Monday, 7 December 2009

Woods and Trees


I was struck by something Mark Dredge said in his blog the other day and I've been thinking about it off and on since. It was a throwaway line in a discussion about beer glass sizes and I think it reflects something that I am rapidly becoming aware of and which dominates the thinking of the new wave of younger bloggers. It was mentioned as a "given", a statement of fact. The line was this: "The nature of British beer is evolving and I think the vessels it is served in needs to evolve too." The question that arises in my mind is "How true is that statement?" No, not the one about different glass sizes, but the first part about the nature of British beer evolving. In what way is it evolving, if it is to any great extent?

I guess those that think there is a sea change, would put forward Thornbridge and Brew Dog as evidence that a different, more innovative (that word again) way of doing things is emerging - evolving perhaps?. Brew Dog is certainly a case in point, though I'd venture Thornbridge are in Brew Dog terms a little more conventional, while in overall terms, still nudging the more adventurous end of the spectrum. What about Marble, Outstanding or Pictish? Maybe Steel City or Mallinsons? There may be backers for a small number of others, but after that you start to struggle a bit. In numerical terms and even in influence, the evidence just isn't really there. Most of the brewers I mention are conventional enough. They are just lots better at making good beer and it is usually that which makes them stand out.

"Aha" say you, "what about all these lovely strong bottled beers that are emerging?" Nothing new there I'm afraid. It is the return to bottling that has brought these stronger beers back, not an evolution or revolution in brewing. The rush to home drinking has recreated a market that always existed, but in a slightly different form. Once all breweries produced a barley wine and a strong or old beer, in recent times, usually as a chaser to more standard strength beers. Christmas versions weren't uncommon either. Change the name from Blogg's Old to Blogg's Imperial Stout, bump up the abv and you've still only tweaked and renamed a strong beer, not created an evolutionary brewing step. Perception may be changing for some (more of that later), but it isn't really new.

So how could this this evolving British beer scene be defined? The biggest change in British brewing in recent years (apart from hundreds of samey micros of course) has arguably been the emergence of "golden ales" and with them, the more generous use of hops, as well as the increasing use of foreign hop varieties. To a limited extent too there is a resurgence in strong dark beers, though the quality of some of these are doubtful. (You can hide brewing faults and recipe disasters much easier in a dark beer and then sit back and smirk as the geeks call it complex or challenging.) Nonetheless those do provide welcome variety, but they are far from new in either concept or actuality. Of course if you read Ron Pattinson's blog, you will know that in so many ways, beers like Imperial Stouts, are recreations of a lost brewing world; not innovation or evolution, but an adapted reclaim of the past; a lot of it too from within living memory. Those who try to be a little different, aren't doing much more than exploiting a niche, but a niche is what it is. What is different though is an expanded take home market, though that is still firmly mired in cheap lager. To make the evolution (if it exists) more firmly verifiable, that would have to change seismically too. Given the actual rarity in percentage terms and lack of general availability of these "new" beers, it won't be any time soon.

So is British beer evolving to the extent that some claim, nay, assume? I rather doubt it. Too many seem to be looking at the British beer scene through the wrong end of the telescope, charmed and enchanted by what seems to be new and exciting. Drinking strange new beers matured in odd barrels, visiting progressive free houses and beer festivals can result in extrapolating that atypical experience and the enthusiasm it generates into something it probably isn't. We should welcome the new niches that are being created (or rediscovered), but it shouldn't blind us to reality. Enthusiasm and bonhomie are marvellous. They can propel us forward. A shared outlook, buoyed up by beer, while infectious and enjoyable, can however mislead and cause feet to be less firmly placed on the ground than otherwise they might be. Though niches will certainly expand, British brewing remains solidly middle of the road and it is likely to continue that way for a long time to come.

This just scratches the surface of what is likely to be a very deep mine. Views welcome of course.

The bottles in the photo are all over 20 years old to illustrate my point.

40 comments:

Curmudgeon said...

Good post, not a lot to disagree with there. It's important not to confuse small niches with the mainstream beer market, or even the mainstream cask market.

Cooking Lager said...

You say British beer is mired in cheap lager. That is I think a snobbish attitude to a quality standard and consistent product. If you take any other commodity as an example, the retail industry sells more of the standard product than either the budget or premium variety. Beer is no different to detergent, chickens, carrots or microwave curries. As for the standard beer market there has been a sizable growth in brands advertising their ingredients as a factor in quality, think Beck’s fear. This market is as much quality driven as price. In the premium ranges of single bottles for 2 quid there will always be innovation as innovation is driving force in convincing many to part with a premium price. The lure of something new will convince many to part with 2 quid for one bottle. The intrinsic quality may keep them coming back, willing to pay the premium, if they think it’s worth it. You would expect standard product makers to seek to emulate if they can do so within cost. You will never change the dynamic of budget, standard or premium product. I also gather that most beer enthusiasts like the fact that there grog of choice is a premium product enjoyed by the few and not the many.

Tandleman said...

I think you are missing the point Cookie. Lager is peripheral to this really.

Wurst/Whorst- Brewing Arts Instructor, CEO APRK said...

Nicely written piece Herr'man. Do you get up at 5am every morning so you can write??

What do you mean by "British brewing remains solidly middle of the road?" This does not sound like a quote from you.

John Clarke said...

Tanders,

Completely are utterly bang on old boy.

Can I use this elsewhere please (I'm sure you know what I mean) - with due acknowledgement of course.

John Clarke said...

Well, slightly tweaked obviously to make it less blog-oriented

RedNev said...

The word 'innovative' is often misused to mean 'experimental' and many brewing experiments do not lead to innovation.

Most real ale drinkers have a much greater range of beers available than at any time within living memory. I was a student in Warrington in the 1970s, and the adverts said "Smile please, you're in Greenall Whitley land" and for once they weren't lying. The only relief from Greenall's beers was the occasional Tetley's pub, and this was in a town with three breweries at the time. Most towns and cities had similarly restricted choices.

As a contrast, the situation we take for granted today would have seemed amazing in the 1970s. It's not just the choice of brands, but also styles, including golden ales, wheat beers, cask lagers, and the resurgence of different types of dark ales: for quite a few years no one brewed porter at all. The world of British beer has been revolutionised over the last 30 years, and no one seems to have noticed. Granted there are still a lot of standard, samey beers, but that doesn't detract from my point.

I think Cooking Lager is right when he suggests most drinkers just want a consistent, standard beer; they don't really want to experiment and be surprised. I can't think of any other explanation for the enduring popularity of the utterly tedious Tetley's or John Smith's.

Tandleman said...

Sausage - All my own work and words.

John - Why not? I won't be using this one in mine. (I am the new editor of More Beer.)Like to see the tweak and acknowledgement though.

RedNev - Cookie has a point indeed about that.

Curmudgeon said...

It could be argued that the rapid rise of the "premium standard" lagers over the past couple of years has been an example of significant innovation in the mainstream market.

Agreed that there is overall much more choice of cask beers in terms of both absolute numbers and variety of styles, but that choice is concentrated in far fewer outlets, which could easily pass many "mainstream" drinkers by. And a lot of extensive tied estates such as Higsons and Vaux/Wards have disappeared and largely given way to national brands. Is there more choice when 100 brands occupy 5% of the market and 2 brands 95%, or when 10 brands occupy 50% of the market and 2 brands the other 50%?

Woolpack Dave said...

Well I agree in parts. I think the problem is that it is easy to get mixed up between the mainstream and niche. Sure, the mainstream beer market is set stable in session beer and this is true with real ale as well as lager. Not much will change there any time soon.

There is an alternative niche market evolving. It is not big but it is growing. For instance today in a fairly standard pub in Ambleside the fridges had Duvel, two types of Chimay and Fruilli. I had middle of the road Cumbrian beers, (Blue Bird and Darkest Ennerdale - both lovely) but might have chosen one of the others as a night cap had it been evening. 10 years ago you would not have seen any of the bottled beers that were there.

But mainstream drinkers want to stick to what they are comfortable with and that isn't going to change.

Wurst/Whorst- Brewing Arts Instructor, CEO APRK said...

So you do get up at 5am every morning to write? Who would have known!

Cooking Lager said...

Can I have a read of this mystery publication that Jonny Boy wants to plagarize your blog for? I love beer writing, me. Can't get enough of it.

Tandleman said...

I don't get up to write at 5 am. I'm not that bloody keen. I enjoy writing but five in the morning is for kipping.

Cookie. Opening Times. Google it.

Curmudgeon said...

Cookie, it's Opening Times, original home of my deathless pronouncements. Not the world's best web rendition of a print magazine, but there you go. John is, er, known to me...

Wurst/Whorst- Brewing Arts Instructor, CEO APRK said...

Curmudgeon, I don't know how I missed you, but you are in dire need of a track, and possibly a full blown album. Your whole internet aura stinks of geek.

RedNev said...

Curmudgeon: I know the point you're making (not sure about the stats, though), but you're not looking at this as a drinker. In Southport in the 1970s, real ale was limited to Boddingtons (1 outlet), Higson's (1 outlet), Burtonwood (1 outlet), Matthew Brown (3-4 outlets), and some Tetley's and Greenall's. There are now three pubs in Southport that have a better range EACH than the whole of the town did back then.

The fact that whole swathes of ordinary pubs that only sold the owning brewers' beers anyway have switched from cask to keg/smooth, while regrettable perhaps, doesn't affect my main point, i.e. we have far more choice than we did in the past.

Sid Boggle said...

It seems to me that we should be talking about momentum and where we are in an evolving beer market.

Is the renaissance of 'craft' {read: cask) a finished project? I'd have said not - poor performers, 'me-too' brewers etc. (whatever they are) may be weeded out by lack of consumer interest; are there enough investors prepared to establish specialist beer outlets on a model pioneered by The Rake and North Bar? High-end, eclectic, premium priced? Is that a model that would be sustainable in larger markets?

Are we losing 50 'good' pubs a week, or are they 'fizz' pubs, and if we slice and dice the on-trade that way, where does that leave a proposition such as Cooking Lager makes?

I don't think there are distinct parallels, but the US craft scene experienced a 'second wave' during the early 90's. In this country, we come from a different place (defending a beer tradition), but there are similarities (growing foreign and craft sales in a declining overall market), and I wonder if the main difference is that the US craft market has matured sufficiently for demand for the product to penetrate non-traditional markets. It strikes me that we're educating a new generation (The Boy Dredge's peers, for instance) in craft and artisanal beer, the difference being that it isn't just tied up with the provenance or dispense. Maybe that needs time to ferment and spread.

We need a futurologist and I need to finish this bottle of Meantime London Porter...

Barm said...

Cooking Lager, preferring good beer to crap beer is not snobbery. Cooking lager (the product) is indeed brewed to high standards of technical perfection. It's crap because it's meant to be crap and I'm pretty sure many of the brewers involved in making it would quite happily admit that it's crap. Real snobbery is when you assume that people are too stupid to appreciate anything better than crap.

Mark said...

Right then, where do I begin...

I see and I understand where you are coming from. But all the things you say are examples of evolution. Beer, like everything, is perpetually in some kind of evolution - nothing ever just stops. Think back 5 years - were you drinking the same beers in the same places as you are now (does it still taste the same?!). Go back another 10. And another. Beer changes.

The breweries you mention (Marble, Thornbridge, Pictish) are conventional, yes. They are also excellent, yes. And they would not have existed 10 years ago and they wouldn't have produced the beers they do now. It's evolution. Side-stepping, if they did brew those beers then maybe you wouldn't have drunk them? Who knows. Drinkers evolve too (who goes first, I don't know).

The nature of anything consumable (music, film, art, food, fashion) is that it is placed in a moment. From there it undeniably takes influence from the past and hopes to push things forward. Changing the name of a strong bottled beer from Blogg's Old to Blogg's Imperial Stout and bumping up the abv is creating a new beer to suit a new market. That's an evolution in the market - a product to better suit the current buyer.

Fashion may be in an 80s period but it comes with a modern twist. It takes influence from the past and makes it present. That is not reclaiming the past. But yes, it is exploiting a niche. That's how these things work. Not everyone likes all types of music. Not everyone likes 10% IPAs. Not everyone even knows that 10% beers exist.

There is no claim to the extent at which things are evolving, but they are evolving. I agree that British brewing is in the middle of the road and will likely stay there. Most people, with whatever they are interested in, are in the middle of the road for most things. We come from a point of view that is a niche. I write for a niche on my blog (as do you). If I wanted to write for the everyday, middle of the road drinker then I would have no outlet and, likely, no readers.

Scratching the surface indeed, although I think you are looking through the telescope and focusing in on the people who couldn't care less about the peripheral exploits of the more (r)evoltionary brewers.

Tandleman said...

Good points Sid, though like you I am doubtful about parallels with the US. Places like North Bar and other like them of course have their place, but I was making points about brewing, not pubs on this occasion and particularly about the British beer scene and its alleged "evolution".. Naturally you can't exclude pubs, but we have another story (and another post there).

Your point about "the difference being that it isn't just tied up with the provenance or dispense." is well made too, but we are nowhere near a major change on that one, unless you count drinking bottles (mostly) at home.

Curmudgeon said...

Rednev, surely both perspectives are right. From the point of view of the individual enthusiast drinker, yes, there is much more choice. But the market as a whole is much more concentrated and the average drinker in the average pub is far less likely to be drinking independently-brewed cask beer than he was in 1980 or even 1990.

The beer market has surely become an example of the Long Tail which has become a characteristic of many consumer markets - more concentration at the top, more diversity at the bottom.

The stats were merely to illustrate a point and weren't meant to represent genuine market shares.

RedNev said...

So we are, more or less, agreeing ~ that's nice.

Tandleman said...

Mark. Good points about evolution though I'm not sure that what you are saying is the point I was attempting to address. Of course things evolve, but I suspect you are talking a little more than just sitting still and watching time march by. There is a degree at least of revolution in the mix that attracts you, so perhaps we should define that, as the creeping changes of evolution hardly fits the bill.

I have been involved in this beer game for a while. The photo is of beers from my own collection. The Old Ales there are around 12% and over 20 years old. I bought them when I was just a few years older than you as they were interesting and unusual. When I drank them I was amazed by them as you are now, so we ain't so different. Interestingly. I have two of the Old Ales. They are cork sealed and waxed. Will they be drinkable? I'd guess so.

As for Marble etc brewing 10 years ago- well they weren't, but Brendan Dobbin was producing hoppy Yankee style pale ales in Manchester around 20 years ago and I loved them, so I guess I would.

Tandleman said...

PS

"I think you are looking through the telescope and focusing in on the people who couldn't care less about the peripheral exploits of the more (r)evoltionary brewers."

Who are they then? I care and I suspect my readers care too, but it's all a matter to me of getting the right perspective when you talk as widely as "British brewing". That's my point here I think.

Mark said...

You and your readers care because we are all in the niche of people who care about beer that isn't just middle of the road stuff. I would guess there are more drinkers in Britain who only touch 3-5 different beers than those who want to try more, different beer.

Talking generally about British brewing is dangerous, I agree (and I take your point and appreciate them) as it's akin to saying British food is getting better when there is so much to take in to consideration. The difficulty is that I write from this 'beer lover' POV and I write for other beer lovers in the main (in the same way that some brewers focus their beers on craft beer fans and not the mass market). I'm not writing for the BBC.

Evolution in my response is more than just a natural thing and it's an industry who make things happen. Bottled beers and drinking at home is changing the scene for the niche beer market and I think this also needs to incorporate new ways of marketing and promoting breweries using the internet.

You may have been drinking hoppy beers 20 years ago but who else was? (I'm guessing you were in the beer drinking niche back then too...).

Those 20 year old beers sound fantastic, by the way!! Perhaps we should share one one day and discuss this some more ;)

Tandleman said...

Mark. Fair points and we aren't so far apart it seems. Hoppy beers aren't new - just ask Ron. Brendan is still involved in beer . He was a man with a cult following then. It wasn't just me ;-)

I'll save that bottle to taste with you. How's that?

Mark said...

Sounds good to me. I'll bring a super-fresh, ridiculously bitter uber-IPA to drink with it :)

Curmudgeon said...

Is there not the possibility of a dangerous gulf opening up here between the niche and the mainstream?

The fact that some people seem unconcerned by a massive decline in on-trade beer volumes and the closure of thousands of "fizz pubs" seems to support this.

John Clarke said...

Mark

Well Pictish might not have been brewing 10 years ago but it's a close run thing - the brewery was started in March 2000 - and yes the same beers made then are still produced now (Sooty kicked off with Brewers Gold and Pictish Porter, I seem to recall). As Tandleman has pointed out, Dobbin's West Coast Brewery was brewing mega-hoppy beers almost 20 years ago now (and using US hops) so there's nothing new there. Going back 30 years, Boddingtons Bitter in those days was a straw coloured, intensely bitter beer.

I think what may be evolving is the way beer is presented and marketed. But as far as the product goes not much has changed in the great scheme of things (part from aging stuff in this cask and that cask - I'll give you that).

Barm said...

There already is a massive gulf between the niche and the mainstream, and it's going to get wider whether we like it or not. As you point out yourself talking about the Long Tail. We are well on the way to having two separate beer markets in my view. For the time being they still share the same retail space, but increasingly it will not be unusual if they don't.

Tyson said...

"Think back 5 years - were you drinking the same beers in the same places as you are now (does it still taste the same?!)."

Is this like QI when Stphen Fry asks a question and when someone gives the obvious answer, the alarm goes off? Well the answers yes, anyway.

Jeffrey said...

Peter, I pretty much agree with what you're saying. I have no truck with this self-deceiving beer geek tendency - it's a bunch of people desperately trying to convince themselves that something inherently nerdish is cool, bouyed on my quantities of stupid-strength booze.

However, please don't use the term "new wave of younger bloggers". First off, I'm younger than almost all the other bloggers (Mark Dredge is the exception). Second, I've been doing it longer than any of you.

Curmudgeon said...

We are well on the way to having two separate beer markets in my view. For the time being they still share the same retail space, but increasingly it will not be unusual if they don't.

But I still want to be able to go into most pubs (except maybe in inner-city areas) and get a decent pint of cask beer. Cask beer remains a mainstream product and indeed seems to have become more so in the past couple of years. And can't the two co-exist in the same retail space?

Most of the Good Beer Guide entries from my local CAMRA branch are independent brewery tied houses, and they host pretty much all our formal meetings. I can't see us casting them adrift any day soon.

It always seems to me that mainstream vs niche (or good vs crap) is a continuum rather than a sharp divide anyway.

Tandleman said...

Jeffrey. You aren't new as you point out, therefore clearly not included in any "new wave of bloggers".* But I defend the term "younger bloggers", (not young) as it seemed to pretty well describe the movement that I was alluding to.

Of course I am happy now to make it clear that it didn't refer to you.

*As for being young, well, I think you are possibly on aspirational ground there nowadays. Tempus fugit and all that. ;-)

Southern Sam said...

I know it’s not the question being asked here, but do we want a revolution in brewing?

Well made beers at a drinkable ABV are what beer drinking in this country is all about. The Belgians do their thing (interesting and varied bottled beer in the main), the Germans do theirs (lagers and wheat beers in the main), and we do ours (well made top-fermented cask ales in the main).

There's plenty of room for variety between a stout and a golden ale too.

Tandleman said...

A good question SS and maybe a future blog subject?

Southern Sam said...

Well, I decided to set up my own blog and kick things off by asking this very question!

impymalting said...

In my lifetime beer in the US evolved radically. Perhaps I'm imposing this momentum here, to the UK beer scene, but I would like to see a wider range of beers available at the pubs I frequent, as well as glassware that would suit.

I am less interested as a drinker in session ales-- could generalize but then I would be thinking of other young American beer drinkers, as to be honest most of my British peers don't like ales, and I haven't been able to convert them using session bitters!

Anonymous said...

There are two seperate discussions to be had. Firstly the overall beer market and secondly the real ale market.

The former is chaging slowly. The latter is is moving quicky due to 2 influences.

Firstly there's been a massive outbreak of light hoppy bitters. Many 'real ale houses' now have 2 or 3 beers that aren't 'that' different.

Secondly the real ale market is in the grip of Ticker Mania ... most micro-breweries are having to produce more & more different brews .. as thats what the freehouses want

Gazza Prescott said...

"You may have been drinking hoppy beers 20 years ago but who else was?"

ME !!!!