Why so many breweries in Waltham Forest, all of a sudden?

I paid a flying visit to Tap East the week before last to see my brother. While I was there I tried the Pilsner by Pillars Brewery.

“Do you know it’s made round the corner from where we grew up?” asked my brother.

“Brewed on an industrial estate in Walthamstow – isn’t everything these days?”

And then the two of us took a moment to ponder on how weird that is and how far things have come for beer in Waltham Forest, with several breweries and talk of a rival beer mile.

Pubs that were on the brink of closing have been ‘rescued’ and you certainly don’t go short of a Sunday roast and a hazy pale ale.

And while it’s easy to moan about gentrification, this isn’t a case so much of pushing out existing traditional businesses because there are way more decent places to drink now than there ever were.

When I was young, Walthamstow wasn’t really a big drinking destination. It was somewhere young families settled. You might have a few in The Village or The Goose or whichever local pub tickled your fancy but, generally, people went up town for serious nightlife.

And there were no breweries at all, not one, in a borough with about a quarter of a million people. The Essex Brewery closed in the 1970s and the Sweet William brewery at the William IV, later Brodie’s, didn’t come along until much later.

Talking this through with Ray, we concluded that Waltham Forest these days is the perfect combination of shed-loads (literally) of bona fide industrial estates, not just converted railway arches; with good transport connections; and an increasingly young, wealthy demographic.

That must make it a great seedbed for new breweries and a good option for established breweries looking to move or expand.

We asked London beer experts Des de Moor and Jezza for their opinions, by way of testing our assumptions.

The latter, editor of the excellent Beer Guide London, confirmed my perception of a recent explosion: “That section has certainly grown remarkably in the last year or two in particular.”

And both Des and Jezza came up with the same overarching explanation. Des happens to have been giving this some thought lately as he’s been working on an imminent new edition of his CAMRA guide to London pubs. Here’s how he expresses the challenge for London brewing businesses and the appeal of Waltham Forest:

Your task is to find an ‘up and coming’ area that already has, or is near to somewhere that has, a bit of hipster buzz, and over the coming years is likely to attract a population who will drink and talk about your beer, but still has relatively affordable industrial space and where you won’t have a problem getting an on-licence… Walthamstow, and particularly the area where all the new breweries are opening up, to the west of the historic centre along Blackhorse Road, is one of the few places that scores highly on all these factors. This is part of the Lea Valley, historically one of London’s largely industrial areas as the risk of flooding from the Lea discouraged housing development.

Jezza and Des also highlighted a point we’d missed which is that the local council has been keen to encourage craft breweries and other businesses, “even to the extent of partnering in a pub that showcases breweries in the borough” as Des put it, referring to the Welcome to the Forest Bar.

What about the Pilsner, though – was it any good? Yes, rather to my surprise, it was absolutely fantastic – really crisp and clean, as if it had been brewed in a Bavarian city somewhere rather than round the back of my old primary school.

Perhaps the next step could be to build a sprawling Munich style beer garden down by the reservoirs…?

You can’t judge a pub on one visit

One of the reasons we are doing #EveryPubInBristol is because we did #EveryPubInPenzance and discovered that we couldn’t always judge a pub from the way it looked.

We like to think we know pubs reasonably well and there were five pubs in Penzance that just never appealed based on the way they presented.

We decided to go to them all before we left and we found that one was much better than we’d expected and was added into our regular route; three were actually fine; and only one was genuinely bad. And because of our general interest in the history and culture of pubs, almost everywhere had something for us to observe or learn from, good or bad.

However, 252 pubs into our Bristol mission, we’ve started to question whether one visit is really enough for some pubs. So much of what makes up an experience in a pub is transitory – the staff who were on, the other punters during your visit – before you even get into what the beer tastes like, changes to the decor, and so on.

When pubs get refurbished and new managers take over, we do try to make an effort to revisit as this kind of thing can drastically change a place. But other changes might be more subtle – perhaps we visited during the day when there’s a calm older crowd and missed the fact it has a DJ and dancing on a Saturday night. Perhaps we visited on a particularly rainy or sunny day when the usual crowd stayed at home or went to the park. Perhaps the bartender who made us feel so welcome left for another job a week later and the place just isn’t as friendly now.

We think this is why it’s easier to judge places that have an identifiable guv’nor or guv’nors – that their personality, for good or worse, sets a fairly consistent tone for the place. And you can tell a lot by the regulars that they gather around them and the behaviours that are and aren’t allowed.

In contrast, the hardest places to form a view on are often managed houses, where staff and management turn over constantly. It’s hard enough to imprint a personality over what the pubco or brewery has decided is the in look this season (usually several years out of date) even when you do have a steady team.

There’s a pub between our house and the centre of town which constantly switches between being a decent pub with acceptable food and drink to a complete kitchen and cellar nightmare. We end up visiting every six months to see what phase it’s in. To be fair, we probably wouldn’t bother at all if it wasn’t on our way home.

This of course is where a good local CAMRA branch comes in useful, particularly if members are attuned to factors beyond beer quality – it’s great to get local intelligence on which pubs have changed hands recently and a hint as two whether the change is for the better, or the worse.

We suppose, in a roundabout way, what we’re saying is that pubs are like living things. That’s great news if you like exploring pubs because over the course of five years, 250 pubs might equate to 1,000 pubs, in terms of the experience of visiting them.

And another thought: perhaps this is why pubs that don’t change – that can resist it for, say, 20 years or more – feel so special.

The Swan With Two Necks and the gentrification issue

“I’ve been called a cultural terrorist,” said Jamie Ashley, the new landlord of The Swan With Two Necks, seeming offended, amused and confused in equal measure.

In the past few months, he’s found himself at the centre of one of Bristol’s many small dramas of gentrification, as either a pioneer or an intruder depending on your point of view.

Until recently, The Swan With Two Necks was a rare thing – a working class backstreet pub on the edge of Bristol city centre.

St Jude’s will feel familiar to anybody who has ever visited Digbeth in Birmingham or Ancoats in Manchester – a timewarp of red brick industrial buildings, workshops, warehouses and yards, with social housing filling the gaps.

In recent decades, Bristol has lost much of this landscape as the city centre has expanded and developers have moved in. But this pocket, these few streets, feel like a precious if unpretty relic.

Swan With Two Necks interior.

This particular pub also had another distinction, however: permanent Draught Bass, served almost flat from a cask on the back bar, per Bristol tradition.

Then in August this year the landlady left, and the pub closed. Loyal locals were worried – would it be reopening under new management? Yes, they were reassured, it would, and they would still have somewhere to drink.

Meanwhile, those on the Bristol beer scene began to chatter about an exciting rumour: the landlord-manager of The Hillgrove Porter Stores, the aforementioned Jamie Ashley, was taking on The Swan With Two Necks and intended to bring it in to the 21st century with a range of local craft beer.

For many non-local, non-regulars, this felt like good news – a pub saved from closure and yet another addition to the city’s impressive collection of beer-focused venues.

It seemed like good news to local brewers, too, as Kelly Sidgwick of Good Chemistry (who also happens to drink in our local, The Drapers Arms) told us in an email:

We were really excited to hear that Jamie was taking on The Swan With Two Necks. It’s always great when pubs move to buying more of their beer locally – supporting local businesses who are employing people locally and putting money back into the local economy. Jamie’s a well-known local landlord who’s been running a Bristol institution of a pub for a decade, so we’re especially pleased to see him taking on his own place. We really hope the locals of the pub remain its locals and like the beer, because Jamie is buying really good, locally-brewed beer.

When we visited the pub shortly after its reopening, it was clear that all was not quite well, thanks to an A-board on the pavement outside with a message that felt like a falsely cheerful defensive reply to criticism received. It began “Hello lovely humans”, listed the pub’s many great qualities, made a point about the price/quality/value, and concluded “Why not pop in and see if this is true, or am I simply a…. windbag/filthy liar? You decide.”

Inside, we found the pub much the same, only a little tidier and cleaner. It still felt well-worn, cosy and brown, and the corners were still dark. What was most different was the bar: six hand-pumps, a row of keg taps and where the Bass used to be, a set of decks playing indie music from vinyl.

It wasn’t empty but wasn’t exactly busy either and the crowd was clearly both more middle class and a shade whiter than when we’d previously visited.

After our visit, we investigated further and found comments like the following from ‘Martyn-3114’ beneath an article at Bristol247 (lightly edited):

Been drinking in this pub for 20 plus years. Very sad what’s happened in the last week or so. A lot of regulars have lost their local, mainly because of the landlord’s new plans. Proper backstreet pub now becomes very overpriced – £4 cheapest bitter or £5.75 for lager. Good luck, you’ll need it.

(Lager actually costs £4.50 a pint.)

On Facebook, responding to news of a Wiper & True tap takeover, Robin Fynn wrote, more bluntly (again, edited):

Heard of the pub with no beer? It’s now the pub with shit beer. He’s fucked our pub. Me and twenty regulars banned ourselves. Get the Bass back – you might get some customers then.

(We tried to get hold of both for further comment, without success.)

Intrigued, we got in touch with Ashley to arrange an interview which Ray ended up conducting over a pint on a quiet Monday night.

He’s a youthful, blonde-haired 46-year-old who bears a distinct resemblance to Bernard Sumner from New Order. While he spoke, he made a half-pint of beer last an hour and broke off frequently to change the record spinning on the back bar, flipping the discs between fingertips with the telltale skill of a vinyl obsessive.

Having worked behind bars and running pubs for years, he has a natural charm which, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have washed with the old locals:

“Maybe I tried a bit hard, I don’t know…” he said while telling an anecdote about a run-in with a gruff drinker angry at the loss of Foster’s from the beer line-up, and those few words seem important.

It’s clear that he hoped the changes he has made would be accepted by at least some of the previous clientele, even as he was determined to stick to his fairly uncontroversial ambitions: to sell beer he liked, produced locally, at a commercially viable price.

“I asked the lady who was running it before I took over what I should keep on from the old product range,” he said. “She said, two things: Natch, and Bass.” He pulled a face. “Now, Natch was pretty high up the list of stuff I wanted to get rid of. And Bass… I’ve never been a huge fan but I thought of it was selling tons, sure, I’ll keep it. But it was two nines a week – about 140 pints.”

Though the way he describes it makes it sound a purely rational decision, it’s clear that some regular read it as something of a “Fuck you”. If you identify as a Bass Drinker, and were travelling miles by bus to get to it, that’s perhaps an understandable reaction.

The ditching of big-brand lagers was similarly controversial and Ashley’s attitude reveals the gulf between traditional attitudes and those of the modernisers. There is still lager on offer but it’s from Moor and Lost & Grounded. Though you might think these would appeal to Bristolian drinkers, there’s a weird loyalty to international brands brewed under licence, and these sometimes hazy, fruity, characterful beers bear little practical resemblance to Foster’s or Stella, despite the shared family tree.

Then there’s the question of price.

“A couple of people have accused me of charging London prices and I just think, have you actually been to London?” said Ashley with a laugh. “I’m just not charging 1960’s prices, that’s all. One old regular told me I needed ‘real drinkers’ in to make money but my view is that if I have a hard core of people drinking ten pints each a night, but I’m only making 10p on each pint, then that’s a lot of work for £10 profit. Whereas if I make 50p per pint, I can bring in £30 for the same effort. And that’s still not a lot of money.”

That sounds reasonable – of course it does – but if you’ve got a limited income, you might well interpret it as a passive-aggressive ‘Go away’. And if the previous management could sell lager at less than £3 a pint, why can’t the new lot? (Answer: the old lot couldn’t; the business wasn’t viable.)

Ashley says he’s faced anger and, at times, even aggression – fists banged on the counter, handshakes that turn into arm-wrestling matches. He’s stopped opening on Sunday lunchtimes because he felt vulnerable in the empty pub as one embittered ex after another popped in to growl at him, or deliver an angry lecture.

This story is part of a wider debate about gentrification in Bristol which, with faster trains and the arrival of TV production companies, can sometimes feel like a commuter satellite for London.

In 2018, posters appeared across the city with the slogan MAKE BRISTOL SHIT AGAIN – a protest against the bourgeois invasion of previously characterful, edgy neighbourhoods like St Paul’s.

Since our arrival in 2017 (yes, we know, we’re part of the problem) we’ve been paying particular attention to pubs and have noticed that those which close for good or get demolished tend to be in the areas least likely to gentrify. Lockleaze, the big council estate on a windswept hillside in north Bristol, no longer has any pubs after the closure of The Golden Bottle earlier this year.

But in neighbourhoods with attractive Victorian houses, within walking distance of the centre of the city, pubs seem to be transforming one after the other.

In St Pauls, The Star & Garter was closed and boarded up for a long time after the death of legendary landlord Dutty Ken. It reopened earlier this year with a hipsterish vibe and decor that feels like an homage to its past identity rather than a continuation of it. We liked it, and it’s surely better than conversion to flats, but it’s undeniably a symptom of gentrification.

In St Anne’s, The Langton Court Hotel has been reinvented as The Langton. Formerly a down-to-earth, barebones local where people played darts and drank lager and Natch, it has been smartened up and now has what we can only describe as a mildly aspirational menu – risotto and falafel burgers.

People we know who live nearby are delighted to have somewhere to go for a pint after years without and, as it happens, The Langton does still sells Natch and mainstream draught brands. Nonetheless, it feels like a fundamentally different place, with a fundamentally different crowd.

We asked our Twitter followers whether they thought gentrification of pubs was a problem.

The replies were interesting.

Tania said: “I guess may depend on each individual case; near me are 3 pubs I would never go in because they have a rep for unpleasant violent regulars (and landlord in one case) & don’t serve anything at all I would like to drink… So I tend to think of my area as ‘having no pubs at all’. If just one of those places became ‘gentrified’ it would create a new community hub where I could actually hang out and get to know people in my neighbourhood.”

“It’s a societal issue and pubs are often the ‘canary’ tell-tale sign that your rent’s about to go up” said Peter McKerry.

And Nathaniel Southwood made a point about brands that chimed with us: “I’d never say it’s a big problem but I think every pub should stock say a beer and spirit from a brand that’s recognisable to the general public as to not scare away less adventurous drinkers.”

In our view, the problem isn’t with individual reborn pubs, or the motives of those behind those rebirths – it’s to do with balance in a given town, city or neighbourhood.

A decade or so ago, Bristol had lots of earthy, ‘normal’ pubs. Pubs that felt welcoming to younger people and women, with craft beer and contemporary decor, were relatively rare. You had to know where to go and perhaps be prepared to make a journey.

Nowadays, they feel like the norm and it’s drinkers who prefer a more traditional, unpretentious atmosphere who have to schlep or catch the bus.

As it happens, though, there is another pub near The Swan With Two Necks – perhaps a three-minute walk – that remains stubbornly authentic and which also happens to sell Draught Bass.

The Crown Tavern has frosted windows behind which the curtains are usually drawn. There’s generally a smoker or two in the doorway and the clientele tends to the elderly. Inside, it’s sparse and run-down.

When the Bass is £1.50 a pint, half the punters are drinking lager from cans, and with talk of the neighbourhood becoming a ‘quarter’, how long can this last?

And it’s not just the culture that feels as if its days are numbered: the back room has a leaky roof and a floor covered in newspapers.

If you want to see it while you can, we’d suggest making part of a crawl: Elmer’s, The Crown, The Swan With Two Necks, the Volunteer and The Phoenix make a good run.

Not only are there pubs on that list that we suspect would welcome the custom but also you’ll get a snapshot of where Bristol’s pub culture is at in 2019.

This post, which took us several days to research and write up, was made feasible by the support of Patreon subscribers like Joe Gorecki and Chris Gooch. If you’d like more of this kind of thing, do consider signing up, or maybe just buy us a Ko-Fi.

Start drinking up now, please

For the first time in years, we found ourselves this week being chased out of a pub by staff, urging us to drink up as the lights came on. And we didn’t like it.

Now, we get it:

  • they’re no doubt bound by the terms of their licence
  • it’s in a residential area with no doubt grumpy neighbours
  • the staff want to go home
  • and they’ve become hardened through dealing with resistant customers.

But, still, something about this particular situation left us feeling aggrieved and we’ve been trying to work out exactly why.

We think it’s this: at 10:58, there was no indication in the atmosphere or manner of the staff that the pub was about to enter shutdown mode.

The music was thumping, the lights were low and the crowd seemed to be growing. We assumed it was licensed until at least midnight – it was that kind of mood.

Prior to 2005, when looser licensing laws came into effect, you knew where you were – most pubs called time at 11 pm and expected you out by 11:20 and that was that.

If you ordered a pint at 10:58, that was your problem.

But pubs being open late isn’t unusual these days, especially in cities, so the signals need to be clearer. In this case, if the lights had come up at 10:45 or someone had simply said “We close in 30 minutes” – we wouldn’t have ordered those last beers we had no time to drink.

And the atmosphere for those last 20+ minutes was terrible, too – stressed staff, pissed off customers and little opportunity to chat between gulps of beers.

If the unique selling point of beer in the pub is conversation and atmosphere then what was the point of this final round? We’d have been happier drinking tins in front of the telly.

Then, irritation passing, we started thinking about what shutdown looks like when it’s done right and realised that of course The Drapers Arms does it brilliantly.

At 9:20, last orders is called, loud and clear; at 9:30, the hooter hoots; the crowd begins to clear; the bucket of bleach comes out and the discreet tidy up begins.

Usually, the pub empties fairly naturally, but on the rare occasion we’ve been there until the very close, we’ve been encouraged out of the door with good humour: “Drink up, you buggers! I want to go to the pub myself.”

On beer scenes

We’re currently working on a big piece about the Leeds beer scene, hopefully to go live next weekend, which has got us thinking about the very idea of ‘scenes’.

To qualify as somewhere with a ‘beer scene’ there are a few requirements, we reckon:

1. Multiple interesting pubs, bars or beer exhibition venues. One micropub, taproom or bar does not a beer scene make. And they really do need to be within walking distance of each other – the basis of a crawl. There probably has to be at least one legendary, must-visit venue.

2. Punditry. If you’re visiting Boggleton, who do you ask for advice? Who’s written a local guide, whether as a book, website or blog post? Have Matt Curtis, Jonny Garrett or Tony Naylor been in town taking notes?

3. Events. Bottle-shares, meet-the-brewers, tap takeovers and the like. We don’t particularly like events but there’s no denying that they bring scattered beer geeks together, creating and signalling the existence of a community.

4. Festivals, plural. Not just the local CAMRA festival, although those are important, but alternative events organised outside that infrastructure. Especially if they’re focused on particular niches – lager, sour beer, green hops, and so on. (Again, we rarely go ourselves, but…)

5. Faces. The people who make things happen, are at all the events, who drink maybe a bit more than a civilian might and put their money where their mouths are. They’re also the source of low-level soap opera (Thingumabob’s fallen out with Wossname; So-and-so’s left Venue A to work at Venue B). And, of course,  they’re the ones to watch when it comes to the next generation of bars, breweries and beer business.

6. Tourists. If beer geeks build their holidays around your town, city or region, it’s probably got a bona fide beer scene. In general, it needs to be a city or larger town. Falmouth almost pulls it off, as did Newton Abbot for a while, but there almost needs to be a sense that there’s just too much to get into a single long weekend.

What do you reckon? Anything obvious we’ve missed?

News, nuggets and longreads 3 August 2019: Apollo, Bass, curation

These are all the stories about beer and pubs we enjoyed most, or learned the most from, in the past week, from Wetherspoons to museums.

From Jeff Alworth, an epic – a two-parter pondering the question of why we like certain beers and dislike others:

Let’s try a thought experiment. Select one of your favorite beers and think about why you like it. If I ask you to tell me the reasons, my guess is that you will talk about the type of beer it is and which flavors you like. Since you’re reading this blog, you might talk about ingredient or even process (Citra hops! Decoction mashing!). If I asked a casual drinker, someone who drinks Michelob Ultra, say, I’d hear different reasons, but probably something along the lines Elizabeth Warren offered: it’s “the club soda of beers.” No matter one’s level of knowledge, our opinions about beer appear to come from the liquid itself.

Part one | Part two


The carpet at the Imperial, Exeter.

Tandleman has been observing what he calls the “slightly tense calm” of early morning in a Wetherspoon pub:

By 8.50 there is a palpable sense of expectation in the air. Eyes flick towards the bar. A few more arrive. Minutes tick away and suddenly there are people coming back to their tables with pints of beer and lager. One dedicated soul has two, which he arranges carefully in front of him, rims almost touching. Overall pints are evenly split between lager and John Smith’s Smooth.


The Apollo Inn
SOURCE: Manchester Estate Pubs

Stephen Marland has turned his nostalgic eye on another lost Manchester pub – the topically named Apollo Inn in Cheetham Hill. Construction, conversion, conflagration, collapse… The tale is familiar.

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 3 August 2019: Apollo, Bass, curation”

Jarl vs. Citra – clipping in the treble?

We’ve been lucky enough to drink a fair bit of Fyne Ales Jarl and Oakham Citra lately, though not yet side by side in the same pub, and they’re both fantastic beers.

If we could easily, reliably get one or the other near where we live, we’d probably not drink much else, at least for a few months.

But Al from Fuggled asked the following question…

…it got us thinking.

We concluded, quite quickly, based on gut feeling, that Jarl is a better beer. (Or more to our taste, anyway.)

Twitter agreed with us, too:

Again, to reiterate, we love Oakham Citra, as do many people who told us they preferred Jarl.

For us, it’s perhaps still a top ten beer.

But what gives Jarl that slight edge?

It’s maybe that Citra, when we really think about it, has a sharp, insistent, almost clanging note that the more subtle Scottish ale avoids. It can get a bit tiring, even, four pints into a session.

We often find ourselves thinking about beer in terms of sound and in this case, you might say Citra is clipping in the treble, just a touch.

An EQ meter.

There’s another possible factor, of course: we think most of the Jarl we’ve drunk has come sparkled, while the Citra is usually presented as nature intended.

Laver’s Law, Victorian pubs and hazy beer

You start with Victorian pubs and end up pondering hazy IPA and mild – that’s just how this game goes sometimes.

One of the things researching pubs has made us think about it is how certain things come in and out of fashion.

It’s hard to believe now but that heavy Victorian look people expect in the Perfect Pub – carved wood, cut glass, ornate mirrors – was seriously out of fashion for half a century.

Look through any edition of, say, The House of Whitbread from the 1920s or 30s and you’ll find story after story of modernisation. In practice, that meant ‘vulgar’ Victoriana was out; and a plain, clean, bright look was in.

The Greyhound, Balls Pond Road, before and after modernisation.
SOURCE: The House of Whitbread, October 1933.

Slowly, though, Victorian style became cool again. We’ve written about this before and won’t rehash it – Betjeman and Gradidge are two key names – but did stumble upon a new expression of the phenomenon this week, from 1954:

Thirty years ago the Albert Memorial was only admired by the extremely naïve and old-fashioned; today, it is only admired by the extremely sophisticated and up to date. Thirty years ago the late Arnold Bennett was thought eccentric, and even a little perverse, to take an interest in papier-mâché furniture with scenes of Balmoral by moonlight in inlaid mother-of-pearl. Today tables and chairs of this kind command high prices in the saleroom and are the prize pieces in cultivated living-rooms. It is, in a word, once more ‘done’ to admire Victoriana. The slur of the old-fashioned is merging into the prestige of the antique.

That’s from a fantastic book called Victorian Vista by James Laver who turns out to be an interesting character. A historian of costume and of fashion more generally, he is best known for inventing ‘Laver’s Law’ which sought to explain how things come in and go out of style:

Indecent | 10 years before its time
Shameless | 5 years before its time
Outré (Daring) | 1 year before its time
Smart | ‘Current Fashion’
Dowdy | 1 year after its time
Hideous | 10 years after its time
Ridiculous | 20 years after its time
Amusing | 30 years after its time
Quaint | 50 years after its time
Charming | 70 years after its time
Romantic | 100 years after its time
Beautiful | 150 years after its time

This certainly works to some degree for pubs: Victorian pubs were naff in 1914, charming by 1950 and the best are now practically national monuments; inter-war pubs have recently become romantic after years in the wilderness; and we’re just begging to collectively recognise the charm of the post-war.

Naturally, though, with trends a constant topic, we couldn’t help test this on beer styles.

For example, does it map to the rise of hazy IPA? We definitely remember it seeming indecent and think we can now discern it’s decent into dowdiness.

Or 20th century dark mild, maybe? We’ll, not so clearly, because it reigned for years, even decades. But we could adapt Laver’s commentary on Victoriana:

Thirty years ago mild was only admired by the extremely naïve and old-fashioned; today, it is only admired by the extremely sophisticated and up to date. Thirty years ago CAMRA was thought eccentric, and even a little perverse, to take an interest in weak, sweet, dark beer. Today beers of this kind are the prize pieces in cultivated taprooms.

Mild might be in the romantic or charming phase, then.

This works best for specific sub-styles and trends, though. IPA? Too broad. West Coast IPA? Maybe.

And for beer, in 2019, Laver’s language isn’t quite right. Maybe this is better:

Ridiculous | 10 years before its time
Bold | 5 years before
Hyped | 1 year before
Hip | ‘Current Fashion’
Mainstream | 1 year after its time
Boring | 10 years after
Interesting | 50 years after
Classic | 70 years +

It doesn’t really work, does it?

But it’s a been a fun prod.

Price as substitute for quality in unfamiliar territory

“In the absence of information, people tend to take a price of the unfamiliar product as a signal of its quality, so high prices do not diminish the quantity demanded very much. When information is provided, the signalling content of the price diminishes. As a result, demand becomes more elastic. In particular, informed consumers see no reason to pay more for the new product given that it has the same ingredients as the familiar one. The effect of the information is thus to encourage more people to switch from the substitute product to the target one at low prices, and vice versa at high prices.”

That’s an extract from an academic paper (PDF) on the behaviour of purchasers of medical products in Zambia, but you’ll encounter versions of this argument everywhere from self-help books on how to sell! sell! sell! to articles in the business press.

The conclusion often drawn is that, perhaps counter-intuitively, if you price your product higher than the competition, many consumers will assume yours is better and worth the extra money.

Conversely, if your product is too cheap, it might seem suspicious: “Hmm. What’s wrong with it?”

Does all of this also apply to beer?

Twenty years ago, we were certainly aware of the aura that surrounded Premium Lager, and Pete Brown has written memorably about the damage Stella Artois did to its brand by reducing the price.

But drinkers these days have lots more information to go on, from beer style to ABV, from hop varieties to brewing location. All or any of these might override price in the decision making process.

And, of course the actual relationship between price and quality in beer is complex: there are lots of bad expensive pints out there, and some really good ones that are relatively cheap.

Our suspicion is that price might be a proxy for quality in situations where none of the brands are familiar, and the only other information is price; or (as this paper suggests) where the choice is between broadly similar products under the same brand name: Carlsberg, or Carslberg Export?

With all this in mind we find ourselves once again thinking about the Drapers Arms, where not only is branding held at arm’s length but also the price structure is flat. As a result, we’ve probably tried a greater variety of beer there than anywhere else, even allowing for the fact this is where we do most of our drinking by default.

The Questions We Ask Ourselves

A question mark leads a man by the hand.

Is this beer consistently tasty? Are the brewers good people? Is the project laudable? Is the beer, brewery or style in need of our support?

It’s entirely possible to answer yes to one question but not the others.

A dreadful idiot who behaves appallingly can brew a great beer, and a wonderful local brewery owned by the loveliest people on earth can produce complete rubbish.

That’s obvious.

For some people, ethics, localness or independence are the only important factors, and they can probably live with a mediocre or even flawed product on that basis. (Perhaps their brains even trick them into genuinely enjoying the beer more – a feature, not a bug.)

But others will say, no, beer quality is the only thing that matters. (We try to be objective like this, but we’re only human.)

Still others might make their decisions based on price, out of necessity, or through a principled belief that the market is the ultimate arbiter.

Where there might be a problem is when people fail to express the distinction between those different ideas of “good”, or perhaps even to understand it.

BrewDog, to quote a notable example, brews (on the whole) beer we enjoy drinking. But believing that and saying it doesn’t mean we endorse their values, or uncritically support everything they do.

On the other hand, we felt a little churlish the other day when we couldn’t give Tynt Meadow, the new British Trappist beer, a wholehearted recommendation.

It is interesting.

We’re glad it exists, and expect it to improve.

If we lived in Leicestershire we might even feel somewhat proud of it.

But we’re not going to say it’s GREAT! because we like the concept, just as we’re not going to say Punk IPA tastes bad (it doesn’t) to take a cheap pop at BrewDog.

Whether local equates to good when it comes to beer has been debated endlessly over the years. Increasingly, we’re coming to the view that while it’s never as simple as that, there are certain beers that get as close to good as they ever will when they’re consumed near the brewery, where people know how they’re supposed to taste, and the quirks of keeping them; and where there’s a chance the brewer might pop in for a pint every now and then.

We certainly hope people can read these codes when we use them:

  • ‘fond of’ or ‘soft spot for’ is personal and emotional;
  • ‘interesting’ is about narrative, culture and significance in the industry;
  • a mediocre beer that’s very cheap can be ‘good value’;
  • ‘worth a try’ means we didn’t like it, but can imagine others might;
  • and you might not want more than one glass of a beer that is ‘complex’.

In practice, of course, the question we’re most likely to ask is: “Which of this limited selection of beers is going to taste the best?” (Or perhaps, depressingly, “least bad”.)