"It’s a great time to be a beer drinker"- this, if anything, is a statement I have a huge amount of agreement with. The "Let There Be Beer" campaign has recently re-launched itself because the veneer of justification on its original incarnation was so thin as to be transparent. The campaign is mostly funded by large multinational corporations who's logos appear by default on the new site. There are then a splattering of smaller organisations which include national pub companies, regional brewers and some industry bodies. Unfortunately for me, it almost doesn't matter if everything they say I agree with, the sponsors are after only one thing; a return on the investment they are putting in, the agenda will be the same, irrespective of the thickness of pretence hiding the motivation.
Let's look at the statement that I agree with, why is it such a good time to drink beer? Is it because of these organisations? No, absolutely it isn't. It is the microbrewer that have nurtured and championed diversity and a move away from bland, homogeneous offerings. Even the "family brewers" who may well have helped keep cask beer alive, would much prefer to make a narrow range of beers as the economies of scale this affords gives a better return for share holders.
It is clear to me that even the family brewers would, if given a choice, use much blander and cheaper run-of-the-mill hops. It is only the actions of us micro brewers, and the support that the beer enthusiast has given us, that has enabled this explosion of great beer in the UK. It is us that have imported the idea of using much more flavoursome and exciting hops from the west cost of USA or New Zealand hops to create beers with stunning flavours. It is us that have brought forward those flavours as a major part of the beer, rather than as a blend to just spice up very slightly Fuggles and Goldings.
Over the last 10 or so years, since I've been involved with the beer industry, things have moved a long way. There is much more choice, much more diversity and some real changes have happened. This would never have happened without us micro brewers, independent pub owners and of course a good discerning and genuinely curious beer drinker. A demand for more diversity and interest from drinkers has in turn helped micro brewers flourish in a spectacular way.
This enlargement of drinkers curiosity and desire for something new and different has hit the big beer producers a double whammy. The much more interesting and diverse arena of wines and sprits, as well as RTDs1 have seen the consumer turn its back on less aspirational big brand beers. In turn micro brewers have also been eating at this market share.
We should look more closely at why beer is seeing a decline in overall volume. Although we could question if measuring success in terms of volume is a good thing, that is possibly another topic altogether. Beer, generally, is seen a a dirty, cheap mass produced commodity. Whether we like it or not this is probably the view of the vast majority of people. Beer is also still perceived as a masculine product, by and large. Yes, I know moves have been made to some extent in this area, but largely it remains the domaine of the microbrewer to even look at that subject, and even then, not all micro brewers look at it that way.
Make no doubt about it the chase for volume by big brewers and some smaller ones alike has cheapened beer to the point that it has no aspiration for a population that is nowadays much more educated and ambitious than we were 30 years ago. When I was in my teens around 10% of the population were gaining University degrees. It is now approaching 40%2 - we are an upwardly mobile population and we no longer want the offering of the big brand beers. The micro brewers have taken part of that market share and wine and spirits other parts. We can't turn the clock back, the future of beer is small batch producers like us. We can grow the beer market by ourselves, we don't need the help of the big boys who have messed it all up anyway.
Beer is now viewed in a poor light by many a demographic, and this is backed up by many a alcohol related harm article in papers featuring a picture of beer. Of course we can suggest that its all the fault of the press for this, but I'd not agree, and I shall try to explain why.
For many years the bigger beer producers have been interested in one thing and one thing only; volume. Look in the supermarkets, there are products from those big producers often brought in on pallets to sit in great big stacks on aisle ends. Apart from potatoes, I'm not sure there is any other products that are pilled quite so high as cut-price big-brand beers.
The advertising campaigns are largely macho imagery that does nothing to encourage discerning drinking. The big boys are now seeing that the hard work done by the craft beer producers, the micro brewers, the small batch breweries, is actually catching the imagination of the public. Now they want to jump on our bandwagon. Well I for one am not letting them on my bandwagon.
But we know that the sales volume of these beers is decreasing, and let us make no bones about it, if it wasn't for us smaller brewers making an impact there would be no way they would set to on an otherwise apparently altruistic PR campaign. Sorry, but I don't buy the "we're all in this falling beer volume mess thing together" story.
We're absolutely not in it together. The big brand multinational brewers have repeatedly and consistently ruined any variation, interest, aspiration, kudos or self respect for the beer industry. They have found that their volume chase tactics are now finding a backlash with punters who prefer something a bit more sophisticated. Punters who are disliking the macho orientated advertising and turning to craft beer, wine or artizanal spirits. Luckily for us, and other more refined areas of the drinks industry, we are seeing the benefits.
I also don't buy the idea that if we support this initiative the benefits will ripple through to us. For the big boys a few percent change in sales is a massive multimillion pound benefit. To us, supporting this initiative will be benefits that are lost in the noise, at best, and more likely representing us turning our backs on our core values.
Key to all of this is not to increase volume of beer sales overall, no, to me it is much more important to develop aspiration, interest, excitement, and a true added value that is tangible. Chasing volume will inevitably see a return to much more bland and uninteresting beers. We don't need people to drink more beer, we need people to be more discerning about what they drink. I am not interested in a few percentage points of sales growth off the back of a cynical "we're really interested in you little guys" sort of nonsense. We are looking at genuinely growing our business into a sustainable future, and we're doing that off the back of genuine concern to create genuinely stunning craft beer.
I haven't got a problem with people liking the campaign. Indeed, if you are the sort of person that thinks all beer is good, and there is no such thing as a bad beer, then go ahead and like the campaign. Just don't ask Hardknott to endorse it. I believe it is a trojan horse delivered in a way that says you mustn't look a gift horse in the mouth. Except these days, a horse that is only fit for the knackers yard will probably cost you more to get rid of than its worth as dog meat.
It seems there are a few people being hooked into its false promises. We mustn't loose sight of the fact that there is one motive and one motive alone that is driving this campaign. It is the desire of the big brewers, brewers much bigger than us, to drive their volume upwards. They are trying to convince me that if I get on board my volume will go up too. I don't agree, what will happen is we will see more "craft" brands from these bigger brewers once you have all taken the bait, and the big fluffy rug will be pulled from under our feet.
1Ready to drink - you know, alchopops etc.
2It is hard to be sure of a citation for the figures I give here - for a start, Polytechnics converting to Universities have caused blips in the figures. Figures from the 80s are anecdotal from my memory back when I was considering degree education myself . However, there is a report that shows that in 1992 17% of the population were graduates compared to 38% in 2013 - that's more than doubling in 20 years. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_337841.pdf