Mapping Trends in British Beer

This is something we’ve been doing to help keep track of the narrative of British beer that is emerging as we research and, having enjoyed this conversation over at Ed’s blog, we thought we’d share it.

UPDATED 12:12 4 July 2013: an important line was missing between ‘real ale’ and ‘weird real ale’.

Graphic mapping trends in British beer over the last fifty years.

Notes

  1. This isn’t attempt to define terminology or push anyone into a box, but to reflect how we think people use some of these terms, and to track the ‘DNA’ of various trends.
  2. It’s simplified: we could have added quite a few more boxes (‘Real Lager’, ‘Revivalist IPA’, ‘World Keg’…) but have chosen not to, for now.
  3. There is a judgement reflected here: we’re more interested in and enthusiastic about the stuff in blue.
  4. Sorry about ‘weird real ale’ — we couldn’t think of anything better. It is intended to encompass everything ‘innovative’ (i.e. diverging from traditional styles) from Hopback Summer Lightning onward. (So that means Sean Franklin, Brendan Dobbin, Passageway and so on.)
  5. UPDATE: it’s not a graph, it’s just a kind of family tree.

Bars and Pubs and Clubs

Dada bar in Sheffield.

Last week, we interviewed the founders and owners of North Bar in Leeds, arguably the first ‘craft beer bar’ in the UK, and, in the course of our conversation, asked: ‘So, what makes this a bar rather than a pub?’ After much head-scratching, they had to admit defeat: they didn’t know. ‘But we know a bar when we see one.’

Here’s a quiz, then: are the following bars, or pubs, or something else?

  1. Dada, Sheffield
  2. Craft Beer Company, Islington, London
  3. Craft Beer Company, Clerkenwell, London
  4. The Parcel Yard, Kings Cross, London
  5. any branch of All Bar One.

A pub has to sell beer, but then so do most bars. A bar is more likely to sell cocktails, but some don’t, and some pubs do. Pubs are more likely to be brown, while bars will have white/cream/grey walls, but white-painted pubs and brown bars do exist… no, this isn’t getting us anywhere.

In the introduction to her 2002 book Bar and Club Design, Bethan Ryder defines bars as follows:

They are modern, spectacular forums, underpinned by the ideas of display and performance, rather than utilitarian, more casual places in which people meet, drink and gossip — such as the pub…

We’re not sure that works — North felt pretty casual, for example, but is definitely a bar. She also, however, says this in attempting to define the nightclub: ‘…to a certain extent they have always been whatever a… pub is not.’ Now that, vague as it is, might work as a definition of a bar.

As, perhaps, might this: a pub should always feel as if it is in the British Isles; whereas a bar should feel as if it is in Manhattan, Stockholm, Moscow or Paris.

If you think you’ve got it cracked, let us know in the comments below.

Our answers would be 1) bar; 2) pub; 3) bar; 4) something else; and 5) chain pub with pretensions.

Considering a Good Beer Magazine

Dave Bailey, prompted by something Roger Protz said at the Beer Writers’ Guild meeting in London, Tweeted this:

First, the gender question: there might be something in that, but then there are ultra-specialist magazines which aren’t especially ‘gendered’, and there’s no reason why a beer magazine, if a decent one existed, couldn’t sit with the food mags. We know loads of blokes who buy and read cookery magazines. Everyone eats, after all, and, as it’s not the nineteen-fifties, quite a few blokes know their way around a kitchen these days.

Secondly, though, the content: what the hell do you put in a magazine about beer? Generalist food magazines fill their pages with recipes (‘Fifteen ten minute summer suppers’) and consumer reviews, but that wouldn’t work so well for beer, because it’s a finished product, not an ingredient. ‘One hundred great lagers’ might work, but, really, just reading a list of beers you probably won’t be able to find in your local shop, with some tasting notes, is not likely to be that inspiring or exciting to most people.

Really specialist magazines such as, say, Retro Gamer, do fill their pages every month, and sell well enough to keep going, but they do so by appealing to a minority audience of hardcore geeks, and, frankly, by repeating themselves. We bought it for a couple of years and stopped when we’d read the story of the founding of Atari for the third time. Another example, Computer Music magazine, relies on multipage ‘ultimate’ and ‘beginners’ guides to production techniques and product reviews and, again, repeats itself on a fairly regular cycle. It does not, apparently, have loyal readers.

A quarterly or yearly product might stand more chance of commercial succcess. We’d buy, say, Good Food Magazine’s Ultimate Guide to Beer 2013, in the ‘bookazine’ format, for a long train journey. Alternatively, there is the bleeding-edge-cool, beautifully designed subscription journal model. Gin & It, about booze, is already with us, and Mark from Real Ale Reviews has previously suggested that this football publication might be a good model for beer writing.

Realistically, beer is one facet of ‘drink’, which is one facet of ‘food and drink’, and it is probably too ambitious to expect consumers to support a publication with such a narrow focus. A decent couple of pages on beer in existing food magazines, and good quality regular columns in the lifestyle sections of newspapers and current affairs magazines, would do us.

UPDATE 12:33 12/6/2013

After we posted it came to light through Twitter that there are some plans afoot at Future Publishing.

After Craft Beer, Craft Cider

Coates's Cider mat -- detail.

We’ve often wondered what might replace ‘craft beer’ in the affections of the trend-chasing young folk. and, though there is now ‘craft gin’, and we’ve joked about when we can expect ‘craft mead’, it was always cider which looked most likely to lure their attention. And it looks as if that change is underway.

Let’s look at the omens.

Attempting to trace the progress of this trend it looks very similar to what’s happened in beer, with some slight differences in timing:

  1. 1950: a working person’s day-to-day drink.
  2. 1965: a commercial commodity dominated by national brands.
  3. 1970s: rediscovered by the middle-classes in its ‘real’ form.
  4. 2000s: ‘premiumised’ by big producers. (Magner’s.)

Next? Perhaps ‘craft’ connoisseurism, experimentation and ‘extremifying’; yeast experiments, barrel-aging and new ‘styles’; craft keg’? We certainly look forward to trying a blackened, imperialised scrumpy… (Someone who knows about cider will no doubt tell us all of this is already happening.)

We’ve been saying for ages that certain lambic beers share flavours with the more rough-and-ready ciders — ‘barnyard’, ‘horse blanket’, ‘old wellies’, etc.. — and it won’t be much of a leap from beer to cider for those who’ve trained their tastebuds on hip ‘sours’ from breweries such as Brodie’s.

For now, at least, cider also has another great appeal: it isn’t taxed as heavily as beer and is therefore cheaper.

Don’t worry — this won’t be becoming Boak and Bailey’s Cider Blog, but then we wouldn’t be surprised to see a rash of them soon.

Brewery Numbers Aren’t Everything

godson

It seems that, between 1980 and 1983, around a hundred new breweries opened in Britain — about as many again as there were in total ten years earlier. Last year, as you’ll have heard repeated over and over, for the first time in a century, there were more than a thousand breweries operating across the UK. London alone now has almost fifty.

But how excited should we be about those numbers?

On the one hand, many small breweries, each brewing a range of beers, means lots of choice for consumers. There are multiple examples of the most obscure varieties of beer on the market — yes, but which British-brewed Berliner Weisse would madam like?

But, on the other hand, some of these breweries are so small, and their beer has so few outlets, that we’re not even sure they really exist in any meaningful sense.

Looking in more detail at the early eighties brewing boom, which was greeted with breathless excitement by beer enthusiasts desperate to believe, it’s notable how many breweries were literally just a bloke with a bucket in his kitchen, or off-the-shelf ‘brewpubs’ jumping on the Firkin bandwagon. Even some apparently bigger breweries were actually small ones occupying corners of grand buildings. Easy come, easy go.

Are there figures for the total number of different beers in regular production knocking about somewhere? Or the number of people employed in the brewing industry? One really interesting figure, following on from this discussion, would be how many breweries are making any kind of profit.