Beer: a flash in the pan?

On our recent trip to London, we found ourselves pondering the sustainability of the current craze for craft beer.

At the Southampton Arms, as befits our great age, we sat in the corner saying things like “What does he think his hair looks like?”; “Eee, she’ll catch her death in them trousers — they don’t reach her ankles!”; and “Is that lad wearing leggings and cowboy boots?” The crowd was young and fashionable and, for the most part, drinking cask ale from dimple mugs.

We have a suspicion that, in two years time, when beer has had its moment in the spotlight and, say, the eighties wine bar has made a retro comeback, or everyone’s drinking Sahti, or whatever, some of these people will deny ever having touched a pint of ale. Maybe they’ll secretly admit they didn’t like it at all and only did so to look cool.

Even if we are witnessing a mere trend, however, it will be impossible to put beer back in its box. After all, wine didn’t disappear from the collective consciousness when the Dagmar burned down. The heady euphoria of ten new breweries a week and can’t go on forever, but Britain’s beer landscape will have changed for good by the time the fad passes. A hidden demand for good beer will have been flushed out and many will have become (to some extent) beer geeks for life.

It’s hard to have a fling with beer: to know it is to love it.

Marketing: the work of the devil?

According to some people, there are two big reasons for crappy industrial beer: bloody accountants and bloody marketing people.

Now, there are some things for which brewery marketing departments might deserve the blame: packaging that damages the product, both literally and in terms of its reputation; empty blandishments — “finest malt and hops”; “premium world lager”; “only four ingredients“; and gimmicky “innovations” forced upon sometimes unwilling brewers.

But can’t marketing, at it’s best, be a bridge between the specialised world of the brewer or beer geek and that of the as-yet unconverted? Like a kind of translator, perhaps.

“Naff marketing terms” might wind-up seasoned beer geeks but they can engage people’s interest in a product they might otherwise never notice or, worse, entirely dismiss. (And they do gain charm with the patina of age…)

Is the best marketing, in fact, a form of beervangelism?

A long term relationship

Beer writers often say that a beer is “worth buying by the case” (Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn, we’re looking at you) but, being easily-distracted dilettante bloggers whose favourite beer is always the next one, we’ve tended to mix-and-match, trying to cover as much ground as possible.

Fuller’s Past Masters XX Strong, however, was only available by the case, so we bit the bullet and did it.

A whole box of the same beer? What if, once we tried it, we found ourselves lumbered with eleven bottles we don’t want to drink?

As it happened, although we liked it from the off, we only became more impressed as the beer matured. If we’d based our view on bottle number one, we might have stuck with our cautious thumbs-up and the view that Fuller’s 1845 is a better beer.

A whole case of beer takes the pressure off a little. It gives you the chance to just drink without over-thinking; to see a beer from different angles, at different times; to really get to know it. It also helps avoid Open It syndrome — a cupboard full of beers too precious to drink which are slowly going stale — because, hey, there’s a whole case, so why not have another?

This post is based on a lie: we’ve bought cases of beer for parties loads of times, but as we never got to touch any of that beer, and were just left with empty bottles and boxes, they don’t count.

Depends, how much did it cost?

Last week, this Tweet got us thinking:

Well, in a way, the answer is yes, but bear with us.

How do you reduce the price of beer when you’ve got a price point to reach? You reduce the cost of production, storage and distribution by

  • producing in greater volumes
  • using fewer and/or cheaper ingredients (e.g. hops)
  • conditioning/lagering for shorter times (see Tandleman on this here)
  • brewing your beer to be acceptable to the widest possible market.

It’s still possible to brew a good beer within those parameters and, in fact, we’ve had the odd pint of Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter which rivals Harvey’s Sussex Best for complexity and zing. On the whole, however, the more corners are cut, the more industrialised the process, the less likely the beer is to excite anyone. Everyone got that likely, right?

While it would be wrong to answer the question “Is this a craft beer?” with “Depends, how much did it cost?”, it wouldn’t be reckless to bet that a pint that costs £1.30 will be a bit boring. It might still be satisfying, it might not be nasty, but it probably won’t be exciting.

Note: we’re not making the case for super-expensive beer; our beer of the year for 2011 costs £2.60 a pint. And the Sam Smith’s beer pictured above is anything but cheap…

Making the case

Is this nitro-keg stout from a regional family brewer a so-called “craft beer”? What about this notoriously boring cask bitter from another? What about the keg version of this borderline bland but kind-of-OK cask beer?

There is nothing inherently ‘craft’ about one beer or another, and no device you can use to measure a beer’s ‘craftness’. Because it is more subjective than deciding whether a beer is ‘real ale’ or not, it boils down to whether:

(a) there is something like a consensus that a particular beer has craft status (i.e. it ticks all the boxes and leaves little room for argument) or

(b) someone has made the case for it ticking at least some of the boxes.

That might be drinkers (or ‘fans’ as we increasingly frequently call those who boost one brewery or another) or, more often, the brewers themselves. One way the latter can do so is by being transparent about their methods and materials.

Actually, a better question than “Is X craft beer?” is “If Y is craft beer, why isn’t X?”

Ninety nine per cent of the time, though, if you’re asking about a particular beer, you’re being mischievous, and already know the answer.

P.S. Are Eddie and the Hot Rods punk? What about Elvis Costello? What about the reformed Sex Pistols?