Words & Photo - Matthew Curtis
In my latest article for Good Beer Hunting I cover a few examples that demonstrate just how London’s beer industry and culture has evolved over the past five years. I decided to use Hackney’s The Cock Tavern – formerly the home of Howling Hops brewery – as a case study that indicates how the new and old beer cultures in the UK are gradually merging to form something new. What I didn’t say in the piece is that I also think that this emerging community of modern drinkers could be the most important to the future of the UK beer industry.
I decided to have a stab at drawing the Venn diagram that I refer to in the piece. It’s perhaps a little over simplified, but my main intention is to demonstrate how this emerging beer culture that sits at its centre has formed.
I’ve identified three major beer communities in the UK – the first is the traditional ale drinker. That’s a bit of a catchall term I know – but here I’m referring to a predominantly older generation of beer drinkers. Those who may remember the time of Watney’s Red Barrel and Double Diamond. People who may well have had their world rocked when they first tasted Hopback Summer Lightning or Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. I wrote CAMRA members here because I imagine that the largest demographic of its members exists within this community, although not exclusively.
Then there’s the mainstream beer drinker. These are the people that enjoy drinking beer but don’t really care for its provenance and history, but are no longer fussy about being tied to an individual brand. They don’t attend beer festivals or events, they buy their beer from the supermarket and their purchasing decisions are usually motivated by price over quality. In a pub they’d be just as a happy with a pint of Carling as they would with a Guinness or Doom Bar. Or perhaps these days even a Gamma Ray or a Punk IPA. Theirs is a blissful existence that beer enthusiasts can only dream about.
Then, of course, there’s the new wave of British beer geeks. These are the people of a predominantly younger generation who are deeply interconnected and excited by brands, their story and beers provenance. This community was arguably created by the rise of modern U.S. craft beer culture and a sudden, massive increase in interconnectivity thanks to blogs, Youtube and social media. This group is the catalyst for the emergence of a modern British beer culture. But it’s important to note here that without the other two groups these sparks would have had no kindling to ignite.
A lot of this once untempered enthusiasm for beer is gradually becoming more refined. In fact in all facets of modern consumerism the person at the end of the chain is becoming increasingly knowledgeable, especially so with products such as beer. These days the people at the end of the chain give a gigantic damn about where their money goes and what they’re getting with it.
I have always longed for UK beer culture to be a little closer to the one I experience when I visit the US. A culture that’s, on the face of it, altogether more inclusive and offers the customer an incredibly broad range of products at a multitude of price points. One where a consumer can walk into an ordinary bar and find twenty high-quality beverages on tap and know that they’re not only going to get something that suits their palate, but that it’s going to be great.
This new beer culture that myself and many others covet is now becoming a reality, and it’s one I’m embracing with both arms outstretched. Importantly, I feel that the fear that our beer culture is becoming Americanised is proving to be unfounded. Although US beer culture is having a massive influence on our own, so are those present in Belgium and Germany, to a smaller extent. Mostly though, it’s an unfounded fear because us Brits are, well, stoically British – and are perfectly capable of carving our own deep niche into global drinking culture.
The centre of that Venn diagram is where I think the future and continued development of UK beer culture exists. It demonstrates an ever-increasing number of individuals who care about brand, who care about provenance, who care about variety and who most importantly of all care about damn good beer. It’s a community that wholly embraces cask ale along with its own culture and history. It’s one that loves lager, bitter, hefeweizen, sours and whatever other styles British brewers choose to create. It’s one that accepts and embraces the influence that other beer cultures have on our own – and one that allows itself to influence others.
It’s to this growing market sector that breweries should be marketing their beer and they should do it with the utmost honesty and transparency. This is the consumer sector that breweries should be working as hard as possible to grow – because as it does, so does great British beer.
In the past decade when a new generation of UK drinkers found its own way to enjoy beer, British beer culture began to splinter. But it’s amongst these splinters that I see this new culture maturing. It’s time we accepted that the face of British beer culture is changing forever – but remember that it’s a culture that accepts, and most importantly respects every aspect of British beer culture that came before it, that made it what it is in the first place.