Beer finds its way home

06 August, 2010

Sometimes, it’s not until you have your own words thrown back in your face that you realise exactly what you’ve said. Although my first book, 500 Beers, has been out for a few months (and I’m still doggedly referring to it as “my first book”, implying that another will be along any minute), it is only just being picked up by reviewers in the US.

As part of a multi-book review for All About Beer magazine, US beer writer Stan Hieronymus got in touch with a few questions. After an exchange of emails, the following quote made it into the introduction of the article: “Beer’s future rests on cultivating those curious amateurs and, in the UK at least, home drinkers. I’ll stop introducing beer when people stop demonstrating their lack of knowledge.” When I saw it, I though “ooh, that’s a bit combative, I wonder who wrote that?” It turns out I did.

It’s not the bit about mentioning people’s lack of knowledge which now strikes me as antagonistic – hardly a week goes by without a customer asking “is this a lager or a beer?” or “what’s the difference between an ale and a bitter?” In fact, the latter question is a favourite of mine, as I get to deliver a brief spiel on the appearance of hops in beer in the mid-15th century. You can always tell if a customer is serious or not by their reaction to that – some tend to glaze over a bit if I mention gruit.

There is still a huge amount to do in terms of basic customer education, in all categories, and arguably it’s those in specialist retail who are charged with the job.

No, the bit that strikes me as combative is the assertion that beer’s future lies in cultivating home drinkers. I’m certain this is true to some extent, but I’m not sure it’s true for the market as a whole.

The big problem I have with it is it relies on there continuing to be a split in the on and off-trade, and I wonder if that split is really representative of how the drinks market is going to continue to evolve. So, for example, cask ale will continue to grow as it comes to be recognised as one of the UK’s great foodie treasures, and the pub is the best place to enjoy cask ale. But as drinkers become more educated about beer, their curiosity will grow and will quickly outstrip the offerings of all but the best pubs. So where does that leave beer??I think – and sincerely hope – that beer is about to undergo the same renaissance (or, given that it wasn’t actually a rebirth, we might have to call it a “naissance”) that wine had in the 1980s. This decade was the one that really created wine as the thing to drink, at home and in public. It resulted in the creation of the wine bar in the UK, and shoved beer from the national consciousness. Crucially, this was a pleasure you could enjoy at home.

The past couple of decades has, for various reasons, seen a growth in home drinking and entertaining. With that, coupled with the rise of interest in provenance and quality of food, the same is going to happen to drink. It’s not going to happen to cocktails – they rely on the theatre of the serve – it’s going to happen to our forgotten national treasure: beer.

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