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13-01-2014, 12:18
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1989. Thursday.

We gathered in the hall of residence common room after gobbling down dinner quicker than usual for our weekly sneer at Top of the Pops. What depths would the Stock Aitken and Waterman 'Hit Factory' have sunk to this week? Would its bland fare be distinguishable from last week, and every other week? Would there be any wavering from the template of happy synths peddled by the bland mainstream year in year out, lowest common denominator music that offended no one except those with good music taste like us?

Doubtful. We proto-Beavis and Buttheads would just have to make this week different from last week by upping the level of our competitive 'witticisms', annoying the rest of the room who didn't see anything wrong with what they were being spoon-fed.

And then this happened.

The most exciting band on the planet monkey-walked into your living room and said, "Nice, we'll take it."

In days when there was no internet or i-Tunes, when pop and rock musicians were never in the tabloids, when all you heard on TV and radio was safe top 40 hits and you had to seek out specific record shops to buy the music you liked and specific clubs to hear it in public, suddenly the Stone Roses were on Top of the Pops because they were in the charts.

It felt like a revolution was happening. I expected the Domestic Bursar to come in and confiscate the TV.

And while we were still reeling from that, a few minutes later this happened:

Now we were screaming and hollering. Cars were set alight in the street outside. Bros and Go West were strung up from lampposts. Dave Lee Travis was executed with a bullet to the temple while he knelt at the feet of Shaun William Ryder, who looked down and threatened to "Lie down beside yer and fill yer full o' JUNK." Or so it seemed for those glorious two and a half minutes as Kirsty MacColl, who everybody loved, played kingmaker, nailing her colours to the baggy mast.

We had won. We had taken over. So what if Fine Young Cannibals were on next? The indie kids had staged the most marvellous coup, and no-one - not even we indie kids ourselves - had seen it coming.

Afterwards, it was puzzling to feel somewhat deflated. Let down. To feel a sense of loss. Since I'd arrived at uni a few years before, wearing black overcoats and breton caps and listening to the Mighty Lemon Drops and the Bodines had been a lifestyle, an identity, a way of stating my opposition to the bland, bourgeois mediocrity, to the people who got drunk at university because that's what you were supposed to do at nineteen, and then got married and got jobs as accountants after graduation because that's what you were supposed to do at twenty-two.

So it was confusing, after the dozen or so indie kids at St Andrews Uni swapped our Joy Division overcoats for Stone Roses flares and hoodies, to see all the other kids - corduroy clad, U2-loving students and casual, wedge-cut townies - do the same. We could no longer tell who was in our tribe. And then our tribe didn't exist any more. We liked music that was in the charts, and lots of other people liked it too. That was surely a bad thing. And yet privately, it felt good.

The music and beer analogy. Works every time.

Just before Christmas, analysts Mintel released their latest report on the UK beer market, and it's all about craft beer (http://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/craft-beer-moving-into-the-uk-mainstream). I didn't have chance to write about it at the time, and you were probably too drunk to read it anyway, but it deserves some attention from everyone who thinks craft beer is something to be debated and argued over rather than simply drunk and enjoyed.

Mintel's research uncovered some interesting stats:

One in four British adults has drunk a craft beer at some time in the last six months - that's around 13 million people.
35% of all beer drinkers believe craft beer is worth paying more for, because they associate it with higher quality.
50% of beer drinkers expect that a craft beer will taste better than other beers.

Our collective failure to agree on a definition of craft beer doesn't seem to be doing craft beer any harm. But whatever that definition is, we probably can't hold on to ideas about size and scale of brewer for much longer. 40% of drinkers say they aren't sure what the term 'craft beer' actually means, and 45% of drinkers say they would find craft beers more appealing if they knew more about them, so there is a need for greater clarity. But at the same time, 40% of drinkers also say they would be keen to try a craft-style beer for a large brewer.

This is where we get back to Madchester taking over Top of the Pops, and I get to be a sensible middle-aged man again rather than an over-excitable music snob.

Bigger brewers are risk-averse and can never hope to have the same flexibility and intuitive approach to brewing that smaller brewers have. But big brewers can provide widespread training, information and education that drinkers are saying they want from craft beer.

Should craft stay small? Is it wrong that it's going mainstream? I'd be interested to hear from any craft brewers, as opposed to drinkers, who think their potential market should stay small and niche. Much as I loved the Mighty Lemon Drops and the Bodines at the time, they're probably driving cabs now. Ian Brown is a multi-millionaire.

Alan McLeod has been writing a lot recently about the problem of taking craft beer too seriously, culminating in a new ebook co-authored with Max Bahnson, The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Unbearable-Nonsense-Craft-Beer-Rant-ebook/dp/B00HS0H17A/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1389616034&sr=1-1&keywords=beer+alan+max). And while I fear Max and Alan may be in danger of taking 'not taking craft beer too seriously' too seriously, you should definitely give it a read.

We don't own craft beer any more than ten indie kids in St Andrews owned the Stone Roses. People want good beer, and they think that means craft beer, and I for one think that is the most exciting news I've heard in a long time.

But there's also a message here for the big brewers as they no doubt increase their forays into craft through 2014.

The amount of beer we drink overall is still decreasing. According to Mintel, 31% of beer drinkers claim to be drinking less than they did a year ago, versus just 13% drinking more. People are drinking less but better.

But better has to mean better.

There's a meltdown of old distinctions happening in the beer market: on the one hand, drinkers are increasingly happy to drink beers from brewers they are unfamiliar with - and this extends into lager and nitro-stout. In 2013 we saw many small and regional brewers launch their own "craft" lagers and Guinness clones, because many drinkers no longer need a multi-million pound ad campaign to tell them what to drink.

On the other hand, drinkers are perfectly happy to try a craft-y beer from a big brewer - so long as it is genuinely better than the mainstream.

As far as the drinker is concerned, big can do small and small can do big - just so long as you are true to what 'craft' promises. As Mintel's beer and cider guy and author of the report Chris Wisson says,
"Rather than focusing on size, craft should be more of an ethos which stands for high quality and artisan skill, giving the consumer a different drinking experience... as prices of many drinks continue to go up, many drinkers are looking for discernibly higher quality to justify the cost. Focusing on the quality of ingredients such as hops and the brewing process should help brands to convey their superior quality to beer drinkers."

But that means you actually have to use decent ingredients and processes in the first place, rather than just pretending.

As social media gives the public more of a voice than ever before, any brewer paying lip-service to craft and cynically exploiting it will be called out and ridiculed. With beer choice no longer determined solely by the size of the marketing budget, and more craft beers from smaller brewers on the bar, quality will out and sub-standard beer simply won't cut it, whoever it's brewed by.

Any big brewer who ignores craft beer in 2014 (laughably, I've heard some still privately dismissing craft beer as an East London fad) is an idiot. Anyone who does craft beer and executes it badly is a fool. And anyone who thinks that craft can and should remain the preserve of small, independent brewers and a tiny band of devoted aficionados is sadly misguided.

No doubt it's going to be a bumpy ride, and there are bound to be those on all sides who fly in the face of that last paragraph and prove me right. But I think that for anyone with an open mind, 2014 is going to be a great year for beer.

More... (http://petebrown.blogspot.com/2014/01/if-you-love-craft-beer-set-it-free.html)