Breaking down the barriers

Friday sees the start of Craft Beer Calling and drinking Thornbridge Halcccccyyyooonnn got me thinking….

Craft Beer Calling is a massive event for Newcastle.  We can be quite an insular market place at times.  The usual craft w*nkers do their best to raise the profile of non-local beers but the local beers always prove to be the most popular.  I think a big part of that is history, we’ve had local breweries for many many years who have dominated the local market, as mentioned previously most of the pubs around the area were Scottish & Newcastle pubs not too long ago.  But also, a big driver for that is that the new array of local breweries are producing some top quality beers.

But I do think the image of Craft beers has the potential to be too trendy, I hate trendy, I think my lanky frame in ill-fitting jeans never allowed me to really be trendy and I’ve held a grudge ever since.  I like to think I know my onions when it comes to beer, I’ve drank plenty of it and explored most beer styles over the years, but I recently walked into a new bar in Newcastle for the first time and was alittle taken aback by the row of bearded trend setters sitting with their backs to me between me and the bar.  The thing is I’m sure these lads were very friendly and I’ve nothing against beards (I’d grow one myself if I had the patience) but there is a danger that the craft beer scene can become so bespoke it disappears up its own backside and alienates newcomers to the scene.  The recent ‘Elitist’ discussion is an acknowledgement of that.  Breweries themselves are the polar opposite to it, never have I spoken to so many open friendly down to earth people in an industry.  I think conveying that to the market is very important.  The essence of the brewery isn’t always represented by the ethos in the bars.

I guess there’s a few grades to craft beer. Grade 1) relax and refresh, the pale ales and light IPA’s that are a staple of most pubs and don’t look out of place in a country pub alongside the carvery on a sunday.  Grade 2) Moderate craftw*nkery: These are beers that will be in short runs but vary only slightly from the norm, so say it’ll be a beer with a fresh new variety of hops, or a stout with a less common ingredient (Thornbridge Baize Mint Choc Stout springs to mind, not a standard beer but a short step from a standard beer style) Grade 3) Craftw*nkery Defcom 2: These are the creative, innovative beer styles and ideas that are as bonkers and mental as its possible to be.  You just don’t get these in your local, these can be so extreme that beyond a few kegs for festivals or the more abstract craftw*nker bars, they’re mainly reaching their audience in bottled form.  But that’s slowly changing with more and more pubs opening on Tyneside that want to serve varied beers and not just different breweries takes on similar styles.

I had a discussion with a few friends about Craft Beer Calling, which for me is like a Nirvana event and to have it in my own backyard is tremendous.  But imagine a world where you didn’t read every beer blog that’s written, where you didn’t get the latest emailed newsletter from each and every brewery you ever heard of and you solely relied on what you were used to in your local.  Now remind yourself that Im talking about normal people, and not us lot!  Most people will go to craft beer calling and will have heard of their local brewery and will naturally think, yes heard of them, know their beer is good, I’ll try one of theirs.  Even more obtuse beer picking rationale, is where people will plum for a beer based on a name they can relate to, so anything which sounds local will be a suitable choice.  Breweries like Tyne Bank, Wylam, Allendale, Durham all attract more of these normal folk because of that. These people probably have never heard of the less common breweries and risk missing out on some brilliant beers because of it.

Craft beer calling states that the breweries are from three groups, local, national and international.  It’s a testament to the strength of brewing in the north east that the local section is incredibly strong.  From the long established Mordue brewery and their craft Panda Frog beers, to the brand spanking new breweries such as Almasty brewery founded by a lad who has brewed beer at a high level for many years who is now starting his own venture.  The North East is now a competitive market and that competition is driving up standards like never before.

But even once you plum for a brewery you recognise, you then have to navigate the different styles of beer.  Many beers now state the type of hop that’s in them, if you don’t know hops does this information just serve to confuse matters?  I’ve heard people deciding based on the abv just trying to avoid the super strong beers that they fear most!  The real shame here is that I know that at Craft Beer Calling all the breweries will be mad keen to talk to people about their beers and to get people the type of beer that they will enjoy.  I would encourage anyone attending these festivals by asking questions.  Ive never heard anyone laughed at for not knowing everything about a beer before they get there.  Treat the festival as a learning experience and you’ll enjoy it so much more.  In fact apply that to drinking in the local too, or drinking anywhere if I’m honest.  

I think its important, for the breweries to continue to grow, that the outlets for them are as open and welcoming as possible.  Good bar staff can make a huge difference.  You want people to feel able to ask questions without being scoffed at.  Let’s not make people rush their choice of beer and plum for that distinctly average pint of standard beer that they’ve had a million times before just because they don’t know how to pronounce ‘Ola Dubh’.  There’s several points in life where people rush when they feel out of place, entering a church for the first time is one of them, any nervousness just hastens you to choose a seat and get on with it.  Entering a new bar can provoke the same reaction, get a beer and get a seat, but that skips past the fun of discussing the beers and selecting which one to have.

So lets not make this an intimidating scene.  The terms and descriptions and attention to detail can serve to confuse a newcomer and put them off.  But we all started drinking somewhere and each and every one of us can help new blood acclimatise to this environment.  Be welcoming at all times, be helpful without showing off (no one’s impressed), be a guide for your charge and you will have a true convert soon enough.  Oh and to all those going, enjoy Craft Beer Calling and ask as many questions as you like!

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