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The tyranny of choice

There’s been something of a furore over Carlos Brito, AB Inbev’s top dog, over his comments about beer drinkers being tired of choice – and for balance, it’s important to mention that he was specifically talking about distributors and retailers, and how much choice they could actually carry on shelves. Yet customer and consumer are umbilically linked, so by default he is saying the consumers too, are tired of choice.  And according to ABI’s earnings release briefing, craft beer sales in the U.S. are slowing, hence it must be so.

As you can imagine, a furore.  Because surprise, surprise, here are AB Inbev, now commanding one third of global beer sales, concerned about any affront to their brands, their competitive edge, their ability to dominate the market.  An agenda of consumers ‘tired of choice’ means ‘you don’t need to stock unusual craft brands, but you do need to stock nationally / globally recognised brands‘ – ooooh, and look – we have lots of them.

The thing is though, the provocation from Brito does have more than an edge of truth about it, depending on how you view the world.  Take the U.K. beer scene at the moment. ‘Explosion’ is not too dramatic a term for the number of breweries that have opened and continue to open. Each month sees a closure, but each month see many more openings. The leaky bucket overfloweth.  Go one level below this and there are serious implications.  Each brewery will have, say, a minimum of three brands, probably three of four core brands and then a selection of in / out products too. So let’s say that there are now (round numbers), 2000 breweries, each selling five beers. That’s 10,000 brands of beer minimum (someone I’m sure will have the actual numbers on this, providing they’re watching the press releases daily.). There are about 150,000 licensed premises in the UK.  In theory that means most bars can carry an entirely different range from one another (OK, there may be 14 other ones carrying the same range nationwide).

Now clearly, this is theoretical. Because the truth is more stark. In fact, most bars have a limited number of taps and lines. Choice, in draught in particular, is not finite. Many of these lines will be keg, a small number hand pull. And of the 10,000 brands of beer on sale, probably 9,800 are craft and cask brands. The number of mainstream, keg dispensed, national brands is slight in comparison, dominant in sales though they are.  9,800 beers competing for, say, one of three hand pull spaces on a bar or God forbid, one of the keg lines owned by a multinational.

You can’t build recognised brands in this environment, unless you own an estate and demand they carry your range.

And there’s the rub.  The truth is that there’s so much choice now that the market isn’t saturated, it’s super-saturated.  Just like the supermarkets have bred a generation of deal junkies, rather than being tired of choice, we have a spoilt generation of beer drinkers who are trial junkies.  You can see it where every you go. Looking along the bar. Spotting the new beers. Examining ABVs. Asking for recommendations, a sip, a third. Buying a flight of different beers. Every beer a different beer during the session. Switching between styles. Ever more choice at home.

Oh sure, there are implications for drinkers.  It can be bamboozling. So many choices, where to start?  Which style between the many I like? Which strength? Colour? Hoppiness or maltiness? Sweet, sour, bitter, dry?  How to make sense of that, goodness knows.

There are implications for customers too. If you are in some way tied in to a brewer or supplier, how to offer the choice? How to run a business based on strong sellers with the roller coaster of guest beers being so important? How to manage the tensions (under the bar) between keg and cask, cider and lager, craft and real ale, spirit vs wine, whilst all the time having to deliver a stonking food offer.  I love pubs, but it’s a hell of a job to get right, particularly with those damned drinkers constantly demanding something new every week.

But what’s the alternative?  Take London just 10 years ago. I was in beer sales down there at the time. Most bars had some combination of Heineken, Kronenbourg, John Smiths and Strongbow, or Stella, Boddingtons, Becks Vier. Becks, Budweiser in the fridge. Everything else scrapping for space round the edges. Ok – so perhaps this picture is a little dramatised, but even if it’s only half true, compare it with today.  Bars bursting with choice. Beers on rotation. New breweries introducing new styles. Rarely a Stella or Bud to be seen, at least in a place where you’d want to be seen too.  Do we want to go back to a world of Stella, Becks, Corona wherever we go? Do we want to see Mr Brito’s thin, assassin smile widen further?

Give me the tyranny of choice any day.

 

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Lost Blogs #1: Under Brownwood

Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.

For whatever reason, I’ve never really got on with Newcastle Brown Ale but I wanted to. There was a bit of a boom for the brand again in the mid ‘90s, fuelled by a failed attempt by an Australian brewer to buy the brand. For a while front labels were inverted (I hadn’t noticed until someone pointed it out) and there was a general fuss made across the north east. So I gave it a crack again back then, but no, it just didn’t flick any switches for me… at least not on taste anyway. I’ve always liked the bottle; I’ve always liked the schooner glass and I’ve always bought into those hard working Geordie values. Taste though – didn’t get it and still don’t.

Yet, like with mild, there’s a bit of a general brown resurgence going on. This was triggered this last weekend gone by a pint of ‘Milkwood’ in a local Vintage Inn. Brewed by Brain’s in commemoration of Dylan Thomas, it’s a 4.3% brown ale. And it is brown, which is a start. Don’t mock – one of my issues with Newkie Brown is that’s it’s not – it’s more of a deep, chestnut red. No it is –buy one and have a look. It’s not unattractive, just not that brown. So anyway, Milkwood – a brown ale. And putting to one side the less than scrupulously clean glassware, it was a decent enough pint. A tightly loose head with a thick creaminess that somehow managed to support some big bubbles, mid brown colour and a clean, malty taste with just a touch of granary crust nuttiness. Nice lacing too which I like to see.  And selling well up against Pedigree and Everard’s Tiger.

The interest in the style is good to see, for it could have gone the way of the Dodo. Original styles, dating back 300 years or so were likely brewed with brown malt that a higher level of roast from direct fired malting. Pale malt revolutionised beer both in the UK and on the continent – but with every revolution there is a loser, and brown ale was one. Whilst brewers continued to be brewed, now they were sourced from pale malt, or crystals malts that add a more coating sweetness or brewing sugars were added. Strengths fell over time too, a trend exacerbated by two wars, until eventually only really Mann’s Brown Ale existed a connection with the original brews from the past (Newcastle Brown Ale was a twentieth century invention, ironically by a brewer from Burton).

I wonder though how much of the recent resurgence in the style comes down to what’s going on across the pond. Newcastle Brown itself has become the 15 year overnight success story – selling about 450,000 barrels of beer to the USA each year. It’s now the number one British brand. The once positively ubiquitous Bass has been soundly mismanaged by Anheuser and Newkie Brown has doffed its grateful hat and Dyson’ed up their business. The American craft brewers too have copied and reinvented the style. As you would imagine, many US versions have a more distinct hop character, but are none the worse for it. Sierra Nevada do a very drinkable Autumn Brown Ale, and the wonderfully named Dogfish Head also do an ‘Indian Brown Ale’ which I snuck into my repertoire whilst out in Denver on beer business one night. Something similar happened in Hawaii* too – where I had a brown ale from the Kona Brewing Company (which I only bought at the time because I was thinking of buying a Kona Mountain Bike and wondered if the two were linked. They weren’t – and remember folks, don’t drink and ride.) This one in particular was a smoothly drinkable version, reasonably hopped. It reminded me of the Geordie nick name for Newcastle Brown, ‘Dog’ so called because it bites your legs apparently. Well the Kona Indian Brown Ale certainly did, as it was secretly hiding it’s mid 5s alcohol.

I’m pleased the style is doing the revival, particular in the UK. Whilst I like the hoppier versions from the US, I find that there are enough IPAs and double IPAs doing the hop full frontal. A beer style that swings the other way, with a lingering sweet character is needed in the lexicon of beers.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Godisgood

The wonder, the magic of yeast. The smell? Beer, fresh lemon peel and a coat of wet emulsion.

Morning Mister Magpie

One of our many rituals is Friday Pizza Night. It’s a signal; the end of the working week is here. An end to weekday patterns of snatched lunches or mismatched family meals. Everyone likes pizza: sitting round; a big knife; chopping big wedges unevenly, roughly, indecorously. From time to time, when time allows, we make fresh bases. Strong white flour, sieved and dusty, a fine veil drifts down by the morning. Greeny-yellow olive oil; flakes of Maldon salt and the magical yeast. To mix, we grab everything together in a claw, like a digger’s grab, pinching and squeezing, mud-flat mix oozing between fingers and thumbs. Not all of us love the kneading but I do and Em does too. Giving it some, elbows out, top teeth gently pressing into bottom lip as she pushes and folds and shoves and pulls.

Em had a pizza party for her birthday.  We made five times the normal…

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