Monthly Archives: January 2016

Craft-Beeronomics: The dangers of exploitation

Greed: Noun; intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.

The recent boom in Craft Beer has been a fantastic shot in the arm for those of us who crave good beer. Good, varied beer is now a thing. Previously there was a variety of beer available but nowhere near the extent that is available now. But what’s it driven by? The growth has two elements, firstly there has to be a desire to brew better more diverse beers, and also there then needs to be a consumer demand for the beer styles which have broken away from the norm.

Both of those elements are self-driving, so a good brewer will develop a popularity and therefore demand, but also the consumer demand gives the brewer confidence to try more varied beers. And if anything, I think the link between brewers and consumer are far shorter than they previously were. Breweries are local and accessible and there are genuine personalities behind them which in many cases are well known and it’s easy to see the brewery image reflecting that of its owner, in both branding and beer styles.

But as a consumer base, for all the economy has gone through times, there is a high level of disposable income around these days. Economic confidence has grown which makes for a less conservative consumer. One who is more likely to splash out on perceived luxury items. I have to say, 10 years ago the idea of spending over £10 on a single bottle of beer would have been laughable. Now I see it as pretty much the going rate for a special beer.

As I understand it, beer prices rose originally due to the cost of importing specialist beers from the US. In order for businesses to be inclined to do that, there needed to be a return for that investment. The cost of getting a beer imported from the US was huge when compared to getting a keg of beer from the local brewery. So if the importer was going to make a loss, they wouldn’t bother. So the price reflected the cost of importing.

Even in the UK, brewers were faced with a much higher cost for raw materials. The amount of malts, hops and other adjuncts in modern flavoursome beer is massive in comparison to the bland beer of the past. And naturally all those extra ingredients come at a cost. That cost has to be passed on to the consumer otherwise the whole market economy fails!

OK maybe alittle dramatic, but you see the point. As the cost of the beer we demand has increased, so too has the price we have to pay to enjoy that better product. I for one am happy to pay what I see as a fair price for a better beer. Its par for the course isn’t it. I remember when I first started drinking craft, it very much coincided with becoming a parent. Which meant I was going out less and less and my mindset was that as I was drinking less, I wanted what I drank to be good and interesting. So I find myself here today back up to drinking at the level I used to drink before I became a parent, just with a far bigger bar bill as a result!

But are there instances where our loyalty and understanding is being exploited? And this stretches way beyond the hype argument. This is about practices which could potentially turn people away from craft beer which is the very thing the rest of us are campaigning to encourage new drinkers to try.

I guess everybody’s different and what one person sees as someone exploiting the consumer, another person sees as a small business owner trying to make a living. So it’s a difficult tightrope to tread. I’ve been aware of several releases in the past 12 months which certain people have said are overpriced and actually the market self-regulates in that instance because the consumer doesn’t buy it.

Let’s be clear on this, I don’t think there is a widespread problem here. But I think it’s very important that breweries respect us consumers as we are their future. If a brewery doesn’t keep its consumers onside, it won’t last very long.

So what do I see as exploitative practices? There have been several times where I’ve questioned the motives. Clearly I’m not always aware of all the factors involved but its important to state the case as I see it so that the brewers understand what the consumer is seeing.

First instance of what felt exploitative: It cost me more to buy a beer from a brewery than it did to buy it from a reputable local shop. This isn’t some dodgy sourced stock that the shop got hold of, they bought it direct from the same brewery that I was buying it directly from. How can adding a third party to the transaction make the cost price less? That third party would expect a profit of their own from the transaction, and the brewery would expect to make a profit on their original costs of producing the beer. So put simply, from where I sit the difference in prices is pure profit for the brewery. And whilst I would encourage breweries to make sure they are profitable, this feels to me like pure greed.

Second instance of what felt exploitative: During 2015 a great many breweries brought cans to the market. Now I’m a big fan of cans as a way of preserving the hoppy beers that I love. But in some instances I was aware that cans were seriously sub-standard and yet were made openly available to buy anyway. Where’s the quality control? It doesn’t come cheap but its hugely important. I can’t help feeling that the reputation of the brewery should be the most important thing and the perhaps the drive to recover the cost of canning the beer has been allowed to let that suffer. Long term a brewery won’t get away with that very often before the stigma drives them out of business.

Third instance of what felt exploitative: Cashing in on hype. Let’s face it, we’re all aware of the latest buzz beer being talked about, but often these beers are being talked about long before any of us get to try them. What bugs me is where hype is built up driven by the brewery itself, not the beery community and ultimately the price point is based on that hype rather than the quality of the beer itself. The thing which annoys me the most is when the end product falls well short of the expectation built on the hype driven by the brewery in the first place. I feel that they’re making money out of the need for us craft beer lovers to get excited about the sound of a beer well in advance of actually tasting it. We’re our own worst enemies at time though, for hyping beers before we’ve tasted them. The difference is if that hype is brewery driven rather than craft community driven. To my mind I feel like my passion for good beer is being exploited. And it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth, the taste of underwhelming beer…..

I don’t need to name names here as I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s up to each one of us to determine what we feel is acceptable practice and ultimately we vote with our wallets. And therein lies the danger here. I want the craft beer industry to grow and talk of negative practices could make potential new consumers wary of trying new things. We don’t want the whole industry tainted by stories of the actions from the few.

I guess my gut instinct here is that I want brewers to be driven by the goal of producing the best beer they possibly can. My problem comes when the profit becomes more of a motive than the drive for the perfect beer. I’m well aware of the need to strike a balance and it’s a grey area as to where that balance should be.

So in summary, if you see things which you feel are exploitative say so. You don’t need to get into an argument on twitter or fisty cuffs in the street, just vote with your own actions and keep your money in your pocket. Whatever level at which you perceive that exploitative bar to be at, chances are there’s a great many brewers out there who meet your expectations.

2016 for the Beery Waffler!

As the chimes of Big Ben brought in the new year, I couldn’t help but look back on 2015 and smile at how far I’ve come on my beery adventure.  On a personal note, my kids are that little bit older and more settled allowing me more time to explore my passion for beer.

And there have been so many beers this year that have blown me away.  Early on in 2015 I was lucky enough to get hold of some Skull King from Beavertown which was delicious, only for it to be surpassed a few weeks later by their very own Power of the Voodoo which for most of the year I considered to be my beer of the year.  Hats off to Logan and the cracking brewing team he’s assembled there for getting their beers up to an incredibly consistent level and also for getting that canning line dialled in to deliver the beer to its customers in tip top condition.

Cans have featured heavily this year. Both for better or worse. But without doubt they have been a welcome addition to the scene in my mind. I feel they keep those hoppy beers as fresh as possible longer.

October was a big beery month for me with Craft Beer Calling and the awesome Indyman. It was the month more than ever that made me feel part of a fantastic evening beer scene. I met so many people I’d only ever spoken to on Twitter.

The last couple of months of 2015 brought to me two of the most amazing beers in Brewdogs Born to Die and also Cloudwaters DIPA. Very close between the two but for me I got the Born to Die at its freshest and it blew me away. Sadly the DIPA was at least six weeks old and while it was delicious I know it has more to offer with fresher hops!

And so to 2016, January is a busy month for me in my line of work but I’ve got a cracking trip to Dublin and Alltech Brews and Food festival, lined up for February.

My biggest hope for 2016 is to get myself waist deep into the North East beer scene. I hope to get myself out on the road and visit as many of the North East breweries as possible. And I can’t wait to spread the word. I can’t wait to share what I find. There are so many folk doing great things in the North East. Those stories need to be told.

One event I recently attended really inspired me.  It was a talk that the students running Stu Brew gave. Now Stu Brew is the student run brewery at Newcastle University. There’s a great deal to tell about that project, a blog for another time. But they were supported by the lads from Northern Alchemy.  The passion and dedication from the speakers on the night was truly inspiring. Great night and a great pointer to the exciting things I look forward to this year.

So here’s to 2016. Be bold, get yourself along to as many things as possible, explore things for yourself. The opinions of others help but be firm and form your own opinions. There’s so much fun to be had!