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22-06-2015, 09:19
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When we’re asked what we want from British beer culture we tend to say ‘Variety,’ but what exactly does that mean? The story of*Brew Britannia is arguably that of the journey — dare we say of progress? — from homogeneity to variety. A*Which? magazine*article*from April 1972 sums up where thing were at back then:
Our tasters thought none smelt very strongly in the glass — none were either unpleasant or very pleasant… As far as taste went, the overwhelming impression of our tasters was that none of the keg beers had an very characteristic taste… We can see little reason for preferring one keg bitter to another…
But 43 years on, it’s not unusual to hear even hardened beer geeks emit the occasional whine about the ‘agony of choice’ (http://boakandbailey.com/2012/04/the-agony-of-choice/).
http://boakandbailey.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/choice-300x192.jpg“He who has choice is tormented.” Have we, perhaps, ended up the wrong*kind of variety or, worse, the mere appearance of variety?*In a recent blog post, Matthew Lawrenson described one reason people might visit*specialist craft beer bars:
Here, you are virtually guaranteed to see something different on every visit. *There will always be a beer you’ve never seen from a brewery you’ve never heard of. Even if their ultra-hopped Keg IPAs taste alarmingly similar to each other, it’ll be ‘different’.
Mr Lawrenson’s view of things tends to the cynical and we might*argue that, to the really devoted hop-head, tuned into the world of IPAs and able (or claiming to be able…) to pick out specific varieties, those ‘alarmingly similar’ beers probably taste quite different — subtle differences are still differences. But, still, he may have a point — if to less obsessive people it seems that ‘They all taste the same!’ that would suggest we’re not so far from 1972 after all.
What other approaches to variety are there?
Meantime’s Alastair Hook has always been clear about what he believes British beer lacks, or was lacking: a range of*styles. When he started brewing in the 1990s it was hard to find anything other than bitter or lager on draught. He and Mark Dorber were part of a generation that sought to revive old-style IPA, porter and old ale, and to introduce styles from abroad — wheat beer, dark lager,*fruit beers.
If the 1970s were the era of the Big Six, this is the age of the Little Multitude — there are currently something c.1300 breweries operating in the UK, most pretty small. A variety of producers*can lead to greater choice*at the taps but only if each brewery really tries to do something different and embraces its own quirks. If, however, they’re all inspired by the same superstar beers, all use the same or similar yeasts, and the same or similar hops from*the same fields via the same UK suppliers, the sense of difference*might well end up being rather superficial. As we’ve put it in the past, true variety means the existence of beers not everyone will want to drink, and that not everyone will like.
As for big businesses, they tend to prefer*brand diversity — it suits them to offer a range of essentially similar beers with different graphic design and stories representing the values of various ‘market segments’. (The Belgian lager for sophisticates, the Australian lager for lads, and so on.) Richard Morrice is a veteran industry PR man who has specialised in working with supermarkets and, when we interviewed him in 2013, he recalled the appeal of ‘premium bottled ales’ (our emphasis):
They offer the appearance of choice, at low risk, and, actually, with pretty good margins. As with food, customers started to demand more choice in the nineties.*No-one wants to feel like they’re living in Soviet Russia.
And this seems to be carrying through into their attempts to get a slice of the ‘craft beer’ pie.
For us, at any rate, a choice of three or four decent examples of different styles, at different strengths, is generally variety enough. Anything beyond that is a bonus.
What Do We Mean by ‘Variety’? (http://boakandbailey.com/2015/06/what-do-we-mean-by-variety/) from Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog - Over-thinking beer, pubs and the meaning of craft since 2007 (http://boakandbailey.com)

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