Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Too Many (Duff) Brewers?

I was reading the comments on Dave Bailey's blog about beer duty and one comment by Dave himself said "There is an argument that says there are too many very small brewers who aren't very good." Curmudgeon replied "that's because of the smoking ban". No he didn't actually, but what he did say was this: "Yes, while it has helped good brewers, it has also brought too many half-arsed brewers into the industry" Stringer's Beer sharply retorted "These half-arsed brewers pointed up by Curmudgeon - who's buying (and drinking) their beer? Would that be half-arsed publicans and their half-arsed customers?"

Now when we welcomed the explosion of micro brewers brought about by Progressive Beer Duty (PBD), did we imagine we'd end up with so many?  Did we imagine them all to be good? Is it though just PBD that has caused this, or is it the loosening of the tie that we have also seen, leading to an increase of outlets than can take a wider variety of beer? Is  the (apparent) view of free houses that you always need to have new beers on the bar a contributing factor and that some breweries,that many of us could name, exist solely it seems on the basis that they can get their beer in a pub, irrespective of quality, as long as it is cheap enough? For most small brewers - and I talk to quite a few of them - it is a dog eat dog situation of continual phoning of pubs, pleading with them to take beer, always at a discount.  There is probably getting to be as many breweries now as the market will absorb - at least until the tie loosens further and tied house beer lists expand.

Of course the other side of the coin is that there are small breweries making excellent beer that do not have to discount to a great extent, as their reputation is such that they can sell what they produce. Here we are talking the Dark Stars and Pictishes of this world, but for many it is a relentless slog of seeking customers against fellow strugglers trying to do the same.

Are there half arsed breweries about? Of course there are.  Why don't they go bust?  Probably because they sell their beer so cheaply, to the same "half-arsed publicans and their half-arsed customers" that buy and drink down to a price.

Dedicated pub goers like me and say, Tyson, have a list of breweries in our heads that screams "Avoid" when we see them. It isn't a small list.


Unknown said...

I think there are too many breweries, but then I would say that, wouldn't I?

I think there is a tendency for the price thing to drive down quality. But then, what is considered good and what is considered bad does differ from drinker to drinker.

I think you ask some very valid questions. Is more better or would it be beneficial to concentrate more on improving standards?

You and I might have different views on how improvements might be made, but we certainly don't disagree on the simple fact that it would be nice to make improvements.

Tandleman said...

We do actually tend to agree on ends as you know. I think sometimes our fellow bloggers and tweeters don't actually try and analyse the great industry that beer is, what makes it tick and how it can be improved or advanced.

Many just think of what their next fancy beer will be without wondering about the bigger picture.

I also firmly believe that standards should be improved. For instance my mate Mike read over ten pages of his book yesterday while I waited to be served in a quiet pub. WTF?

Denzil said...

Clearly the answer is to nationalise all the small brewers and then the best ones can be chosen by a comittee of beer bloggers and the remainder closed down.

Mark Dredge said...

There are many different issues here...

PBD is good for new breweries. If that brewery is good and they have big plans then they'll soon pass the 5,000HL mark - DarkStar, Thornbridge, BrewDog have all passed it recently and I bet someone like Magic Rock will get there sooner than they expected. At this point PBD is a bitch - duty goes up but the brewery can't push this onto the pubs.

One trouble with lots of breweries is quality. I want to try beer from every beer in the UK out of curiosity but in reality how many breweries make beer that I actively seek out or look forward to drinking? Not many.

With so many breweries out there and so much beer, the costs of cask beer are being pushed very low. If brewers are pleading with pubs to take beer then they are buying for price and not taste and that is not a good thing. Would I rather spend £2.50 on a crap pint or £3.50 on a good one?

With so much beer available, pubs can be pickier with the beers they put on the bar. The good breweries who make good beer will always be ok.

chriso said...

The problem with focusing on quality is, of course, that quality is in the eye of the beholder. There are many brewers out there that largely make beer that I consider rather dull. There are few brewers, even my favourites, from whom I've not had a beer that I considered sub-par for some reason or another. I might be prepared to shell out extra cash for beers that I consider to be higher quality (or interesting, innovative, or whatever) but there are a lot of drinkers who aren't. For many reasons, there are (and always will be) legions of drinkers who do drink to a price point and are quite content with dull beers of indifferent quality (in my eyes of course) provided the price is right. And there will always be brewers who are content to eke out a living by catering to that market. If the argument is that those brewers should be discouraged and removing PBD is the way to do it, I can't see it gaining widespread support.

Owen said...

I've been meaning to write a blog on this subject for a while, and I might still, centred around Sturgeon's Revelation and its relationship to beer and brewing.

Tandleman said...

Denzil. You are RedNev aren't you?

Mark. You are right. Good breweries will always survive and like you I'd happily pay a bit more for guaranteed quality, but one issue is pubs buying down to a price. Sometimes the customers getting some benefit and sometimes not.

ChrisO. Instinct says PBD is good as it let's a 1000 flowers bloom, but there is a flip side.

Owen. I assume you don't mean the Scottish Deputy First Minister?

Phil said...

The story goes that Theodore Sturgeon was wondering why 95% of science fiction was crap, when he suddenly realised - 95% of everything is crap.

I'm intrigued by your extensive list of 'avoid-me' brewers - I've done a reasonable amount of sampling of brewers I'd never heard of (Spoons tokens have that effect) and I've got a list of one.

Mind you, I have to admit that there is such a thing as a not terribly exciting brown bitter, and there are small brewers out there making little else. At the SIBA beer fest a couple of months back I was quite taken aback by the range of not-quite-interchangeable beers being dispensed from pumps with very-nearly-interchangeable pump clips; after a while I gave up looking for an IPA or a strong mild, and just looked for a san serif font.

StringersBeer said...
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StringersBeer said...
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Tyson said...


Only a list of one? You must try harder:) We're not just talking about what would be regarded as simply "dull", but actually poor.

Independently, over the years, TM and me have come across the same brewers producing beers that are consistantly full of basic brewing faults. Obviously they are a minority, but there are several of them.


Sadly, price does not always equate to quality. There is a local freehouse that isn't particularly cheap but mostly stocks the same bottom end of micro brewers.

Curmudgeon said...

A rather cheap shot unbecoming of you in that posting :p

I'm not including brewers such as Coach House who just produce consistently dull beers. Since they've been going for about 20 years they must be doing something right.

But might it be the case that the bottom-end brewers are largely selling to beer festivals and to free houses catering for tickers, rather than getting regular accounts in local pubs?

Phil said...

brewers such as Coach House who just produce consistently dull beers

It's ESP, I'm telling you.

Neville Grundy said...

Denzil is not me - or should that be I ...?

Kristy said...

I think one challenge is there are people that put more value on the "new" rather than the good. I understand Mark's curiosity to want to try all breweries but the good breweries will never survive if people don't appreciate the art of brewing a great beer and buy a second / third pint rather than constantly moving on to the next new one.

The grass is not always greener and freehouses consistently serving great beer well will always make more than those buying promiscuously and cheap.

The real shame is that there are some superb small breweries out there that will struggle to survive because the market is at saturation not because of their brewing ability.

That said I blame the smoking ban.

John Clarke said...

Mudgie - your reputation clearly precedes you. Perhaps a warning that you might occasionally stray into beyond parody territory?

Martyn Cornell said...

As I began to read this I thought: "Sturgeon's Law", and I was pleased to see two other people has the same idea. It can be argued that the best breweries in the UK have never been better, in our history, in terms of range, innovation and quality, but the corollary to Sturgeon's Law states that if you've got a large number of good ones, you inevitaby have to have a larger number of crap ones as well.

Tandleman said...

Mudgie. Just a little light relief and gentle joshing that's all.

Nev. As above.

Saga Of Nails said...

Doombar. Million damn pints of the crap sold every week.

StringersBeer said...

Most beer is good beer. A lot of it is perhaps unchallenging (but that's a good thing for a lot of people), even if the crafterati dismiss it as dull.
Some of it's great. Some of it's hyped to heck. And a small proportion of what I see is crap.

PBD has encouraged small breweries to start up and in some cases to grow. It's given us more choice & diversity. That's what it was for - and, broadly, it's worked well.

We need to be wary of bloated former beneficiaries of PBD trying to pull the ladder up after them. That would be a bad thing.

Rob Sterowski said...

I can think of at least a couple of breweries locally that are known for being very cheap, to the extent that they are constantly on sale in certain pubs and making it hard for breweries that I consider better to get a look in. I don't think their beer is interesting, but I wouldn't say it was bad. I just wonder how they manage to do it for the amount of money they're getting per cask.

StringersBeer said...

@Barm Yep, there's a fair bit of that about. How does it work? In some cases I suspect it's simply beggar-thy-neighbour. The winner is the one who can trade at a loss longest. In other cases the brewer may have close ties with another (local) beverage business e.g. a distributor, who can make profit on the cheap beer.

Because access to this market is strictly limited, getting your beer on the bar is a double win: You are on the bar and someone else isn't, hence you make it more likely that they won't be trading in a couple of years. Small present profit for the discounter is an investment in future sales.

Of course, if there are going to be lots of new entrants to the market, these approaches aren't necessarily going to work well, because those future competitors haven't been eliminated yet (although the market is made more difficult for them).

Locally, we've seen breweries using these strategies. Some have failed (I guess their pockets weren't deep enough after all) some are doing it as part of their start-up with (I'm guessing) subsidy from their parent businesses, and some seem to be doing it as part of expansion plans. They're mostly marked by their uninteresting but not bad beers. Like they say: It's business, [insert pejorative].

Anonymous said...


Great piece! I can't agree more as a brewer who refuses to discount and does sell on quality (we are making a profit and have a growing number of permanent taps and you wont see our beer in wetherspoons or in the hands of a distributer), it is incredibly depresessing to walk into pubs that won't buy our beer at our prices and see crap beer from newly opened hobby breweries selling at rock bottom prices ... the punters still buy it and the publicans dont care as long as they can buy it cheap.

These small guys dont have the overheads of staff and premises that we do and they have a real job or second income to subsidise the brewery with ; as long they break even they are happy.

If we have to lay off any of our staff this year - whilst these hobbyists proclaim how well their crappy weekend beer is doing to break even - there will be tears!

Also the reason most small breweries brew boring 'brown ale' is that its really difficult to sell strong beer to many pubs - their punters drink less strong beer than weak beer and so spend less! Also many pubs are afraid to try something new. Not too bad for a very small brewery whose full size brew might run to 15 casks - but for a slightly larger brewery - shifting 50 casks of a 6.5% dark beer before they expire is more painful than having your toenails plucked out.
Keep up the good work.

StringersBeer said...

Me again... but following on from @anon. Most of the aggressive discounting and related practices we see around us are not from the smallest breweries. Neither is it behaviour confined to what @anon characterises as "hobby" breweries, which, incidentally, aren't always the smallest ones.

Phil said...


Most beer is good beer. A lot of it is perhaps unchallenging (but that's a good thing for a lot of people), even if the crafterati dismiss it as dull.
Some of it's great. Some of it's hyped to heck. And a small proportion of what I see is crap.

If this was a bit shorter I'd have it tattooed.

wee beefy said...

I was pleased to note that most of the comments reflected my own beer experiences. Stringersbeer's tattoo contender summary seems to be exactly what I find week in week out.

Here in sunny South Yorkshire, we have the full gamut of brewery types - brewpubs, brewers who discount heavily, small and mid sized brewers with pubs, as well as oft seen oft dissapointing national brewers.

You'd think that would mean beer manna, but strangely, despite having about 40 pubs selling a large range of real ales and keykegs in my native Sheffield, I can't say I could be guaranteed to find an excellent beer in any of them.

This is maybe because the discounters flood the market as Barm notes (and usually with samey beers), and the other players change their range too frequently to allow a second taste of a beer I have enjoyed. So despite Sheffield's beer choice being matchless, the best beer I drank all year was Bass from the jug in the Station Inn in Derby.

The above therefore does show the flipside of PBD's influence on the brewing market. Yet despite this, new breweries such as Kirkstall, Blue Bee and Magic Rock still start up and produce excellent quality beers - so the flipside is a small price to pay.

Northcote Brewery said...

Interesting post. A couple of thoughts on pricing etc...

PBD... while this really helps small breweries get off the ground, they really don't have the benefits of economy of scale that larger breweries do. For example, we can't produce cask for the same price as the larger breweries here, but are expected to sell at the same price, PBD doesn't cut into that nearly half as much as the larger breweries might have you believe.

For breweries that do offer discount, the larger ones can discount more heavily and aggressively, again due to the economy of scale.

Not all small breweries are 'hobby' breweries and they feel the pinch just as much. So they don't have as many staff, but that also means they don't have a sales person, or delivery driver, they have to do it all by themselves. They can't lay someone off to reduce overheads, they have to close.

It's a really tough environment out there at the moment, for everyone big or small. Don't blame the small guys for swamping the market, just as we try not to blame the bigger ones for the culture of heavy discounting.

There are lots of different kinds of drinkers out there, some people are more than happy to have a pint of bitter or two, and wouldn't touch anything else as that's what they always have. Some are always on the look out for something new. There's a reason why the majority (ok not all) breweries have a 'standard' session bitter in their range - it sells. Call it boring, but some people like a 'standard' drink.

Believe me, I'd love to make nothing but my favourite beers, but the market demands otherwise. Certainly here for sure.

Those who thought 2011 were difficult, watch out, 2012 is going to be far worse I fear. It's not going to be just the bad, boring, hobbyists or inconsistent breweries that will go to the wall. Plenty of good ones will too. And that is a far more depressing thought than any.

Festa said...

There is probably an unforeseen sustainability benefit with the PBD. By staying small local brewers can just concentrate on supplying a small local area with massive savings in costs without affecting beer quality. Then as we the drinkers travel around the country we can drink different beers that haven't been available in our local pubs. Better all round I say! As a beer buyer for a small village club, up to 5 x 9 Galls per week. I always tend to buy local beers for that reason

Anonymous said...

When will you or Tyson be revealing you list of breweries too avoid?
Or will you be hiding behind the bar?

Tandleman said...

Anon: Like you are hiding here you mean. Twat.