This may be something of a case of preaching to the converted, but it’s still something that might be a cathartic exercise for me. Fresh from a weekend of traipsing along the Bermondsey Beer Mile, picking up a few bottles for home and then reading Tony Naylor’s latest foray into the Guardian’s Beer articles (along with the hilariously uninformed masses that seem to flock to post below the line on what ‘beer should be’), I felt somewhat compelled to put my (admittedly, mixed) feelings and views down into black and white.
It has been pointed out frequently, not just by myself, but many other industry experts, writers both professional and through to more amateur levels, that we are in a very good place for beer halfway through 2017. Not just in terms of quality, quantity and scope of styles, but brewery numbers and even choice at the supermarkets where we do our domestic shopping. Picking up something above what is a cooking lager (so to speak), with a full hop compliment and ‘craft sensibility’ whilst picking up bathroom cleaner, frozen fish fingers and toilet rolls is now an easy score. Just a few weeks before writing this, Northern Monk and Atom Beers announced their presence in Morrisons and ASDA respectively; this is good thing in the main. Good for the brewery to have a steady income stream and good to have a potentially massive market reach. These deals on the face of it are for core range-easy to find beers only, which is fine for customers; getting good barbeque beers will be much easier for everyone. However, this leads onto two negative routes for the beer market (and for our beloved smaller brewers/independent bottle shops).
- Removal (due to customers not buying them, favouring the supermarket purchase instead) of these core beers from the roster at independent bottle shops can lead to a loss of clientele who come in for one or two ‘specials/one off brews’ and a backbone of these regular cheaper session IPAs. The removal will usually come about, for example, because in independents shelf space is at a premium; loading shelves with a beer which is cheaper at the local supermarket is not a sustainable business plan.
- Big Beer gets involved; and I suppose this happens on two levels with very heavy grey areas.
- Here’s Scenario A; a big global beer company sees that Brewery A has attracted big contracts with supermarkets and as such, big beer bids and buys Brewery A with the promise of letting it continue to brew independently. At this point, this could be a positive thing for the brewery who wanted their business to get to the point of sale anyway, but for the consumer this is potentially a downer; when the bottom line is the priority for big beer, it is only a matter of time before margins get squeezed (smaller malt bill, less hops etc) and the race to the bottom sets in (as a brewer friend has named it). This is before we even consider the accumulated buying power for hop and grain contracts, potentially pricing out or locking out smaller breweries from premium ingredients they have used to become competitive in the first instance. The contrasting opinions on this of Justin Hawke from Moor Brewing and Jasper Cuppaidge from Camden are pretty interesting here: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jul/11/indie-brewers-fight-back-in-bitter-row-over-beer-brands-craft-credentials]. But imagine, if in the extreme, lots of our current independent ‘craft’ breweries are bought or driven out of business. We risk a return to the relative wasteland of late 20th Century beer scene; less choice and less colour.
- For Scenario B, which we are currently seeing in supermarkets, the supermarkets themselves are emboldened by the ‘craft’ share of the market and want a piece. Own brand cheaper brews have appeared and whilst some are of a reasonable standard, some are appalling imitations and only enhance the aforementioned ‘race to the bottom’. Many beers are trading on the sensibilities of those exciting beers which started piquing interest of drinkers from the late noughties onwards, beers like Goose Island, Blue Moon, Doom Bar and Lagunitas are owned by much larger companies, but to the lay person who thinks they are getting something exciting, they are getting something better than a ‘macro-brewed cooking lager’, but a product possibly not produced with genuine passion as a small local micro-brewery and ultimately certainly not feeding into any local economy.
As a consumer, people want good quality at the lowest possible price, though there are those who are willing to pay more on the proviso that their money is going into something local, something produced with genuine passion. Something that isn’t going to line the pockets of a faceless shareholder lying on a lilo, floating on a pool across the globe in a sun-soaked paradise and quaffing anything but a decent beer. Vigilance is probably the only weapon that can be employed if you so choose, do your research on who owns the brand you are buying.
One sure fire way to get your beers from a source that is either desirable from the viewpoints discussed above, is to buy direct from the brewer, either from their premises or online. Buying from a specialist bottle shop is another way to get your hands on the one-off beers and to support a local business. For me, going in to see what new beers they have on the shelves and chatting at length about them is a proper treat. There is something irreplaceable in going into a shop and having the palpable tangibility on display; it’s the same for buying records, having the sleeve notes and the physical item there in front of you, something feels lost in translation looking at pictures on a computer screen and clicking to buy, before sitting and waiting for a box to be delivered. Don’t get me wrong, the enterprise of many online retailers, I find admirable, not to mention the selections they accrue for their customers. But I much prefer the weight of bottles in my arms, walking back to a car happy that these are now mine, ready to be taste, consumed, shared and written about. I have also frequented supermarkets for beers, I too am a consumer and as such, price sometimes governs where I will shop for my ‘go to’ type beers, beers for barbeques and for guests that visit and beer we’ll consume in quantity. I make no bones about this and am aware that there is some level of hypocrisy in not buying from independent retails, whilst singing their virtues and touting for support. But there are some that stock great beers at a very affordable price, making ignoring the value very difficult (for example, buying Mikkeller, Magic Rock and Roosters beers at Booths or buying Wild Beer Ninkasi 750ml and Fuller Vintage ales in Waitrose).
Alas the purchase of beers direct from breweries, direct from the premises or online, is not without its drawbacks for retailers down the line. When consumers ordering online from the breweries direct, that's money bottle shops are missing out on. When less money comes into a specialist shop, there is invariably less money for investment in stock; to buy a good spread of beers to offer to their customers. If every brewery offered off-sales from premises or inline, then it is a real possibility that many bottle shops would eventually close. There just wouldn't be the same need for them. With something that's already happening to wholesalers and for those people who are loyal to bottle shops, is because breweries are selling their one-off beers online or as part of a pack, there is inevitably less of that given beer available for trade, so bottle shops customers may have to scramble to buy the rationed beer due to the hype surrounding any launch.
There is a potential risk that when people tire of enforced direct purchase from a brewery (for example, because of a minimum order etc) the specialist bottle shops will lack resources going forward, to buy and serve their customers due to the drop in investment through loss of previous trade.Of course, this situation has already happened with some breweries too. Speaking to specialist bottle shop owners and managers, they have experienced the situation where they have either been refused the newest beer or only allowed half a case; because a brewery were retailing it themselves and it was only a small batch brew.
Depending on the set up of your local (or nearest) bottle shop, some will hold organised tastings, whilst others can even provide keg or cask services to fill bottles, growlers or crowlers for takeaway purposes to make that session beer a decent one and provide a quantity to sustain most party goers for their evening of fun. It’s this flexibility of service, a large range of styles and breweries (especially if the manager is a passionate one about their stock) and often a fair pricing structure for beers that would otherwise be impossible to get outside of a specialist bar which is often much more expensive (due to overheads etc).
The old adage of use it, or lose it has never rung truer. Whilst we have local bottle shops, they are really worth supporting; it’s a sure fire way of getting your hands on beers you’ll have never tried before, getting good recommendations and in some cases, as mine if you are lucky enough, making some great friends and acquaintances.