The first column from the celebrated histoiran gives the lowdown on the British beer industry
“You’re a BEER writer? Ha! Ha! Ha!”
No, it’s OK, I’m used to it now. I’ve been doing this for a decade and I’ve heard it all:
“You obviously do a lot of research.”
“Where are your black socks and sandals?”
“I only drink lager. Does that mean you hate me?”
I prefer being laughed at to the reaction I got when I told people I worked in advertising. It was pretty cool in the early nineties. By the time I quit to write full time, telling someone I was an adman got the same reaction as if I’d farted at the dinner table. Thank God for bankers: even the humble adman has someone to look down on. (OK, I accept there’s no such thing as a humble adman.)
“Beer is our country’s national drink. We’ve drunk it for three thousand years, and we still drink more of it than any other beverage”
Advertising was my route into beer. The classic 1980s “I bet he drinks Carling Black Label” ads made me want to work in the business. Then, when I was planning ads for Heineken and Stella Artois, I noticed that beer had a particular hold over people. It’s not just booze: the loyalty to brands, the passion for them, the lean-forward interest in talking about beer, was more intense than I’d seen when discussing cars, newspapers, TV channels – anything apart from maybe your football team. Beer matters to people, and I wanted to find out why.
Twelve years, 70,000 miles, three books, three stone and several hundred blog entries and magazine articles later, I have a pretty good idea.
Beer is our country’s national drink. We’ve drunk it for three thousand years, and we still drink more of it than any other beverage. The British pub is an icon of our culture: ever seen a successful soap opera without a pub? No, and there’s a reason for that. The pub lures tens of thousands of tourists here every year who believe they will find the soul of Britain in its cosy snugs.
So why does the idea of writing about beer and pubs fill people with mirth?
Maybe because it’s ‘just beer’; a little too working class. A bit simple. What can one write about a pint of cold, fizzy lager? And what else is there apart from the flat, warm beer preferred by Viz magazine’s ‘Real Ale Twats’?
This pervasive attitude is reflected by the fact that every single serious newspaper in the country has at least one wine column every week, yet not a single one carries regular beer coverage, despite the fact that audience research proves their readership is at least as keen on beer as it is wine.
A recent straw poll of Michelin-starred restaurants found that those who pride themselves on having a sommelier curating a cellar of 1000-plus wines see no problem offering a choice of Stella or Beck’s. Some offer more varieties of salt or butter than beer.
“Behind the headlines, away from the broadsheets, beer and pubs are undergoing a quiet revolution that is gaining momentum by the month. And increasingly, it’s centred on London”
And beer’s on the way out isn’t it? Commoditised in supermarkets, buyers for the big chains would rather work on pet food than beer, because there’s more innovation in canine chews than our favourite brews. We regularly hear that 25-50 pubs are closing every week, and recently the British Beer and Pub Association – the body that’s supposed to be bigging up the industry – heavily publicised the biggest annual fall in beer sales for 14 years.
So there we are: beer is sad, geeky and dying.
But hang on – if that’s right, how can I make a living as a beer writer? How come my ex-advertising colleagues, salary differential aside, are jealous of what I do? Why, interspersed among the comments at the top of this piece, do I also regularly hear, “Wow – that must be the best job in the world?”
Behind the headlines, away from the broadsheets, beer and pubs are undergoing a quiet revolution that is gaining momentum by the month. And increasingly, it’s centred on London.
The press may not know about it, but the hipsters do: in the pubs of Shoreditch, Hoxton, Dalston and Stoke Newington, certain kinds of beards are fashionable again. The people wearing them – and their kookily-dressed girlfriends – are drinking real ale from dimpled pint jugs, expensive, craft lagers imported from Germany and the Czech Republic, strong, hoppy American IPAs, and experimental Scandinavian beers.
“And that’s where this column comes in. Every fortnight, we’ll be discussing pubs, breweries, beers and trends in the capital, documenting London’s craft beer revolution as it happens”
Social media knows about it too: Wikio’s top 20 ‘wine and beer’ bloglist boasts seventeen blogs about beer, and just three on wine. Pubs and small brewers are in constant conversation with drinkers on Twitter and other social networks, co-creating beers and different pub experiences.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has doubled its membership in the last ten years. As the number of Real Ale Twats doesn’t seem to have grown in that time, we can only assume real ale is becoming more popular. And it is: Britain now has more breweries than at any time in the last 60 years. There’s a craft brewing revolution going on around the world, with forgotten beer styles being revived, and new styles being created. There’s greater choice and diversity than ever before – if you know where to look.
And that’s where this column comes in. Every fortnight, we’ll be discussing pubs, breweries, beers and trends in the capital, documenting London’s craft beer revolution as it happens. It’s a fascinating business case study of an industry that appears dead on top, among the moribund, commoditised global brands, but is thriving with new life underneath, among the artisans, independents and mavericks.
And beer also happens to be very nice to drink.
And that’s it – this combination of business, society, culture and the sheer pleasure of drinking – that’s why I write about beer.
Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. Hewas recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.