Last week’s debate on the opening night of #imbc16 got me thinking (mainly because the ‘debate’ didn’t allow for enough time for some considered discussion).
In case you missed who was on the panel, here it is:
- Paul Jones, Co-founder of Cloudwater Brew Co
- Ian Garrett, GBBF Bières Sans Frontières organiser, long-time CAMRA activist
- Matthew Curtis, beer blogger for Total Ales and Good Beer Hunting
- Sue Hayward, owner of the recently shut Waen Brewery (here are Sue’s thoughts on the debate)
- Jenn Merrick, head brewer, Beavertown (cut her brewing chops at York and DarkStar)
- and myself, involved in IMBC since 2012, and other beery shenanigans
Our compere for the evening was Matthew Gorecki, former lothario of North Bar, now a consultant to the beer world, including IMBC and Marble Brewery, Manchester, as well as founder of Leeds Beer Week and Zapato Brewery. I should add here that I’m working based on my memory, and that I had a few tasty beverages beforehand…
Still ‘Crafting’ after all these years
Harkening back to the debate that was held at the first IMBC in 2012, Matt G opened a can of worms straight away: a definition of ‘craft’ beer in the UK. If memory serves correctly, only Matt Curtis was adamant that we need such a definition and an organisation such as the Brewers Association in the US — essentially, an effective lobbying group (which conveniently moves the goal posts of what a craft brewer is once in a while, when Boston Beer Company has hit the next milestone of millions of barrels.) I’m with Paul here, the UK has to find its unique way of moving micro or medium-sized brewing or non-macro brewing, if you prefer, forward. SIBA may be trying to do some of this, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly effective (yet).
Craft has already well and truly jumped the shark in this country. Examples are easy to come by, for instance, the Manchester Food and Drink Festival with an award for ‘Craft Ale Bar of the Year’ — fine, you want to come up with more awards for local businesses, I’m all for it, but don’t call it ‘Craft.’ Much like any other establishment, bars that happen to stock non-macro beer are choosing to do so for many reasons, maybe because it is cool, maybe because it is popular at the moment or maybe because they want to sell what they want to drink. Whilst CAMRA recently accepted Moor’s cans as ‘real ale’, it seems to me that that sort of accreditation is least of the industry’s worries. But I digress.
Regional and family brewers up and down the country have picked up on the term, either by setting up a ‘craft’ line of beers (see Marston’s Revisionist line of beers or Brains Craft Brewery, for example) so let’s face it, it’s marketing speak, no more no less.
The Cask Market
Now this one is yet another major can of worms, and we didn’t get to really get to the nub of it, apart from the fact that £50 cask offers are unsustainable. From what I understand, AWRS is meant to help with this, i.e., more of a paper trail, but I have heard of a certain brewery in the Manchester area that will offer the sale of six casks, seventh free… How to compete with that?
The problems with cask abound, the market is saturated, the quality is debatable, and pubs, let’s face it, for the most part, really do not know or care how to handle cask. Perhaps with the exception of tied houses, and maybe Wetherspoons, but certainly not the majority of ‘modern’ beer bars (in my experience). If it doesn’t drop bright quickly, it’s not going to be seen on the bar again. Nobody wants to give beers like Landlord the 5 days secondary fermentation in cask it requires, except Timmy Taylor pubs. (And even in TT pub I have had some underwhelming Landlord, sadly. Perhaps line clean is in short supply?)
Beers go on green all the time. Given two days in the cellar, tops. Conditioning in the pub? I’m going to put it out there: doesn’t happen anymore, at least not in bars and ‘craft’ establishments. There is too little training of staff in the proper treatment of cask beer. Maybe the staff aren’t interested in learning? Cuts both ways I suppose, but training is necessary. Cask ought be a a premium product, but it isn’t. The pressure on brewers not to tip a batch down the drain is huge. I know some brewers who have done it, despite riding perilously close to the edge financially — but one bad batch could ruin a carefully built up reputation. What’s worse, tipping beer down the drain or compromising on quality?
Rob Percival from Lallemand asked whether Sue thought if duty relief was potentially used to sell casks more cheaply, instead of reinvesting in the businesses. Seems fairly likely, although perhaps some of the duty relief is just used to pay off debts… Jenn reckoned this could very well be the case, given her experience at York Brewery.
‘What do I spend on marketing? Zero.’
I’m quoting Paul here, after both Sue and Gazza from Hopcraft had a bit of a go at Cloudwater, for lack of a better word. But as he said, he’s a consumer first and foremost, and what Paul does with the Cloudwater Twitter feed and blog is to give the customer what he or she wants, which is, in many cases, simply information. Which hops, and when? What yeast? What is the thought process behind this release? It should not come as a surprise that people willing to spend a good amount of their disposable income on non-macro beer would like to know the backstory. The same goes for the cheese, meat, fish, vegetables, and coffee they buy.
The gist of Gazza and Sue’s argument seemed to be: we can’t sell our beer because of Cloudwater. Can it be that simple? Maybe, just maybe, Cloudwater are giving the market what it wants? The beers sell easily? The plethora of styles give the customer a lot of choice? The reality is that, according to The Telegraph, half of start ups fail within five years of inception. Cash flow issues are a huge part of this, with businesses routinely not paying each other way beyond the 30 day payment terms that are typical. A vicious cycle ensues.
I suspect the reasons for some brands selling and others not lie elsewhere. The market of non-tied bars and pubs is still very small indeed. As we now have 1,700 breweries in the UK, more competition fighting for fewer tap spaces — Sue owns a bar in Cardiff, Paul’s brewery tap and now the Pilcrow (co-owned with Jonny Heyes of Common, Port Street, The Beagle, and IMBC) points to a brewery and tap model that has been on the rise of late (see Magic Rock, Mallinsons, BlackJack, Moor, BBNo, Redchurch, Buxton, Hawkshead, Northern Monk, Marble, North, Beavertown, Wylam to name only a few).
It makes complete sense. If the beer (or a beer) is sub-par at the brewery-owned tap, well then maybe it’s time to review the brewery QC processes more rigorously rather than ‘just’ to blame the bars or distribution chain (though I do think the distribution chain is another can of worms that I may open at another time).
Bars and pubs aren’t daft. They want to get in products that sell. And sell quickly. Sitting on stock is a dangerous game, not to mention expensive.
Where do we go from here?
Again, we had little time to discuss this at all, my point with mentioning Wetherspoons was merely to suggest that importing cans from Sixpoint and selling them at a ridiculous price point may well get more people interested in non-macro beer. (Full disclosure: Given Tim Martin’s support of the Leave Campaign, I personally have no desire to give him or his establishments anymore of my money. But that’s my choice, I’m not going to judge others on grabbing a can of Resin.) Matt Curtis also raised concerns over US breweries dumping excess stock in the UK; namely Point and other brands brought in by ABInbev (i.e., Goose Island and Blue Point Brewing).
Undoubtedly, the UK beer scene has changed dramatically since the first IMBC in 2012. Whether or not the ever-growing number of breweries is sustainable remains to be seen. Personally, I would like to see a shift towards quality and consistency, not novelty for the sake of novelty. And finally, non-macro breweries retain a small fraction of the market, so putting any energy into infighting is counter-productive.
Time constraints prevented us from speaking about sexism in the beer industry… now that would’ve been a quiet and considered debate, for sure (sarcasm alert!)
If you attended the debate, I’d love to hear your thoughts — perhaps my fellow panelists will chime in, too, as my recollections are surely a bit patchy…
Thanks for reading.