tal­i­sa­tion vote at the Cam­paign for Real Ale AGM (more on that here) Pete Brown used the knowl­edge of the cask beer mar­ket gained dur­ing his run as edi­tor of the Cask Report to point out some hard facts:

Cask ale’s health has recent­ly gone into severe decline. Over the twelve months to Feb­ru­ary 2018, and in the twelve months before that, cask vol­ume declined by over 4 per cent each year – that means almost ten per cent of the entire cask mar­ket has van­ished in the last 24 months… Now, the plight of cask is active­ly being cov­ered up. From 2007 to 2015, I wrote eight edi­tions of the Cask Report. Every sin­gle one of them con­tained a fig­ure for cask ale’s val­ue and vol­ume per­for­mance ver­sus the pre­vi­ous twelve months. The two edi­tions of the report that have come out since I resigned from doing it have not con­tained this fig­ure – because it’s so bad. The most recent edi­tion of the Report stat­ed that cask had declined by 5 per cent over the last five years, which was in line with the over­all beer mar­ket. The rea­son they gave a five-year fig­ure is to dis­guise the fact that almost all that decline has come in the last two years.

Hard num­bers aside, the appar­ent lack of inter­est in cask ale among a new­er gen­er­a­tion of brew­eries, or at least their lack of desire to slog away at it when it makes them so lit­tle mon­ey, also tells a sto­ry. Brew­Dog, Cam­den, Cloud­wa­ter and oth­ers who have giv­en up pro­duc­ing cask ale might make up only a small part of the total mar­ket but they occu­py a great deal of the con­ver­sa­tion, espe­cial­ly among younger drinkers. Cask, unfor­tu­nate­ly, has a PR prob­lem, while keg beer’s pub­li­cist deserves a pay rise.

If there are real threats to cask ale, many of those threats are the same as they’ve been for a long time. First, the ten­den­cy to the gener­ic dri­ven by monop­oly, glob­al­i­sa­tion and ver­ti­cal inte­gra­tion. And, sec­ond­ly, prob­lems with cask itself: the rel­a­tive com­plex­i­ty of man­u­fac­ture, dis­tri­b­u­tion and han­dling; and a lin­ger­ing image prob­lem.

We don’t believe cask is doomed, but we think it might be time to accept its fate as a niche prod­uct, in few­er places but han­dled bet­ter. It sur­vived the storm of the 1960s and 70s, in large part thanks to the Cam­paign for Real Ale, and has come out of the oth­er side as a prod­uct with a cer­tain val­ue, if not uni­ver­sal appeal.

It is fond­ly, even sen­ti­men­tal­ly regard­ed. It is a sym­bol of British (or at least Eng­lish) nation­al iden­ti­ty, and as a key com­po­nent in the per­son­al iden­ti­ties of hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple: I, Ale Drinker.

In the trade, the pres­ence of cask ale is increas­ing­ly an indi­ca­tor of the char­ac­ter of the venue, sig­ni­fy­ing Prop­er Pub sta­tus – a cud­dly kind of con­ser­vatism – cast­ing a warm glow over every oth­er aspect of the busi­ness.

For pro­duc­ers it is still a rel­a­tive­ly cheap and easy way to enter the mar­ket, one step up in seri­ous­ness from hand-bot­tling, but requir­ing less of a finan­cial com­mit­ment than keg­ging, and the mar­ket for cask ale remains rel­a­tive­ly more open (if more com­pet­i­tive) than that for kegged prod­ucts.

There are risks, of course. A niche sounds good but could eas­i­ly trans­late to a ghet­to. It would be bad news if cask could only be found in one type of pub, in cer­tain parts of the coun­try, tan­gled up in the trip­wires of the sup­posed cul­ture war.

But, so far, we don’t see much evi­dence of this in the places we know such as Bris­tol where the best cask beer crops up in all kinds of pubs – mod­ern and con­ser­v­a­tive, hip and square, hip­py and heavy met­al.

There is now more good keg beer than there was 30 years ago but it isn’t a mag­ic solu­tion to the prob­lem of beer qual­i­ty – bad beer from a keg doesn’t taste any bet­ter than bad beer from a cask, and keg requires exper­tise in han­dling, too. We can, how­ev­er, fore­see a sit­u­a­tion in which pubs which cur­rent­ly have a sad, soli­tary hand-pump, hard­ly used, replace it with an unpas­teurised, unfil­tered keg beer that requires a lit­tle less atten­tion, and stays good for a fort­night rather than a few days.

If that hap­pens, cask’s share of the mar­ket might fall fur­ther yet. Cer­tain­ly the idea that it will ever again be the default in the UK seems faint­ly ridicu­lous. Nonethe­less it’s hard to imag­ine it dis­ap­pear­ing in our life­times.

If you want to do some­thing to help cask ale’s pub­lic image, find oppor­tu­ni­ties to express the sheer joy that the best of it brings. That can so eas­i­ly be lost in the gloom that unfor­tu­nate­ly hangs about the sto­ry.

Conclusion: Tensions & Balance

Illustration: beer here.

We’re more con­vinced than ever that the key to a healthy beer cul­ture is ten­sion as much as, if not more than, coop­er­a­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Peo­ple seem to need to some­thing to react against if they are to ful­ly express their own iden­ti­ty, and to make their beer or pub unique­ly itself.

Ten­sion dri­ves change, as in the case of the uneasy, some­times bor­ing, often fraught evo­lu­tion of the Cam­paign for Real Ale.

Com­pet­ing forces pulling at full tilt in oppo­site direc­tions ener­gise the cen­tre, mak­ing bit­ter that lit­tle bit bet­ter, and craft beer more acces­si­ble, both in terms of flavour and pro­file.

The push and pull pre­vents pure cap­i­tal­ism hav­ing free rein – monop­oly, gener­ic beer, zero choice – while also keep­ing feet on the ground, restrain­ing prices and push­ing brew­ers to cater to pop­u­lar tastes even if they don’t pan­der to them.

Per­haps the secret to wor­ry­ing less is accept­ing that this tur­bu­lence is inevitable and unend­ing. There will nev­er be a time when the dust has set­tled – when there is no change and noth­ing to wor­ry about.

The alter­na­tive isn’t peace, it is stag­na­tion.

And wor­ry­ing isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly bad. It’s an expres­sion of engage­ment, a way of car­ing. Fret­ting, and express­ing that anx­i­ety in the form of a chal­lenge, is part of the sys­tem of checks and bal­ances that keeps things bub­bling along, and makes beer so fas­ci­nat­ing.

12 thoughts on “Don’t Worry, Be (Mostly) Happy”

  1. Good sur­vey, with some inter­est­ing con­clu­sions.

    On the issue of whether essen­tial char­ac­ter has changed over 30–40 years, this recent blog­post of mine may inter­est some, as it reflects the view of an occa­sion­al but beer-focused vis­i­tor since about 1985. Fur­ther tast­ings lat­er in the week con­firmed the ini­tial, favourable impres­sions.

    At the same time, what was bland (IMO) 35 years ago, John Smith Bit­ter, say, or Sam Smith Old Brew­ery Bit­ter, remains so today, not to men­tion var­i­ous nation­al old-style keg bit­ters. Yet draft Guin­ness seemed bet­ter to me, in Lon­don at any rate.

    http://www.beeretseq.com/yesterday-and-today/

    Gary Gill­man, Toron­to

  2. nice­ly put. If the ques­tion had orig­i­nal­ly been “Is there any­thing pos­i­tive about UK beer today?” you would have been swamped with opin­ions point­ing at all the good things going on. You are quite right to point out an ongo­ing evo­lu­tion in the indus­try and a real dif­fi­cul­ty in extrap­o­lat­ing today’s sit­u­a­tion into the future even by a few years. I am dis­ap­point­ed to see so many good friends los­ing or aban­don­ing the hard work and pas­sion of many years because it is so dif­fi­cult to make mon­ey as a small brew­ery at the moment. I am a glass half-full per­son, and I apol­o­gise for send­ing you such a dense list of neg­a­tive points on this sub­ject. I do have an equal­ly dense list of pos­i­tives wait­ing when the time comes.

    1. Hi Chris
      No need to apol­o­gise – it gave us lots to pon­der. And we’ll def­i­nite­ly steal the idea of ask­ing for the pos­i­tives.

  3. Thor­ough­ly good read, thanks!

    I’vd Just been drink­ing a very love­ly cask beer from Siren in a pub in Brighton that is quite craft focused (they get the bal­ance of tra­di­tion­al Vs hyped beers right, in my view). The pub’s view was that it was bet­ter on cask than keg, so there is hope that peo­ple will con­tin­ue to recog­nise what cask can do, even in places where keg is often dom­i­nant.

  4. A great read, and like your book one to return to. Would be inter­est­ed to hear your views on beer qual­i­ty from your Grand Tour of Bris­tol pubs, though appre­ci­ate sen­si­tiv­i­ty of com­ment­ing on what’s on your doorstep.

    The Drap­ers cer­tain­ly struck me as a very good pub last year (espe­cial­ly if Bass on !), but many micro pubs seem to make a sell­ing point of who they exclude, unlike the new-build din­ing pubs (Marston’s etc).

  5. If you define microp­ubs fair­ly loose­ly as small, beer-focused pubs or bars in con­vert­ed shop units or the like, there are prob­a­bly already well over 500 in the coun­try. But you are right to say that many are like­ly to be short-lived, as they are essen­tial­ly the vision of the per­son who set them up, and may not be eas­i­ly trans­fer­able as going con­cerns to new own­ers.

    Good to see that you have addressed the sub­ject of new-build fam­i­ly din­ing pubs, as this was some­thing that I men­tioned as an (under­stand­able) omis­sion in “20th Cen­tu­ry Pub.” They may not be very sig­nif­i­cant in terms of beer, but they cer­tain­ly are in terms of the over­all pub trade. For many peo­ple, their social life revolves much more round the leisure park than the town cen­tre. And, in a sense, it’s good to see that trade going to places that at least sail under the ban­ner of pubs, rather than to brand­ed restau­rants.

  6. Bit­ter itself may not be scarce, but all too often its only rep­re­sen­ta­tive on a bar, amidst a pletho­ra of iden­tik­it gold­en ales, will be one of the top-sell­ing ones you list above.

    And, frankly, I would­n’t both­er cross­ing the road for any of them!

  7. A very inter­est­ing, and def­i­nite­ly in-depth, read with lots of well devel­oped points cov­ered. One that I want­ed to chip in one is that of inclu­siv­i­ty.

    I have to agree that beer and pub cul­ture leans rather heav­i­ly towards the cul­ture of the white mid­dle-aged male, of which I am one. (Whether it is mid­dle class or not I think varies a lot from one pub to anoth­er.) I’m sure that was always so, but I remem­ber as a young man being quite com­fort­able in the pubs that my dad drunk in. I think the same is true for my sons now. Recent­ly though my wife (espe­cial­ly) and I felt uncom­fort­ably mid­dle-aged in cer­tain ‘craft’ bars in Lon­don.

    That expe­ri­ence, a first for me, opened my eyes to how exclud­ed some peo­ple might often feel. I was also very con­scious of just how white those bars were. The pop­u­la­tion were I live is 95% white British so I expect to see that reflect­ed in the pubs I drink in. I was­n’t expect­ing to see the same mix (or lack there­of) in Lon­don.

    1. Age (and class) strat­i­fi­ca­tion in pubs has always been with us. Obvi­ous­ly our per­cep­tions of it will change as we grow old­er, but I’m not sure it’s any worse than it used to be. Indeed the spe­cif­ic “young peo­ple’s pub” that was com­mon­place thir­ty years ago is now large­ly a thing of the past.

      A sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of peo­ple from eth­nic minori­ties don’t drink for reli­gious rea­sons (or at least don’t drink in pub­lic) and there­fore by def­i­n­i­tion aren’t going to be seen much in pubs.

  8. I like a lot about this, the con­clu­sion in par­tic­u­lar – not only would it be bor­ing if we all agreed, it would objec­tive­ly be a very bad sign!

    On age strat­i­fi­ca­tion, I think there are far more pubs/bars where a mid­dle-aged man will feel out of place than there were 30 years ago, and far few­er where a 20-year-old will. Which is the wrong way round for me! OTOH, I get the feel­ing there are far few­er where a woman of any age will feel uncom­fort­able, so that’s progress at least.

    I have to dis­agree on hazy IPA being a flash in the pan. NEIPA will come and go – in fact I think it may already be on its way out – but I sus­pect we’re stuck with the wave of murk it brought with it. The last three beers I’ve had were a keg IPA, a cask dou­ble IPA and a cask ‘New Zealand IPA’. The NZIPA was hazy in a “has it cleared yet? oh, it’s not going to” sort of way; the oth­er two were down­right opaque. They were all fine as beers – they were meant to be like that, in oth­er words – but I wor­ry about how the loss of the assump­tion that beer should be clear will inter­act with the decline in cel­lar­ing skills that you refer to.

    You seem to be fac­ing both ways on the ‘craft bub­ble’, though:

    an impor­tant fact: craft beer (def­i­n­i­tion 2) is only a small part of beer cul­ture, and per­haps not the best part.

    vs

    Brew­Dog, Cam­den, Cloud­wa­ter and oth­ers who have giv­en up pro­duc­ing cask ale might make up only a small part of the total mar­ket but they occu­py a great deal of the con­ver­sa­tion, espe­cial­ly among younger drinkers.

    Schrödinger’s Craft?

    1. Phil – ah, maybe that bit could have been clear­er. (Not an excuse, as such, but we were fran­ti­cal­ly fin­ish­ing this piece at 6:30 am on Sat­ur­day to meet our own daft self-imposed dead­line.) The point we were try­ing to make is that the with­draw­al of those high-pro­file brew­ers is a threat to cask’s image – “Nobody makes cask ale these days!” – but not real­ly a threat to cask itself because, actu­al­ly, the major­i­ty of brew­ers in the UK still have cask as their core prod­uct. So we *think* that point is con­sis­tent.

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