QUICK POST: One Practical Thing

HOW MUCH?

This morning another conversation about the price of craft beer broke out on Twitter, as it does every three months or so.

This time the prompt was an article by Will Hawkes for the Guardian on progressive breweries and inclusiveness:

Women are increasingly taking the responsibility for shaping the beer world. Writer Melissa Cole and brewer Jaega Wise have driven the campaign against using sexualised images of women in beer marketing…. There’s [also] a growing sense that the beer world needs to make it easier for customers to drink its products. Leading the way is Ride Brewing Company in Glasgow, where the taproom is fully accessible to people with disabilities. Head brewer Dave Lannigan says his experiences have influenced this stance. “I am officially disabled through loss of hearing, so have personal experience of being excluded,” he says. “We are just keen to make a difference, no matter how small.”

(Someone did great work on the headline for that story, by the way.)

This prompted food writer Tony Naylor to Tweet the following:

Lots of good initiatives here but if craft beer wants an inclusive working class audience it needs to have a serious conversation about the race to establish the £5 pint as standard. What would you drink if you were skint? Idea: £3 Pint Project. 12 breweries in, say, Greater MCR take turns each month to brew a £3 pint/ get it stocked in loads of good bars/ to see what’s possible stylistically. Now THAT (& even £3 is expensive if you’re skint), would be a positive move.

We think that’s quite an interesting, provocative suggestion and, indeed, made a similar one ourselves in 2012. He’s certainly not saying all beer should be £3 a pint, or that £5 pints should be banned, or are a great evil — just that some deliberate, disruptive gesture on price might shake things up a bit.

But whether it’s a practical suggestion or not it did make us think of something beer enthusiasts and commentators could be doing more often: making the effort to highlight good value beers.

Big, rare, strange craft beers naturally attract a lot of coverage because they’re different and come with some sort of story, but that can add up to a sense that (to borrow CAMRA’s controversial phrase) they are ‘the pinnacle of the brewer’s art’ and that if you’re drinking anything else, you’re slumming it. Why bother? Really, you should sell an organ or two, or skip your lunchtime avocado feast to cover the cost of the upgrade. (Remember, nobody has any money these days.)

So, instead of moaning about expensive pints — or at least as well as doing that — make a point of flagging great ones you’ve found at £3 a pint or £2 a can.

It doesn’t have to be an essay — just a Facebook post, Tweet or passing mention in a post on another topic. But essays are good too. Food critic Jay Rayner has just shared a piece defending his writing about expensive restaurants but one of the best things he’s ever written was about a Polish restaurant in Birmingham with main courses at under a tenner.

Of course nobody should pretend to like beers they don’t, or hold back from writing about expensive beers that really get them excited, but if there’s a readily available, affordable beer you really do enjoy, take a moment to tell the world, without apologies or caveats, and without expecting a medal for your bravery.

Sucker juice of 1953

The Queen, 1953.
“One would like to get a round in — who’s having what? And four bags of scratchings, two dry-roasted and a couple of pickled eggs?”

On 25 November 1952, the following story ran in the Guardian:

There is to be a special strong beer for the Coronation, it was announced by Mr F.J. Bearman, chairman of the panel of beer judges at the Brewery and Allied Traders Exhibition… ‘Almost every brewery in the country is brewing a Coronation beer. Its gravity will be about .60 compared with .33 for the average beer to-day,’ he said… The Coronation beer will be bottled and… cost about 2s 6d a nip bottle.

There were outraged responses to this news from both puritans — ‘The brewers are assuming that the British people will need double-strength beer… to celebrate the Queen’s solemn act of dedication to the service of God’ — and presumably from drinkers, as the brewers were accused of profiteering from the Coronation.

The Brewers’ Society stated yesterday: ‘Any suggestion that brewery companies will be making big profits from Coronation ales is completely unwarranted. These special brews are uneconomic to produce. They involve changes in the brewery routine, special labels, and sometimes special bottles… The demand for them is very difficult to predict. The purpose in brewing them is to give people something special in which to drink the Queen’s health.’ (Guardian, 4 December 1952.)

Several months later, the brewers were fully on the back foot, and having to explain why they wouldn’t be giving away free beer in their pubs on Coronation Day: ‘What brewers have to pay in tax alone out of sums for licensed house improvement would pay for seven or eight pints of free beer for every adult in the country’. The same Brewers’ Society spokesman also pointed out how difficult a ‘free beer’ scheme would be to administer: some drinkers might be tempted to claim six free pints in one pub, then move on to another and start afresh, and then another… (Guardian, 21 May 1953.)

Today, brewers are still asked to defend the prices of their limited edition, specially packaged, ‘event’ beers, and they still rely on similar sounding arguments.

How Much for a Pint of Foster’s!?

In the Blitz-like spirit of fellowship that enveloped the Olympic park in Stratford during the Olympics, we found ourselves sharing a tiny table at Tap East with a lovely, chatty middle-aged couple. Conversation turned, naturally, to pubs, at which point they dropped this bombshell:

“We were in a pub in Greenwich the other day where they’d put the price of Foster’s up to £5.90 a pint for the tourists.”

Astounding, spiv-like behaviour, if it’s true, but good to hear that punters refused to play along:

“They had to drop it again when there were complaints and they had no customers for two days.”

From what we observed, the places in London which were quietest during the Olympics were grotty, money-grubbing tourist traps. Everywhere else seemed to be doing a reasonable trade for the (soggy) dog-days of August.

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…