I've been a bit busy lately with CAMRA stuff recently and not really been able to keep up with blogs as much as I'd like and consequently have neglected my own. A temporary stare of affairs. One bit though I read yesterday, made me sit up and take notice. I was going to go for an afternoon kip, so knackered am I after National Winter Ales Festival, but Zak Avery's post here got me thinking instead. It is about the decline in beer sales against a background of a rise in the number of brewers and itself follows on from points made here..
That bubble will bust many say and it no doubt will. At any rate it is hard to see anything other than a decline in the rate of increase. I kind of believe that far from the smoking ban which saw a load of (mainly) older drinkers decide not to drink in pubs, there is wider societal change that means the number, type and quality of pubs will change. The anti alcohol brigade, through lies and distortions, have managed to scare off many from pub going, the pub companies have driven many pubs into the ground, the quality and business nous of many a landlord is clearly questionable and the days of a pub on every corner, while not entirely gone, are in decline. As working class areas change their populations, many have seen their pubs die as well. Unemployment, high prices, poor facilities, rotten welcomes, generational indifference to the pub as a social outlet and much more have changed the pub from the "must go to" haven it used to be, to an occasional treat, or even an imposition. For many young people the constant need to produce ID has driven the under age out of pubs and social interaction can easily be achieved electronically. I dare say too these days, there is much more chance of other more enticing horizontal delights too.
So why go to the pub? Remaining bottom end pubs are no go areas, road house pubs have either gone or become family oriented eateries, estate pubs have closed, slowly, one after the other as drinkers can drink and smoke cheaply at home, town centre pubs can be hell holes at weekends (or magnets for a certain kind of young drinker) and deserted during the week. Good honest locals are struggling too. My observation too is that many young drinkers that do find their way to the boozer, aren't drinking that much by way of beer, but ready mixes, exotic ciders and gaudily coloured spirits with Red Bull. A grim picture in some ways, but the young won't stay young forever and they will change. Predicting how might be worthwhile.
But what of these brewers? Still coming out of the woodwork and despite the occasional failure, still doing reasonably well overall, as pubs become more open to them through being re-opened or re-invented as free houses, ties being loosened and wise entrepreneurs seeing gaps in the market. In addition - and these are very prevalent in Manchester - there is the cafe bar which will likely sell bistro style food, and a mixture of craft and cask beer. Craft beer bars are booming as operators see that in any bad situation, there are still people with money to spend, that want something that bit different. By operators, I mean both those that make beer and those that retail it. Brewers with tied houses are increasingly turning to food as the answer and for some it will be, but it still leaves a lot of pubs with a need to change their game. The world of beer is changing and if those that sell beer, pubs and brewers, don't find a niche, be that craft, cafe, alehouse, circuit pub, family pub or whatever, they are doomed. And they better get a move on. The big brewers see that as an attractive and fertile piece of the action too, particularly Molson-Coors. I also see the market as being more segmented than it ever was. The old days of the pub being that easy social mix of all types, is in most cases, a thing of the past.
The market is in some places at least, adapting to changed social conditions and those pubs
and businesses and, yes, brewers, that are wily enough to see niches and
gaps will do well. Pubs have always adapted or died and what is happening isn't really new, though some would argue the scale is different. Brewers have to change too. While there may still be scope for more tie loosening and therefore more opportunities for brewers, the need to be different is just as strong here. It is no longer good enough to churn out a bog standard, bitter and golden ale. More is needed and increasingly this "more" will be filled by smart brewers catching the mood of the moment, be that craft keg, cloudy beer, Imperial this or that, or whatever. I for one, as an aside, am gratified to see how many brewers see the possibilities in good British brewed lager, but that's a separate post coming soon.
Above all, quality is the key. Prices are high and while at one end (the cheap end) consistency is expected, above all, beer has to be of great quality, served in top condition in places where clearly you are valued as a customer. Many pubs and brewers are still failing that test.
I fear for them, but not for the pub as a whole. There will be less of them, (and probably less brewers too) but they'll be of better quality. Good pubs will survive and do well as they always have. They'll see me out for sure. There is also an attractive argument that declining large brewer volumes paint a distorted picture of the brewing scene today.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink.
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