The flatness of beer part 2: the opinions of others

Has the excitement gone out of the beer scene, and if so, why?

Those are the questions we asked in our most recent newsletter last week.

They prompted some interesting responses across all channels.

Overall, we’d say those who had an opinion shared our sense that things feel depressed.

Lack of variety might be the problem

The excitement has gone out of beer, says David, “and that’s (in part) because there are too many people producing products that are too similar with no defining characteristics.”

He also shared a photo of a beer menu at a bar in London populated almost entirely by pale, hoppy beers:

“There are some genuinely good beers here, of course… But look at the spread of styles and ABVs on that board… And yes, it’s a warm Monday in July in London. But if that’s your selection, where’s the joy? That board could be a quarter as long and lose absolutely nothing.”

His email concluded with this interesting analogy:

“It’s like street circuits in Formula 1. We all looked at Monaco and thought ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there were more street circuits?’ So then they had loads more and they’re entirely uniform and dull, and even Monaco isn’t much of a watch now. Sometimes scarcity really is part of the appeal.”

Oliver Holtaway emailed us with this personal observation:

“Yes, beer feels far less interesting than it did 10 years ago, and while it’s a boring answer I’m part of the camp that mostly blames so many beers tasting of fruit (and this trend seemingly persisting forever). I clearly remember this shift happening around 2017-2018 when I used to drink in Hunter & Sons in Bath (now closed). They always had 6 taps on, some of it pretty far-flung and £££, and I’d settle in and drink a third or a half of each. When I first started going in 2015, those six beers would usually be very different from each other, so a session had that sense of adventure. Right before it closed in early 2018, they were still high-quality beers, but all a bit samey and fruity, and I felt less inclined to stick around.”

He also added that the shift towards sessionable craft beers – which many of us lobbied for – has taken the fun out of things:

“I’ve gone back recently and drunk 7-8% DIPAs or 9% imperial stouts from a tap and it sort of persuaded me that that taste is what craft beer is for… it’s hard for me to escape the idea that the “real stuff” only starts at 6% and above.”

The new nature of the omnicrisis

“I wouldn’t underestimate the way that pressure on peoples’ expendable income is knocking the joy out of life in general,” says Christopher Gooch, also via Substack. “The venues where we enjoy beer communally may still be busy on a good day, but some of our companions can’t join us as often as we would like. Good quality beer that fits within my taste parameters is all I ask for – so often I have picked up a rarity or hot topic beer to realise that I could have bought something equally satisfying, or better, for less money.”

Others mentioned the general sense of contraction in the UK and US economies and the changing nature of consumption in the wake of the pandemic.

And this unrelated post from Kat Sewell seemed accidentally relevant:

What? There’s plenty of excitement left!

In a post at Beervana Jeff Alworth respectfully disagreed with our conclusion:

“Yet week after week, month after month, year after year, interesting stuff kept cropping up. If I stop to think about something I don’t know, I can go down a rabbit hole that will lead me to learn something new about the seemingly infinite fascinating details beer contains. If I scan the news, I’ll usually find something at least blog-worthy happening in the world of beer… And, if I’m having trouble coming up with an idea, I dig a little deeper, focusing my attention on the various vast domains within beer…”

He also asks a smart follow up question, though: why does it feel as if beer might be ‘dead’?

“I think what’s happening now is what Buddhists call ‘the suffering of change.’ For a good decade, beer was incredibly exciting. Breweries opened like crazy, new styles were reshaping the landscape, and everyone was getting into good beer. For a decade, craft beer was the fun party and everyone wanted to be there. For those of us who got used to that mode of being—or who didn’t know anything else—2023 has the feel of the hangover after the party. We have vague regrets and our moods are dark.”

Stan Hieronymus also disagreed but outsourced the commentary to commenters on Facebook who said things like this:

“Since I started home brewing 47 years ago, the US has gone from less than 100 breweries in the US to over 10,000 today. You can get fresh beer on tap at a brewery in nearly any mid-sized town in the US and in a myriad of styles! The revolution is complete.”

Via Mastodon Chris Begley says:

“I think it is less exciting only because we take it for granted…. I can go to virtually any bar now and expect 2-3 good lagers, 2-3 good IPAs, and a variety of others, like a saison or a sour. This was not the case 20 or 30 years ago.”

Does beer need to be exciting?

Steve Hannigan put forward a point of view we expected to hear from a few people:

“Beer doesn’t have to be exciting,” says Tom Hennessy at Substack, echoing Steve. “It just has to be good and worth the price. What matters more to me is the setting where you are drinking the beer. It has to be fun, comfortable and the medium for sharing that beer with good friends.”

And Christopher Gooch, again, says:

“I don’t come across as very passionate about beer, but I am very easily satisfied. Good beer, sometimes exceptional, a comfortable venue with an atmosphere when I want it, or chilled out when I need it, and a welcome. Familiar or novel, the tingle when you push open the door can be crushed too easily by surly, dour or cookie cutter vibes.”

In a comment on Substack Nick wrote:

“I think we make a potential mistake in always trying to find the Next Big Thing. Not that I’m against change and progress of course. Example 1: I’ve recently started to commute into London one day a week after 3 years of near 100% working from home. I used to commute 4 or 5 times a week. Having this one day, in the middle of the week, has sort of become my Big Day Out in London and, because it’s just one day per week, I don’t have to rush home as soon as I clock off. This has enabled me to start revisiting some of the old haunts and simply enjoy the simplicity of a well-kept pint, new or old. I also can get off the train halfway home to explore some of the outlying, suburban gems such as one in the Wood, Petts Wood. It’s made me realise that focusing on high quality beer (from whichever container), and making the effort to find it, is simply enough…”

“I still get a thrill out of travelling to drink beers that have a sense of place,” says Andy Holmes in a comment on Substack. “Whether that be Rauchbier in Franconia or mild in the Black Country. Planning itineraries and visiting destination pubs, also excitingI Walking into a pub and seeing a list of 12 similar tasting IPAs is much less exciting.”

In his own post inspired by ours Mikey Seay writes:

“We got to the top of the mountain and now we’re all, ‘Are there, like, any other mountains or what?’… I think we just need to be happy. Contentment is a good thing… Beer has peaked and we just enjoy it while we still do what we can to keep the party quietly continuing.”

Or, as Paul put it in an email:

“I guess the thrill has gone for me. But I’ll still drink on.”

5 replies on “The flatness of beer part 2: the opinions of others”

Guess am in the in-between camp. Am unlikely to find those WOW! moments again: first pint of a cask beer had never heard of from a new brewery only seen a few vague references to on the net at the time, Thornbridge’s Jaipur; stumbling across a Gose in those first days of the Euston Tap – what the hell’s a Gose? But when grumble at walking into a pub with a load of seemingly samey Pales and IPAs and go to roll my eyes, remind self am of an age that grew up drinking when vast swathes of pubs were controlled by the Big Six, tied meant TIED, and much of the limited choice was boringly grim. Now is still a Golden Age of Beer for me, even if that sheer excitement of ten or twenty years ago has waned a little.

Coming from New Zealand – a place which quietly embraced the craft revolution, albeit with stiff competition from the plain industrially produced lagers – there does seem to be less excitement in the air. The novelty of discovering new styles or breweries isn’t there any more. The established craft pioneers have hit a decade or more of existence and almost everyone is producing hazy pale ales in abundance. Covid definitely took its toll on a number of cool niche bars and smaller innovative breweries. Those who have survived have found a ‘model’ to operate by in which to survive: create destination brewbar, mass produce a 4 or 6 pack of core range beer, release less seasonal beers (as they sell less). The market is over-saturated. However, overall it is better than what it was in say 2005, when finding a craft option was almost impossible.

I think that may be a London-centric view. Even here in Glasgow most of the bars, pubs and restaurants still offer a “choice” of between three and six taps of exclusively macro lagers, plus cider and Guinness, possibly a macro bitter, and supplemented with a choice of bottled lagers. They must surely have heard of this new-fangled “craft beer” stuff but they don’t seem tempted to risk replacing any of the lagers for it.

The bulk of pubs here have either been bought by Greene King and their subsidiaries (so offer their own mediocre draft beers with poor quality food in a sterile atmosphere) or are tied to Heineken (so offer a range of macro lagers plus if you’re lucky Neck Oil and maybe one guest draft which is non-lager).

There is of course a small number of non-tied pubs or specialist bars which is a godsend but they are very much the exception. The days when you’d roll your eyes at encountering a range of even “samey” pales and IPAs have yet to reach here…

True, haven’t ventured in to Scotland in many many years. On the point about “craft beer” coverage, travel around most of England (with occasional forays into Wales) following football and it remains quite (seemingly) random outside the cities.

There must be reasons why one town has a thriving ‘beer scene’ with multiple independents and the chain outlets feeling obliged to make an effort to put something on; while another, that appears very similar and sometimes quite close by, has nothing but chain pubs stocking macro multinational products and what Free Houses there are following suit.

However as a visitor for a single day, beyond me to work out what those reasons are in each case.

For me the excitement of beer has little to do with the liquid itself anymore. It’s about the experience, the vibe, the location, the moment. For example, one of the best beers I ever drank was some local lager in Da Nang, on ice, with a straw on a blazing hot beach. It was just an unbeatable moment that elevated the drink. Obviously, “objectively,” that beer isn’t exciting. But to be honest there really aren’t many beers left that would be exciting in and of themselves, out of a context.

When I travel it’s now less about seeking out a checklist of breweries I must check out, but I’m driven by thinking through what the experience will be. What’s the view like? Is it cozy? Are there things for kids to do? etc. A great example was dropping by Clachaig Inn after a long hike in Glencoe–beautiful sunny day, thirst quenched with a cask I don’t remember the name of but definitely recall the taste, and a playset for the kids to have fun on nearby. You can manufacture these moments!

Comments are closed.