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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Monday, 14 December 2015

I just realised how the debate about craft beer is changing

Last week, my latest column for the Publican's Morning Advertiser focused on the response to craft beer by the giant, global brewing corporations that dominate the beer market. It was inspired by a new project at Guinness which has produced some beers I consider to be very good indeed. I suggested that maybe we're getting to the end of the usefulness of the term 'craft beer', because it disguises the fact that breweries of any size can and now sometimes do make really good beer. 

The response to the piece was mixed, from sentiments along the lines of 'Damn right, it's all about good beer, whoever brews it,' to 'No! Big brewers are shit by definition and we will always need craft brewers to stand against them.'

The more I thought about these differing views, the more I realised they were arguing about different things. 

The narrative of craft beer is a familiar one: global brewers make boring bland beer because they are trying not to offend anyone, they always want to cut costs, and they sell style over substance. Craft brewers saved us from mediocrity by brewing more interesting, flavourful beers, operating a more nimble business model, driven by passion and flavour rather than shareholders, marketers and accountants. Medium-sized brewers - such as regional and family-owned real ale brewers in the UK, or brewers who were craft but have grown huge, sit somewhere in the middle and generate most of the argument about what is and isn't craft.

It can be expressed as a linear continuum along which you can plot your favourite and least favourite brewers and beers:
I think this is how most of us see the issue. But it's rather too simplistic. If it ever was right, things have moved in beyond it.

We're kidding ourselves if we think every beer created by a craft brewer is good - there are some awful beers out there from passionate beer advocates who simply aren't very good brewers, or who might be walking the craft beer walk but are in reality just as cynical as the big brewers, but operating on a small scale hoping to get rich quick from the latest craze. And on the other hand, there are big brewers who have bought smaller brands and haven't (yet) screwed them up. And there are the occasional beers - such as the best ones I tasted at Guinness, and Carlsberg's Jacobsen range - that are simply very good beers made by brewers employed by a global corporation, that in a blind tasting would be considered good craft beers. 

So it would be more accurate to look at the market on two axes rather than one continuum, like this:




Now, if you were to plot every beer brand in the world on this chart, the vast majority of global brewers' brands would still be in the bottom left quadrant, and the majority of craft beers would probably sit top right. But there would be notable exceptions, so I think the reality of the beer world today probably look like this:




When you look at the market in this way, your emotional response to it will tell you what you really care about in beer, and different people care about different things at different times. That's why we sometimes talk at cross-purposes in debates about craft versus big.

Given a free choice, I'd prefer to drink in the top right quadrant. I prefer to drink good quality beer brewed by a small, passionate company. I'm sure most of you would agree. But if these beers weren't available to you, would you rather have a very good beer brewed by a big, nasty corporation, or an inferior beer brewed by a really great guy under a railway arch just down the street?

If the quality of the beer is the most important thing, you'll happily drink a great beer from Carlsberg or Guinness. But if that thought makes you angry, then you aren't actually thinking about the beer at all. You're thinking about the craft beer movement, and your decision is driven by your beliefs, politics and morality rather than your taste buds.

I'm not knocking either approach. What I am saying is that if we confuse arguments about beer quality and flavour with arguments about an unfair balance of power, the importance of supporting small local businesses and the excitement of feeling like part of a movement, we end up sounding stupid. Anyone who genuinely believes big brewers are incapable of making and releasing good beers simply doesn't know anything about brewing. And anyone who thinks any small-scale craft beer is automatically good because of where it comes from has their head in the sand. 

This made me think about where I stand as someone who makes a living writing about beer. If I discover a great beer made by a big brewer and I refuse to write about it, or I say it's shit when it isn't, I'm not doing my job properly. I can choose what I want to focus on in the most detail, but I do have a duty to report interesting stuff that I find out in the course of doing my job. If I was thinking purely as a fan of beer, I might have a different view. 

The craft debate will rumble on. Beer gets under our skin precisely because it is many things - that's why I started writing about it in the first place. In most cases, it's not just about the quality of the beer - it's about expressing who we are, making choices that say something about us. It is politics and fashion and identity as well as flavour. In reality, it's these aspects that are driving most of the current debates about the future of craft beer.

It's your choice what you drink. If you choose to boycott any beer made by a large corporation, no matter how good it is, I'd have some respect for that point of view. Just don't tell me you're doing it because the beer is shit.

17 comments:

Ben Viveur said...

Generally in agreement with this analysis which is most commonsensical.


At the risk of disrupting the elegance of the model, I think there needs to be some differentiation between 'bland' and 'bad' beer. Bland beers can be well made (usually by big brewers) and beers that sound good on paper can be made badly (usually by small brewers).

As drinkers, when confronted with something we don't like, we often don't bother to think about whether it's badly made, whether it's well made but boring, or simply just not to our personal tastes or any combination of these factors, which are all themselves points on a line...)

Slogger76 said...

Its just a shame that it has taken a bit of competition from the smaller craft brewers to force some of the large corporations to brew an interesting flavoursome beer. It would have been nice of them to do it without having their hand forced so to speak. I can envisage a time where the big corporations have started making interesting flavoursome beers and flooding the market, resulting in the decline of the smaller craft brewers and the large corporations go back to brewing largely high profit bland beers? I hope that scenario doesn't prevail.

Gary Gillman said...

Pete, re "big nasty corporation". I realize you are not probably bruiting that view yourself versus giving expression to how many beer drinkers feel about it. Still, I wish to point out that companies, big and small, are all part of the economy, all contribute, and it's all out there for discussion and comment. I've worked with many big companies in my time and they are just larger agglomerations of people, at bottom.

It would be impossible to have the choice of goods we do over the area they are available, at the cost charged - in general the standard of life we enjoy - without large enterprise.

Many big companies do great community work, too, that often is not seen by the average citizen, pay more taxes (generally) than smaller companies, because they earn more, employ lots of people and pay better benefits than small shops. They do their bit and then some for our economies.

They will make whatever beer the market will buy and increasingly are seeing that good stuff finds a sale. They will never replace the passionate small producer because they are structured differently, but their role is different too.

Gary

Braxton Bragg said...

Some people are always going to see things in David and Goliath terms, and thus inevitably look down on anything produced by major breweries, while giving the little guy the benefit of the doubt.

Martyn Cornell said...

While this is all, of course, completely correct, we shouldn't forget perhaps the most important aspect of the "craft versus big" debate.

It's completely meaningless and irrelevant to 95 per cent or more of beer drinkers.

James Sites said...

Lots to be said here. The first thing is that I'm in almost complete agreement with what you've said. However, the use of "some" and "many" are a bit generic. While I understand that it is necessary for the sake of making a pretty Cartesian product, it may be a bit misleading without actual individual products occupying the quadrants. In other words, I think the quadrants would look like this: Upper Left (big brewers/interesting or flavorful): small population, Upper Right (craft brewers/interesting or flavorful): moderate population, Lower Left (big brewers/bland or poor): large population, Lower Right (craft brewers/bland or poor): LARGE population. The graph would lead one to believe that there are a LOT of small and/or craft breweries making great beer out there when that's just not the case. The fact is that a lot of small and/or craft breweries are making bland and poor beer. Not the same percentage of big brewers making bland and poor beer, but still more than the graph would let on. Small doesn't mean good. It just means small. The same as big not meaning bad.

Phil said...

Anyone who thinks all small breweries' beer is interesting and tastes good, and all large breweries' beer is boring and tastes bad, is already defining their terms so selectively they're not worth arguing with.

The distinction between 'bad' and 'dull' is important; in fact I think the line runs from 'bad' to 'dull', not from small to big. There's a certain size above which I'd be not at all surprised to get a dull beer and very surprised indeed to get a faulty one (infection/excess yeast/recipe didn't work/recipe was stupid) - and, at the other end, there's a certain size below which I'd be not at all surprised to get a faulty beer and very surprised indeed to get a dull one. The best place to be is in the middle, but nearer the 'too small' zone - big enough to consistently iron out the duds but small enough to remember it's supposed to be exciting. The worst place is just below that - small enough to think you don't need to be professional, big enough to attract fans who think you do no wrong.

Stephen Johnson said...

You must be very bored to come up with this banal crap.

Anonymous said...

I recently found a study that more or less supports what you're saying
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666315300532

Pete Brown said...

Stephen - not as bored as you musty be to read it and comment on it. (You did actually read it, right?) Why not read a book or go out for a walk?

py said...

I really don't care about the size of the brewery at all, and I don't think many other people do either, even people like me who are genuinely interested in beer and select their cask ales/craft beers with care and knowledge.

There is, of course, a more interesting and meaningful distinction between a good beer and a good brewery. A good brewery is simply one for which a high % of its output is of high quality.

Otherwise excellent breweries occasionally produce a poor or ill-conceived beer, and otherwise dreadful breweries occasionally flukily produce something great. Its possible to like a beer but still dislike a brewery and vice versa.

Alan said...

Not boring at all. I like it so much I started to annotate it: http://beerblog.genx40.com/archive/2015/december/petesgraphical

Pedro S said...

Hi.

As you said, it hasn't to do just with the quality of beer. It's about politics, fashion and identity. I just think you shouldn't put those reasons side by side.

Politics are truly important.
When you say:
"But if that thought makes you angry, then you aren't actually thinking about the beer at all. You're thinking about the craft beer movement, and your decision is driven by your beliefs, politics and morality rather than your taste buds."

I totally disagree. 1- You are actually thinking about the beer. 2 - you are minorizing the craft beer movement.

Craft beer movement is that phenomenom that allowed you to be read by me, a portuguese guy in Lisbon. It allowed millions of people to truly enjoy beer and get passionate about it. It is the most important thing than happened to beer itself after Louis Pasteur's eureka moment.

So politics are important to protect it. So that we would never, ever, came back to the time where only 1000 people in the world knows what hops is. Where IPA is just in history books. Where Double IPA does not exist.
And you can bet. Those big guys can make very good beer of course. They can also buy market share. But this new kind of beer drinker is just not interesting for a company profit. It is not interesting to have 10 kinds of beer that people enjoy. So big companys will always (naturally) try to go back to basics - one simple, enjoyable, flat, light, freshy beer that sells all over the world. You know why? Yes, you do. Profit.

Me, i need profit too. I run a craft brewery in Lisbon.
But i really want that in 100 years, people still enjoy free beer. The beer they want to enjoy and not only the 3 or 4 light lagers available in the whole country.

You know, in Lisbon back in 1920's there was lots of beers being made, lots of independent brewers. They were all bought and merged into two big brewers. Since then, all we drink are each one's pale light lagers. Until the craft beer movement arrived here and started to change things.

Do those 2 guys (nowadays owned by Carlsberg and Heineken) knows how to brew good beer? No doubt about it! They just didn't want to.
For the sake of Portugal's beer drinkers, do we need to avoid to all cost that they get again 100% of the market? Yes, sure! So we need to stay strong, focused. And we need politics, belief, morality. Otherwise they will crush us, and at first opportunity they'll start to reduce costs in their productions, start to walk calmly but steadly in the direction they want - That people everywhere desire only fresh beer, no matter what it's made of.

We need to keep the craft beer movement alive. We need to keep the distance. Because we, craft brewers, and them, big brewers, we definitily have different ideas for what we want beer to be in 100 years.

Yes we are a small country, but you can make the comparison to the rest of the world.

Thank you for reading and sorry for my english.

Pedro

YTSL said...

Interesting post, one that gets one thinking and wanting to contribute to the discussion...

I'm one of those people who prefers good beer from small brewers -- microbrews is the term I was familiar with before "craft beer". But I also do like beers from certain breweries that are on the larger side, and/or have been bought up by mega conglomerates (e.g., South Africa's Castle Brewery).

In addition, I'm someone who likes to try local brews wherever I go. But the truth of the matter is that some places have better local brews than others -- and what I want most when I drink beer is to drink stuff that tastes good, wherever it's from and whoever it's brewed by!

Anonymous said...

Back in the olden days (late seventies/early eighties), when I was a youth living in London, there were a number of exotic reputable breweries who's beer you sought or were thrilled with when you serendipitously encountered. Such beers as Landlord, Robinsons, Ruddles County, Abbott, Everards Old Original, notoriously Theakstons OP were bragged about for weeks. I recall meeting some friends from Coventry at the Flask (Camra Investments pub?) in Hampstead, where the exciting guest ale was Marston's Pedigree - I was really taken with it but they were seriously underwhelmed. The point is that these were perceived as first-rate beers, and that they were produced by large regionals was irrelevant to one's appreciation of them; we all recognised a fine beer when we had the opportunity to taste it but there was no specific aversion to any of the Big Six brewers considered, it was all just beer. The same applies today, if it tastes OK: drink it; if it tastes good: drink more of it; if it's not to your taste, well you know what to avoid in future. Why get all precious about whether the beer was made by an elderly nano-brewer in his garden shed, using the organic, free-range badger-spit collected by his nan on Sunday afternoons from the wild forest using her wheel-chair, or a mega-factory in Northampton using water from the Ouse, if you like it drink it.

StuartP said...

I really love it when life's complexities are reduced to a 2 x 2 grid.
One for the collection, if I had one.

Paul said...

Mr.Brown what you have done, asking us to think in a whole new way about Global companies that brew, Breweries, Microbreweries, bland beers and flavorful beers is nothing short of what C.S. Lewis did with Christianity, in his work Mere Christianity. Brilliant! Perhaps your next book, with apologies to C.S. Lewis, "Mere Beer."