Wednesday, 30 November 2011

To Swig or not Swig. That is the Question


I read a lot about the beer revolution that is sweeping through a (relatively small) number of beery establishments and its small but growing band of devotees and noting what Zak Avery says here, offer a few observations.

It seems to me, irrespective of a sterile and futile keg versus cask debate, that the main dichotomy in beer drinking is coming from the increasing divide between those that like to, for want of a better term, neck a few, and those that want to have something stronger and more complex (harder to drink) in much smaller measures. The other great divide that is emerging is that between the younger more experimental type of beer drinker and those more traditional types that drink mostly cask beer in volume. I am ignoring for the purposes of this argument, the vast majority of beer drinkers that do neither, preferring their tipple to be Carling, John Smith's or whatever. (It is instructive sometimes to remember that whatever we imagine about the beer scene, most people neither drink cask nor craft keg, so in one sense, whatever camp you mainly fall in, the so called discerning beer market, whether craft keg or cask, has more in common than we sometimes recognise.)

While stereotyping is lazy, in some ways it does serve a purpose when identifying trends. When I visit places like Craft or the Port Street Beer House (less so) , I'm concious of the fact that I am one of the oldest there. It doesn't mean that people like me don't drink beer any more, but they don't necessarily drink it in the same places as the new emerging beer enthusiast  that prefers to pay top dollar for something either exotic, from afar, or both.  There is also undoubtedly a snobbish element about this too. Just look at Twitter to see what such people are drinking. They boast about beers I have never heard of, not so much to tell you how wonderful they are, but how unusual they are.  And often, how strong they are.

Zak mentions the growth in this niche market in his blog - and he is right. It does have some legs yet, but I doubt if it will take over the British beer drinking scene to any great extent, though grow it will.  London will set this trend.  It has been the sleeping giant for far too long and now awakened, there is plenty room to both catch up and exploit a still affluent market further.  Other beer drinking cities will follow to a lesser extent. Further from the capital though,  there is only so much money to go round and those willing to pay nine pounds a pint, or whatever, are limited in number and will further be weakened as economic gloom continues. To that extent, going back to Zak's title, the revolution can indeed be economised.

There is of course an up side.  These new drinkers and new beers and brewers bring a vibrancy and enthusiasm which should be welcomed, but as the exotic beers get ever more expensive, most of them will inevitably be drunk at home too.  Zak and other retailers are already exploiting this demand, but all home drinking has a knock on effect on pub and bar drinking. It could not be otherwise.

I assume the reason for the expensiveness of such beer is initial cost, rarity, mark up and the need to keep a lot of relatively low turnover stock on hand to satisfy choice. Cask beer, with its limited shelf life is more immediate and is consumed quickly and with gusto.  Those that do best mix and match the two.  I have long thought that without CAMRA there would be no "craft" and now I imagine the volume drinking cask drinker plays a large part in the mixed economy of the pubs I mention.  Maybe we need each other a bit more than you'd think?  That's something BrewDog may find out when they open in England. It is all very well selling exclusively keg beer in their Scottish bars. Scotland to all intents and purposes is a keg bastion. Will that work just as well in England? We'll see.

As I said, these are just observations.  I am delighted to see such interest in beer generally, despite reservations about emerging snobbery.  (Of course the same charge can equally be levelled at some cask drinkers too.)  I would also guess that most of us reading this are pretty well attuned to drinking in volume sometimes, but sipping at others. There is no conclusion to offer you, except perhaps that whatever and wherever we drink,  we should remember that beer might well be the best long drink in the world, but at the end of the day it is is just malt, hops, yeast and water.  Sometimes these simple ingredients are in perfect juxtaposition and often they are not.  Drinking expensively does not guarantee drinking well - price does not necessarily equate to quality.  Sellers should also be aware that beer doesn't have an intrinsic value that can only go up, like gold in a depression. (To go back to why you pay much more for craft beer things, I leave you with a quote from the Economist.  " By selling more profitable “craft premium” beers, in the marketing lingo, they can thrive where other pubs have failed. As always - follow the money."  Of course cask beer, the volume drink in these places, is also expensive.

In the end, maybe the one rubs off the other, enabling both to have a place in these new beer bars and a new generation of open minded beer drinkers would be a good thing,  but new drinkers,  like traditional ones, should avoid painting themselves into a corner.


This piece draws on the Economist article that Zak mentions. I won't mention his photo, except for one thing.  Anyone watch Emmerdale?

18 comments:

The Beer Nut said...

In Emmerdale do they leave their hats on indoors too? Poor research, if so...

Tandleman said...

In the case of Zak's namesake, Mr Dingle, the answer is yes.

Tandleman said...

I should have added "and doppelganger."

Pivní Filosof said...

Not unlike what's happening here, classic hospody offering at most two or three beers from the same brand/group and the rotating/multi tap ones that seem to be popping everywhere (with the brewpubs somewhere in between). The only difference I can see is that here, even at the most progressive pubs, the classic styles still outsell the newer things (that don't do bad at all). Prices are another thing, too, in the new breed of pubs a pale lager won't cost you more than a Pilsner Urquell or a Budvar.

Alan said...

Your comment about expense is not clear to me. Isn't an evening out drinking cask in volume comparable to one sipping the stronger experimental stuff? With our minimum pricing here in Canada, I don't think we focus on the per glass cost so much culturally. It does level the field a bit making it not about "I wouldn't pay that much" for either cask or craft when you are shoving something with more flavour towards a pal that only drinks macro gak. With cost difference negated and cost per might being the main factor cask and craft look very much like siblings.

Ghost Drinker said...

Your quick to point out the drinkers who drink neither cask or keg, but are you not more open to the fact that there's loads of people out there who love both? I love all the new 'crafty craft' keg beers and bottled rarities (and yes we like to show them off on twitter - that's what it's for) but there's also nothing better than getting a pint of Landlord in my local down the road.

Erlangernick said...

"[beer] is just malt, hops, yeast and water."

It's a fuck-off lot of work too! And love.

Erlangernick said...

Ghost Drinker

"...but there's also nothing better than getting a pint of Landlord..."

I can think of lots of pints that are much better than Landlord.

Erlangernick said...

Forgot to note...BrewDog have *NO* cask beer at their pubs? Fuck that.

Tandleman said...

Ghostie - Have a look at para 6.

Alan - You may have a point, but the difference is and isn't such that the one equals the other. In other words some craft is more expensive and some is a lot more.

Nick. The pint about love, toil, blood, sweat and tears is all well and good, but it guarantees nothing.

Tandleman said...

HA. Freudian slip. That should have read "point".

Birkonian said...

the main thing is the class/snob element to the new keg and craft beers. Things have turned full circle. In the late 60s/early 70s cask beer was the drink of the masses. Tankard/Tavern etc. was drunk by the middle classes from a handle glass. Cask has gradually become a favourite of the chattering classes but the new wave of craft beers have cranked things up a notch. It is now a status symbol to pay over the odds for a bottle of obscure US/Norwegian/Italian beer and then blog/tweet about it (like us). I don't see craft catching on in the rougher areas of Birkenhead.

Erlangernick said...

Nick. The pint about love, toil, blood, sweat and tears is all well and good, but it guarantees nothing.

Well *my* beer is a labour of love, anyway, to the tune of 5-6 hours per 25 litre batch. And it guarantees us at least one thing: something quenching and hoppy!

Tandleman said...

But many commercial brewers clearly aren't as good as you. ;-)

RedNev said...

If this beer revolution was taking place in Leningrad (metaphorically spealing), I must be in Vladivostok. Where it it? Nowhere to be seen, and I do go to a fair number of pubs. It's all a fuss in a 1/3 pint pot.

Bailey said...

Very interesting and sufficiently thought-provoking to prompt a post over at our gaff. Snobbery is *not* where we want to be going.

Bailey said...

Oops. And I meant to provide a link.

Mark, Real-Ale-Reviews.com said...

Let's be honest, the beer geeks neck there beers as much as any other drinker. Do you really believe the smaller measure longer enjoyment argument? Yes, in instances (an imperial stout nightcap) but beer enthusiasts sup just as fast in my experience.