Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Beers of Others



It is sometimes too easy to look at the beer world from our lofty and geeky towers and demand new, or better, bigger, bolder, stronger, faster, more type beers and overlook that we are in a decided minority. As one who knocks boring brown beers constantly, you might wonder if I've any windows left in this glass house, but then I get out and about a fair bit and have my feet firmly enough on the ground, to know that most people that drink beer, simply don't see it my way.

I was reminded of this in two ways yesterday, firstly in Wetherspoons, where I nipped in to see what was on in their festival. I had my fingers crossed for one I hadn't had and while on my way, visualised Thornbridge Pioneer on the bar, in the vain hope, that mind over matter could make it so. It wasn't. Instead I had excellent bitter and dry Purity Gold, Lees Supernova, which packed in liquorice and chocolate flavours in a full bodied - yes full bodied - 3.5% variation of their mild and a half of Mordue Porter which was coffeeish and very decent.  But I digress.  There were a few customers experimenting with the guest ales, but most, despite the relative cheapness of the festival beers at £1.49 a pint, stuck to good old much more expensive, John Smith's Smooth.  I overheard one table of drinkers say that they'd be glad when the festival is over, so that can get back to ordinary beer.  Now this isn't an affluent area by and large, but these people were choosing to pay more for (what is to me and probably you) an inferior beer.  Where pennies count for a lot, the attraction of interesting cask beer was at best, limited.

The second incident was in a local Lees pub where the bitter was, most unLeeslike. The miserable drinkers were complaining about this.  (I get approached a lot in this way - being the local CAMRA guru in a small town - people think I can do something about it). It isn't a good thing when a brewery's main product isn't up to snuff.  You neglect your core products at your peril. To do so will lose you more trade than almost anything else, as those who know and love the beer, the gallon men, will simply have one and go home grumbling.

Cask beer these days is a bit of a niche product, albeit an expanding niche. Most of the expansion though, in volume terms at least, is in the cooking bitter that can be dismissed as "ordinary, dull and brown". I like to see brewers push the boat out as much as the next person, but it is these mainstream beers that keep the mash tuns filled. While brewers should be more bold in their product line, particularly when they do occasional or seasonal beers, it would be foolish for them to abandon boring brown. There. I've said it.  I don't have to like it, but I know it makes sense.

This post scratches the surface of an issue ( what beers should brewers be brewing) that intrigues me.  I know it is written from (as usual) the pub going point of view, but I'd be interested to know what others think.

Of course my preferred niche is the specialist cask ale pub where little of this applies, but I drink more Lees Bitter than anything else.

28 comments:

Darren T said...

I guess bland and relatively tasteless = reassuringly safe and comfortable for an awful lot of people. It would be very easy to go off on a social snobbery rant about the lack of imagination inherent in the Great British Public, but at the end of the day, if sticking to the herd and being just like everyone else makes someone happy, then so be it. Who are we to tell them to change?

As for what beers breweries should be brewing, I can see perfect sense in producing a core range of a safe session bitter or two for the established market, but surely there's room for innovation and experimentation as well?

Case in point: local (to us) brewer Hydes proudly proclaim their "growing portfolio of own-brewed beers [and lagers]" but when you actually look at that portfolio, of 16 craft / cask / smooth beers listed on their website, I reckon 13 of them are session bitters, 'best' bitters or pale ales. They seem to brew one mild, one stout, one (> 6%) strong ale and that's it. Not a porter, not a barley wine, not a Belgian-style, not even an IPA in sight. And what's the point in having a series of 'seasonal' ales that are pretty much identical to the standard range?

Tyson said...

Thornbridge Pioneer was on in the Cross Keys in London and, so my Manc correspondent tells me, the Waterhouse. So wrong JDW at the wrong time, I'm afraid.

Grumbling about Lees-who'd have thought it?!

Tandleman said...

I couldn't agree more. One or two "safe" beers - fine. All safe - not fine.

Tandleman said...

Tyson - Gotta speak as you find.

Cooking Lager said...

The reason, Tandy, is that most people are not beer enthusiasts. They are not there for the beer. It is only CAMRA types that think a pub is little more than a tool for selling beer, and want it to sell beer they like.

To most people in the pub, the beer is one of the lesser reasons they are there. They want a drink, but value the consistency and palatability of a known quantity that they know they will like because they have had it before.

The drink is nothing more or less than a social lubricant.

You are probably the only one thats there for the beer.

Curmudgeon said...

The "enthusiast" in any field needs to recognise that most consumers simply want a reliable, dependable, consistent product that meets their requirements (as they perceive them), so there is always going to be a tension between the enthusiast and the mainstream. There are plenty of examples in various markets of companies pushing their products beyond consumers' comfort zone and paying a price for it. Most beer drinkers will generally spend an evening in the pub on the same beer, and will happily buy a 15-pack of Extra Smooth, Carling or whatever from the supermarket. If you look across the board at your own purchasing patterns there are probably many things you buy week in, week out, because they do the job as far as you're concerned. Are you that bothered about innovation in milk? Are you stupid or narrow-minded because you aren't?

Jeffrey said...

Real ale is most popular among educated, middle class people. That might be a bit offensive to some, but it's true. Moreover, it's disproportionately popular in the most economically successful parts of the country. According to Pete Brown's Cask Report, it's actually in decline in the North of England.

Tandleman said...

Cookie - That's what I said isn't it more or less.

Curmudgeon - Agreed.

Jeff - You are right about the demographic of cask ale drinkers and no doubt the fortunes of cask ale do mirror to some extent at least, the economy, though even in good times, there is a larger percentage of cask sold in southern parts. Like it or lump it, cask is becoming (or has become)the drink of the middle class.

Barry said...

I may be biased as a scooper and so favouring new beers,but isn't it a case of the egg and chicken.That is you need innovation to give drinkers little nudge.After all mainstream big sellers like Landlord and Deuchars IPA aren't brown and yet have managed to push themselves into ordinary drinkers portfolio.

Jeffrey said...

Peter, I forgot to congratulate you on being the cask ale guru of Manchester. That kind of fame must be hard to bear when all you want is a quiet pint in your local. I suggest you adopt the habits of Nero and go out among your people in disguise. Then you can bestow favours and admonishments where you see fit, rather than being hassled to do the same by an expectant public.

Jeffrey said...

PS. Serious point that may interest you: I can't remember the last time I was in a pub that served any kind of smoothflow bitter. They seem to virtually extinct in these parts, yet nationally the sale of John Smith's and Tetley's Smooth are, I know, still considerable. What this points to yet again is how divided the pub trade is, in terms of social class and geography.

Tandleman said...

Well of course I meant my small town of Middleton (pop 40,000 or so, drinking population considerably less). That's why I mentioned "small town" - not the great metrollops of Manchester, where of course I am as unknown as an unknown thing.

I can see where you are confused though. Manchester, no doubt, is a small town to you.

On your serious point, assuming "in these parts, means Clerkenwell", I'd guess there might be more of a smooth drinking crowd in the rougher areas of London. London has some of the most deprived areas in the UK, so it would be a social blip if they are all scoffing cask surely?

Jeffrey said...

Come now, Peter, do you honestly think I visit those rougher areas?There's simply no need. I did do three months working pro bono with a legal aid firm in the LB of Ealing a few years ago. It was an eye-opener. Highlights included making a wrong exit from a tower block and getting trapped behind a high fence in a yard full of wheelie bins. I was so determined not to ruin my suit that I disrobed before climbing over.

Curmudgeon said...

Obviously Jeffrey hasn't been in a Spoons recently either ;-)

Apart from the small minority of pubs that do explicitly set out to be cask beer specialists, I'd say the vast majority of UK pubs now stocked a smooth bitter of some description.

Tandleman said...

You, downmarket? I wouldn't suggest it for a moment. Good job when disrobed, you didn't get caught by the oiks on that fence.

Paul Garrard said...

I agree with what Curmudgeon says in his first comment. The vast majority like to play it safe and then have more of the same - many will go for a brand because it is a brand, and something that is available up and down most pubs across the land.

Mark said...

Good post, interesting topic.

My first point is £1.49?! WTF? It's £1.79 at my local.

It's something that eternally frustrates me - why are you drinking *that* when they've got [insert good beer here] on. But I understand that people don't and won't drink cask beer. I want more people to drink it but then I am also an advocate for beer to be better, hoppier, dark, stronger. It's difficult and we are a small niche group within a small niche.

What should brewers be brewing is a fascinating issue. I wonder how what they need to brew to make money and what they want to brew to satisfy themselves differs between breweries...

Woolpack Dave said...

The fact that they drink John Smiths smooth despite it being more expensive is what puzzles me. Security of the brand image I guess.

Moreover, it has economies of scale, less wastage and less skill required to keep it. Why is it more expensive?

Woolpack Dave said...

Oh, and good post.

Tim said...

Barry said "Landlord and Deuchars IPA aren't brown and yet have managed to push themselves into ordinary drinkers portfolio"

WTF is an 'ordinary drinker'?? Do you mean as opposed to being a ticker? Sounds like an US (tickers) vs. THEM (ordinary - normal people). Why the elitism? Being a ticker is certainly nothing to aspire to, and is certainly not elite.

Tandleman said...

Apart from anything, Landlord is and always has been, fairly brown.

It isn't actually that difficult to assess the term "ordinary drinker". Mudgie and Cookie made a decent job of it in their comments.

I don't think tickers are the issue in this discussion.

Tandleman said...

Mark

I think we have a price reduction this time. I'm sure it was £1.69 last time.

Dave - Thanks.

Cooking Lager said...

@Wooly Dave. Security of the brand image comes down, I think, to consistency. Whilst decent cask beer is a lovely pint and is often the cheapest grog in the boozer it still is, in a fair number of places, nasty and undrinkable.

You may very well make and flog a decent pint. Many don't.

Ordering the cask is often a gamble, that may result in having to complain. Something many are not comfortable with.

Bailey said...

Yes, good post.

Somewhat ironically, I think a big part of the market for smoothflow bitters (if my acquaintances are anything to go by) is people who subscribe to the dogma that lager is what idiots drink, but who don't actually like strongly flavoured beer that much either.

In other words, they like all the worst bits of CAMRA culture but can't handle the tasty pints of ale that make it all worthwhile.

I don't at all object to breweries making a straight-up brown bitter -- as you say, most would be daft not to, especially those with their own pubs to supply. What is annoying is pubs which have four of the buggers from different breweries on at once and then expect you to be excited about it.

Barm said...

Seems to me that what most drinkers actually want is mild, but they aren't prepared to actually drink mild. Which is a pity because a decent mild is a lot nicer than a dumbed-down brown bitter with the hops taken out.

Paul said...

A persistent irritation of mine is the lack of decent mild. I'm trying to work on it but no-one will actually drink the stuff - it's mild, 3.5%-ish and lovely stuff. But try to penetrate the image and it's the 'oh, it's only drunk by oddballs/the old'. Sigh.

Jeffrey said...

Trust me, people don't want to drink mild en masse. It's never going to be popular again.

Barm said...

You may be well be right Jeffrey, but why do you think that?