Crowdfunding in beer: danger sign?

Have almost started to think of crowdfunding as a danger sign. Why won’t a bank just lend them the money?”

We tweet­ed this in response to @bringonthebeer the oth­er day and it prompt­ed a few chal­lenges, includ­ing some that changed our think­ing, so we thought we’d unpack it a bit.

It’s just, real­ly, that it feels as if crowd­fund­ing is a com­mon fac­tor is a recent spate of beer indus­try takeovers and col­laps­es.

Mar­tyn Cor­nell gave a detailed run­down of some of the prob­lems with crowd­fund­ing in beer a few years ago: it’s not real invest­ment in most cas­es; and lots of crowd­fund­ed busi­ness­es fail, or fail to deliv­er on promis­es.

Most recent­ly, there’s been Hop Stuff and Red­church.

But we’re talk­ing about some­thing ever so slight­ly dif­fer­ent – that the very act of appeal­ing to the pub­lic for invest­ment seems increas­ing­ly like a red flag for the future of those oper­a­tions.

With hind­sight, in many cas­es, crowd­fund­ing often looks to us like a cry for help or act of des­per­a­tion.

Crit­ics of crowd­fund­ing some­times call it ‘beg­ging’ and it can feel that way.

When in day jobs we’ve been involved in rais­ing fund­ing, it’s been through banks. They’re unpop­u­lar, old school, not very ‘craft’, but they are part of our sys­tem of checks and bal­ances. If a bank won’t lend a busi­ness mon­ey, it prob­a­bly means that busi­ness has failed to present a con­vinc­ing case for its long-term suc­cess.

Some of the chal­lenges we got on Twit­ter did make us pause for thought, though: secur­ing fund­ing via banks usu­al­ly requires prop­er­ty as col­lat­er­al, which makes things tough for those who don’t own a house.

Some would no doubt say if you can’t man­age to buy a house, you prob­a­bly shouldn’t be aim­ing to expand a busi­ness to larg­er or mul­ti­ple loca­tions but giv­en the bizarre state of the UK hous­ing mar­ket, we’re not sure that wash­es.

Even so, when we see a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign launch, unless we know the brew­ery or retail­er in ques­tion has a cult fol­low­ing and strong mar­ket­ing game, it increas­ing­ly strikes us – right­ly or wrong­ly, on an instinc­tive lev­el – as a tar­get paint­ed on their flank: they’re weak, ripe for pick­ing off, and this is their last shot.

Of course we under­stand the appeal to busi­ness­es of crowd­fund­ing, and it’s not always bad news. We also know that many investors go into it with eyes open, as a bit of fun.

But the longer term prob­lem is this: if, as we read it, crowd­fund­ing is about the con­ver­sion of cus­tomer good­will into hard cash, every fail­ure or per­ceived betray­al reduces the amount of good­will in the col­lec­tive pot, and its val­ue.

Two years, two hundred pubs

We’ve now been in Bristol for two years and have logged every single official Pub Visit since arriving.

We start­ed doing this most­ly to remind our­selves where we’d been for the sake of #Every­Pu­bIn­Bris­tol, but also decid­ed to log sub­se­quent vis­its to each pub, pro­vid­ing us with an inter­est­ing data set reveal­ing our habits and favourites.

Our def­i­n­i­tion of a Pub Vis­it for this pur­pose is that it has to be a pub, both of us have to be there, and at least one of us has to have an alco­holic drink.

(We’ll return to the sub­ject of what makes a pub in a sep­a­rate blog post, as this exer­cise has giv­en us a real impe­tus to define it bet­ter.)

We have cho­sen to define Bris­tol as the uni­tary author­i­ty of Bris­tol, plus any bits that join up to it with­out a break. So the pubs of Kingswood and Fil­ton (tech­ni­cal­ly South Glouces­ter­shire) are in, where­as the won­der­ful Angel Inn at Long Ash­ton isn’t because there is, for now, at least one open field in between the vil­lage and the ever-increas­ing spread of South Bris­tol.

Overall stats

We have logged 516 pub vis­its in total.

Almost 30% of these were to our local, The Drap­ers Arms.

We have vis­it­ed 216 dif­fer­ent pubs.

Our pace of vis­it­ing new pubs has slowed: we went to our first 100 in six months; our sec­ond 100 took a year; and we’ve only added 16 in the last six months.

This is part­ly because of geog­ra­phy – the pubs we haven’t yet vis­it­ed are hard­er to get to and more spread out – but also because we’ve come across so many pubs that we like and want to revis­it, rather than tick­ing new ones.

Here’s a list of all the pubs we’ve vis­it­ed more than once.

Drap­ers Arms | 150
Welling­ton Arms | 16
High­bury Vaults | 16
Bar­ley Mow | 15
Zero Degrees | 14
Brew­dog | 13
Small Bar | 11
Inn On The Green | 10
Grain Barge | 10
Hill­grove Porter Stores | 9
The Old Fish Mar­ket | 7
Bot­tles And Books | 7
Mer­chants Arms | 6
The Vol­un­teer Tav­ern | 6
The Orchard | 6
The Annexe | 6
The Bank | 5
Bris­tol Fly­er | 4
Straw­ber­ry Thief | 4
The Good Mea­sure | 4
Gold­en Lion | 3
Roy­al Oak | 3
Com­mer­cial Rooms | 3
The Can­teen (Hamil­ton House) | 3
The Old Duke | 3
Snuffy Jacks | 3
Hob­gob­lin | 3
The Hare / The Lev­eret Cask House | 3
Col­ston Arms | 3
The Grace | 3
The Vic­to­ria | 3
Christ­mas Steps | 3
Cor­ner 33 | 3
The Cot­tage Inn | 2
Nova Sco­tia | 2
The Bridge | 2
Pump House | 2
Mardyke | 2
Hare On The Hill | 2
White Lion | 2
Robin Hood | 2
The White Bear | 2
Beerd | 2
The Sid­ings | 2
Glouces­ter Road Ale House | 2
Kings­down Vaults | 2
The Knights Tem­plar (Spoons) | 2
The V Shed | 2
The Roy­al Naval Vol­un­teer | 2
Bris­tol Brew­ery Tap | 2
St George’s Hall | 2
The Gryphon | 2
The Green­bank Tav­ern | 2
The Oxford | 2

Are they really your top pubs?

Most­ly, yes.

Our top 10 includes two pubs that are there sim­ply because they are close to our house – The Welling­ton and The Inn on the Green.

The Welling­ton scored par­tic­u­lar­ly high­ly dur­ing last summer’s heat­wave, because it has Sulis, Korev and reli­able Prophe­cy. The oth­ers are all clear favourites of ours and appear in our guide to the best pubs in Bris­tol.

Porter
A pint of porter at The Good Mea­sure.
If you’ve visited more than once, does that mean it’s good?

Not always. We’ve had one acci­den­tal sec­ond vis­it, to St George’s Hall, a soon-to-be-clos­ing Wether­spoons, hav­ing for­got­ten we’d already been.

Some­times a sec­ond vis­it might be to check out a change in own­er­ship or offer.

It might also reflect con­ve­nience. The Knights Tem­plar, AKA Hell­spoons, is right by Tem­ple Meads sta­tion and so a con­ve­nient stop before catch­ing a train. Now the bridge to The Bar­ley Mow has reopened, and The Sid­ings has decent Harvey’s Sus­sex Best, we don’t expect to need to go there again.

But three or more vis­its and it’s prob­a­bly safe to say we like it. (Although we’ve fall­en out with the Hare in Bed­min­ster now it’s the Lev­eret Cask House.)

Not quite science

Of course the keep­ing of this infor­ma­tion dis­torts our behav­iour from time to time.

If we’ve got a choice between two pubs, we’ll some­times pick the one we think ‘deserves’ to be high­er up the rank­ings. And we occa­sion­al­ly give a pub a swerve because it feels as if it’s com­ing high­er up the charts than it ought to.

It’s still an expres­sion of pref­er­ence but… Well, it’s com­pli­cat­ed.

Wishful thinking

There are cer­tain­ly some pubs that would be high­er up the list if they were eas­i­er for us to get to.

The thing is, your local is your local. Part of the mag­ic of pubs like The Oxford in Tot­ter­down or The Plough at Eas­t­on is that they reflect and serve the com­mu­ni­ties they’re in.

We’ll drop in if we’re in the area, and some­times day­dream about how nice it would be if we did live near­by, but it would be daft for us to schlep across town to go there every week because… We’ve got a local. One that’s, you know, local.

We wouldn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly expect these pubs to creep up the rank­ings in the next year, even though they are excel­lent.

Pubs such as The Good Mea­sure, on the oth­er hand, prob­a­bly will, because they offer some­thing dis­tinct we can’t get close to home.

(And in that par­tic­u­lar case, it’s rea­son­ably handy for the High­bury Vaults so makes a good end to a St Michael’s Hill crawl).

Some thoughts on Bristol pubs

In gen­er­al, Bris­tol pubs are good.

They tend to be friend­ly, even if they don’t always look it.

They’re extreme­ly var­ied – hip­py hang­outs, old boys booz­ers, gas­trop­ubs, craft beer exhi­bi­tions, back­street gems, fam­i­ly hang­outs, and so on.

They most­ly have real ale, even those that might not if they were in any oth­er city. We reck­on we’ve count­ed three (four if you think Brew­Dog is a pub) that didn’t have any­thing at all on offer.

They’re loy­al to local beer, even if there’s no sin­gle dom­i­nant his­toric city brew­ery.

Your chances of find­ing Bass, Courage Best, But­combe or some oth­er clas­sic bit­ter are very high. The like­li­hood of find­ing mild is almost zero. Hop­py beers tend to be hazy, soft and sweet. (Not that we’re grum­bling but we do some­times crave paler, dri­er beers of the north­ern vari­ety.)

And we’re still find­ing good pubs: we only vis­it­ed The Annexe for the first time late last year; The Coro­na­tion in Bed­min­ster we dis­cov­ered for the first time a cou­ple of months back. No doubt in the final hun­dred or so there will be a few more crack­ers.

We’re not as sci­en­tif­ic about cat­a­logu­ing pub open­ings and clo­sures as the local CAMRA team in the excel­lent Pints West mag­a­zine but our feel­ing is that pubs are not clos­ing as fast as they were and that more pubs or oth­er drink­ing estab­lish­ments are emerg­ing.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, reflect­ing nation­al trends, pubs are more at risk in poor­er areas, and are (re) open­ing in wealth­i­er or ‘up and com­ing’ parts of the city.

Final thoughts

This has made us think hard about what makes pubs attrac­tive to us – although grant­ed, we’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly typ­i­cal cus­tomers.

Yes, it’s impor­tant for pubs to have a unique sell­ing point to stand out (that’s the pub with the heavy met­al, or eight types of cider, or amaz­ing cheese rolls) but, when it comes down to it, our drink­ing habits are pri­mar­i­ly influ­enced by con­ve­nience.

We sus­pect that’s fair­ly uni­ver­sal.

The unwritten rules of round-buying

There are few things as odd as reading an observed description of your own culture’s unconscious habits, such as the buying of rounds of drinks.

When we arrived in Glas­gow last week­end we browsed the guide­books sup­plied in our flat and stopped short when we found a note, aimed at vis­i­tors to Scot­land, on how to buy rounds:

Like the Eng­lish, Welsh and Irish, Scots gen­er­al­ly take it in turns to buy a round of drinks for the whole group, and every­one is expect­ed to take part. The next round should always be bought before the first round is fin­ished.

It was that last line that gave us pause.

We’ve nev­er real­ly thought about how rounds are paced, even though we’ve some­times been aware of strug­gling to keep up with fast-drink­ing friends and fam­i­ly mem­bers, and  on oth­er occa­sions of sit­ting with emp­ty glass­es wait­ing for the round-buy­er des­ig­nate to make a move.

Our Twit­ter fol­low­ers offered vary­ing points of view:

  • The fastest drinker sets the pace.
  • The slow­est drinker sets the pace.
  • If you drink espe­cial­ly quick­ly, you should buy the odd pint on your own to fill the gaps.
  • The round-buy­er should go when there’s a win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty at a busy bar.

Which sug­gests that if there are rules, they’re flex­i­ble, and vary from place to place, and group to group.

We also looked at Pass­port to the Pub, a bril­liant piece of work by soci­ol­o­gist Kate Fox from 1996 which attempts to break down in exquis­ite detail every aspect of pub cul­ture for the ben­e­fit of non-Brits. She writes:

Don’t wait until all your com­pan­ions’ glass­es are emp­ty before offer­ing to buy the next round. The cor­rect time to say “It’s my round” is when your com­pan­ions have con­sumed about three-quar­ters of their drinks. (Beware: the natives tend to drink quite fast, and may have fin­ished their drinks when you have bare­ly start­ed.)

She also adds, how­ev­er:

Don’t be afraid to refuse a drink. If you can­not keep up with the drink­ing-pace of your native com­pan­ions, it is per­fect­ly accept­able to say, “Noth­ing for me, thanks”. If you alter­nate accept­ing and declin­ing dur­ing the round-buy­ing process, you will con­sume half the num­ber of drinks, with­out draw­ing too much atten­tion to your­self. Avoid mak­ing an issue or a moral virtue of your mod­er­ate drink­ing, and nev­er refuse a drink that is clear­ly offered as a sig­nif­i­cant ‘peace-mak­ing’ or ‘friend­ship’ ges­ture – you can always ask for a soft-drink, and you don’t have to drink all of it.

There’s also a lot of good stuff on round-buy­ing in the 1943 Mass Obser­va­tion book The Pub and the Peo­ple, includ­ing a note on how drinkers in Bolton in the late 1930s kept pace with each oth­er to avoid awk­ward­ness:

[All] our obser­va­tions show that the major­i­ty of pub-goers tend, when drink­ing in a group, to drink lev­el; and very often there is not a quar­ter inch dif­fer­ence between the depth of beer in the glass­es of a group of drinkers… The simul­ta­ne­ous emp­ty­ing of glass­es is the most fre­quent form of lev­el drink­ing. And it is (for rea­sons con­nect­ed with the rit­u­al of stand­ing rounds) the most like­ly form of lev­el drink­ing that is due to ‘antic­i­pa­tion’.

We sus­pect a fair bit of this still goes on today even if, again, those doing it don’t know it’s hap­pen­ing. Or maybe this is a bit of a lost art?

In prac­tice, of course, all of these rules or cus­toms are under­stood with­out being spo­ken, and pos­si­bly com­plete­ly uncon­scious­ly. We mod­er­ate our behav­iour based on the group we’re with, our knowl­edge of people’s finan­cial sit­u­a­tions, or their capac­i­ty for alco­hol.

The only time strict rules are like­ly to be enforced is when we’re drink­ing with com­plete strangers.

Anoth­er thought: in a good pub, there are plen­ty of options for keep­ing pace with­out get­ting exces­sive­ly drunk. For exam­ple, Pal­ly makes the pace with pints of strong ale; Matey, drink­ing a bit quick­er than they’d like, is on best; and Woss­name, who keeps hav­ing to chug the last third of every pint, takes ordi­nary bit­ter at 3.7%. They all end up about as pissed as each oth­er.

At our local, the Drap­ers, a fur­ther refine­ment can be found in the four-pint jug. First, choos­ing the beer is a real team exer­cise, leav­ing no room for fussi­ness. Sec­ond­ly, shar­ing, while not strict­ly equi­table, does solve the pac­ing prob­lem: if your glass is emp­ty, have a slug more; if the jug is emp­ty, some­one needs to get a round in.

Final­ly, Kate Fox also makes the point that it’s as bad to make too much fuss about equal­i­ty in round-buy­ing as it is to be seen as stingy. After all, it gen­er­al­ly evens itself out across mul­ti­ple ses­sions, or over the course of a life­time of friend­ship – a boozy take on the con­cept of kar­ma.

Only once that either of us can remem­ber have we encoun­tered some­one who real­ly broke the unspo­ken rules of round-buy­ing, almost seem­ing to make a game out of avoid­ing pay­ing their way over the course of months. Even­tu­al­ly, after about a year of mount­ing irri­ta­tion, there was an inter­ven­tion and they were forced to buy a rea­son­ably-priced round in a Sam Smith’s pub in cen­tral Lon­don. This was, as you might imag­ine, an awful thing to wit­ness.

The post-Camden world

A recent in-depth listicle from Pellicle made us reflect on how Camden Hells was a turning point, though we didn’t recognise the turn while it was taking place.

Back in around 2012, it was easy to over­look: sharp brand­ing aside, it was just anoth­er ‘craft lager’, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Zero Degrees, Mean­time and Free­dom.

We didn’t think it tast­ed espe­cial­ly excit­ing – per­haps a touch more appeal­ing than some main­stream draught lagers.

The com­pa­ny had its fans, but also its detrac­tors, not least those in the indus­try irri­tat­ed by a sense that it was out­right buy­ing cov­er­age, or was over-hyped, or was fail­ing to be trans­par­ent with con­sumers.

What we should have paid more atten­tion to was that our friends who weren’t espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in beer – who would turn pale if you accused them of being beer geeks – seemed to like Hells a lot. They were switch­ing from Foster’s, Stel­la, Per­oni, and (per­haps cru­cial­ly) drink­ing Hells just as they’d drunk those oth­er beers: by the pint, pint after pint.

With hind­sight, it’s easy to see why they’d make the switch. Hells was light-tast­ing, rea­son­ably strong, clean and clear; usu­al­ly came in smart but chunky glass­ware; and the brand­ing was nice – bold, con­tem­po­rary, declar­ing itself a Lon­don­er.

To reit­er­ate, Hells cer­tain­ly wasn’t the first British craft lager, but it might yet turn out to be the most influ­en­tial.

It prob­a­bly prompt­ed Fuller’s Fron­tier (2013), Adnams Dry Hopped (2013), and Guin­ness Hop House 13 (2015), to name but three exam­ples.

And we’re cer­tain it’s why brew­eries like Moor have been unable to resist giv­ing lager a go in recent years, even though that’s not some­thing that seemed on the agen­da for them a decade ago.

The recent launch of Carls­berg Dan­ish Pil­sner must also sure­ly be a reac­tion to Hells, or at least indi­rect­ly, via Hop House 13 and the oth­ers.

Sparklers, in summary

The Grey Horse, Manchester.

So, to sum­marise:

  • Sparklers work best with well-con­di­tioned beer, bring­ing some of c02 out of sus­pen­sion to form a denser head, but leav­ing plen­ty in the body of the pint.
  • But if a beer is low on con­di­tion, a sparkler might well rob it of what lit­tle CO2 it has, leav­ing it with a head, but even flat­ter beneath.
  • There­fore, sparklers might equal­ly be used to make beer in poor con­di­tion look bet­ter than it is, or to give a beer in good con­di­tion a par­tic­u­lar pre­sen­ta­tion.
  • But there’s no way for a drinker to know until they taste it.
  • Sparklers may also mute or oth­er­wise affect per­cep­tion of cer­tain flavours and aro­mas. Some beers are brewed with this in mind.
  • Oth­er­wise, it’s a mat­ter of per­son­al pref­er­ence.
  • So sparklers are nei­ther pure­ly good, not pure­ly evil.

Is that about it?