Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Right Here, Right Now

Stuart Ross of Crown Brewery enjoying some at-seat service on the way home from the GBBF 2009
Beer geeks (and I include myself in that non-derogatory term) will be delighted by the news that Vertical Drinks (their Facebook group is here) have just become UK importers for Delaware-based Dogfish Head, producers of many celebrated beers including their 90 Minute IPA, one of the classics of the Double IPA style.

Flying Dog also seem to be on a roll at the moment, with some of their more unusual offerings landing in Europe yesterday, including Raging Bitch (terrible name, great beer). Stone are musing about opening a brewery in Europe. BrewDog are building a reputation (and a deservedly successful business) on unashamedly bold, American-inspired ales.

This is great, but I wonder, does it take some of the magic out of beer geekery? Mark Dredge is talking about his forthcoming beer trip, and in fact it's something that I am (or rather, was) hoping to do next summer. To me, it makes sense going to the source and drinking these beers in their natural habitat. But having them easily available in the UK? Doesn't having these beers dropped in your lap take some of the shine out of it? Do these beers speak of a place and an ethos if you can mail-order them to your door, or go and buy them in Tescos?


  1. I agree that making beers available too easily takes some of the fun out of it.

  2. There's always going to be stuff that will be hard to find. The fact that the likes of Flying Dog or Stone being more easily available speaks of their success, and I suppose the important thing is you can get them and enjoy them. Maybe the hardcore geek inside all of us will simply seek out the other harder to find stuff while Flying Dog etc... become staples?

    Of course, living in Germany everything other than German beer is hard to get! :)

  3. Spot on, Zak. If you want to be a big game hunter you don't have lions posted to you: you go to Africa and shoot them there.

  4. Zak surely the whole point is to drink the beer at the ur-source otherwise you might as well pull the curtains shut and turn into a hermit. Some beers don’t travel that well either. I remember drinking Bud Strong or whatever it is called at Prague airport and it bore no resemblance to the alcoholic juice I had encountered in the UK. On the other hand, if you both visit a place and then drink it at home as well, you can get too different impressions — I find that notes taken in the field are more Van Gough, while notes at home do tend to have more discipline when I have time and quiet to craft them.

  5. It kinda depends whether the magic is in the beer or in the kudos of exclusivity. If the magic is an intrinsic feature of the beer then its wider availability is an opportunity to share your joy with a greater number of people. If Tesco flog it cheaper then even more people will try it. However there is no snob value in a beer that is available and accessible to all and it only loses its magic if snob value is an important feature of the product.

  6. On my experience it is the magic of the beer and the surroundings rather than any snob value, I grew out of that during the coloured vinyl days of punk, mind you it would be interesting to try Morrisons’ lager at the factory gate and then after it’s been cooking in the heat of the store, there would be nuances and differences between the two that would have Oz Clarke sitting there with tears streaming down his walnut like face.

  7. is that the only image you could find of DFH beer?

  8. Good stuff, Dogfish head do some very interesting beers. I even got my mum to bring me some back when she was last in Delaware!

  9. You wouldn't take michelin starred food (top quality beer), put it in a plastic container (glass bottle or tin can), take it home and then warm it in the microwave (chill it in the fridge), would you? It wouldn't taste the same as if you had it fresh in the restaurant.

    Beer is made to travel by commercial necessity. I'm sure every brewer, if they could, would just serve their beer fresh from the brewery. Drink it where it came from and you get the sense of the soul and the heart of it.

    The trouble is... it costs a lot of money to go and visit these breweries and drink everything local. You also need a lot of spare time. If you could only drink things at source then how limited is your drinking going to be? And Beer-Ritz might not be the beer emporium that it is!

  10. The magic of beer enjoyed in it's home surroundings and the fun of hunting beers down can't be denied, whether its in Prague, Saltaire or a far flung corner of the globe. If it weren't for our global infrastructure most beers would remain enigmas that could only be enjoyed in their home environment by locals or the very rich.

    But it'll be a while before my life allows me beer excursions trekking through jungles or climbing precarious cliff faces to reach those elusive beers, so I do appreciate it that I can sample some of the world's finest beers from the comfort of Yorkshire.

    Perhaps I'll change my mind when Tesco announce they've done a deal to stock Pliny the Elder all year round...!

  11. Remember that breweries like Dogfish Head, Flying Dog and Stone (where's the "Dog"?) are grocery store and even gas station beers in my near southern neighbour of New York state, which is miles away from where they are made. They are effectively national brands now. Great business model but not certain if it is still geekery.

    What you still can do and should want to do and still can do is sit in southern Michigan or Portland Maine or Portland Oregon and have every local beer in the context of its community. That is the fun of the hunt.

  12. Fun? Fish-in-barrel stuff, Alan. Scouring the backstreets of Seoul or Cairo for brewpubs: that's the thrill of the chase.

  13. Interesting stuff this. Maybe this 'ere globalisation has a down side? Or is it an up side?

    While it is nice indeed to be able to drink the odd exotic in the UK, maybe, just maybe the thought will occur that drinking bottled beer from X, Y and Z isn't nearly as appealing as drinking it in X, Y and Z. Maybe the up side is that it will make you think saving for that trip worthwhile? It may even prompt you to make the trip. Or will it just make you think "I've had that, no point in going". Can scoffing a bottle of Uerige Sticke in your kitchen ever be the same as being in Uerige on Sticke night for example? Can you even say you've actually drunk 'the' beer?

    Certainly no amount of bottled beer from Portland Or. would make me wish that I hadn't gone there, sought out the breweries and pubs I wanted to go to and sampled it myself, in the pub, or brewery, on draught, with real live Oregonian mates and actually living the experience. Perhaps Stone's popularity among British geeks is as likely to be because they can get it, as much as its intrinsic quality? More availability isn't necessarily a good thing. (Incidentally my Yankee mates don't rate Stone at all highly, but then again, they have so much else to go at.)

    I'm with Beer Nut. The thrill of the chase. You may have to save up and do it bit at a time over a long time, but it's so much better than bottles at home.

  14. "Scouring the backstreets of Seoul or Cairo for brewpubs..." !!!

    "'s so much better than bottles at home." !!!

    I must be too old and too mortgaged at 46 but give me a week, a cottage, a van, the US interstate highway system and a map, yes, with brew pubs but also the minor league baseball, BBQ joints and great bottle shops so that I can bring a great haul back to put back over time.

    Franz Ferdinand may have been right when they suggested "it's always better on holiday" but I would hate to spend my winters gnashing my teeth wishing I were elsewhere when I can spend it by the fire popping the bottles of US wild ale or deep dark Belgians gained from the last summer's huntings. Bottles at home are trophies of the safari that went before and equally valid to ticking off the pubs and pissups in foreign lands.

  15. The interesting thing for me is having travelled to places, drunk the beer at source, and then been dragged back there in a Proustian way (there you go, Adrian) when I next drink the beer at home. One of my peak beer experiences (so far) was being poured Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse from the conditioning tank by Garrett Oliver himself. It tasted comparitively crap but still delicious out of a bottle in Leeds, but was a vivid illustration about why you would go to the source to try a beer.

    I think there's a lot to be said for travelling to try the beer in it's natural habitat, and Mark (Dredge), I'm envious of the journey you're going on shortly. I think that a couple of European city breaks are going to be my beer expereince this year (and I look forward to them with almost as much relish as trip to California. Almost)

    Alan - context and mythology are very important. I hear Benny Hill and Are You Being Served? are still seen as classic British comedy in the US. Isn't it more about the aura than the product sometimes?

    Cookie - the problem about Tesco flogging it cheap is that people who buy on price will try it and have their preconceptions about pongy ale reinforced. There needs to be a price differential so that the lout drinkers understand what they're getting into

    Tandleman - you're right,of course, but does the ease of buying rarer beers (do they bottle Sticke?) detract from their mythology?

  16. "There needs to be a price differential so that the lout drinkers understand what they're getting into"
    Haha! I've heard this argument several times. Strangely, it only ever seems to come from people who make money by selling beer.

  17. Beer Nut, I know where you're coming from, but equally it's galling to see big operators be able to add just a few pence profit to a bottle and still make it worth their while selling it.

    As a retailer, I try to make sure that people buy beer they like, not beer that will make me the most profit. I know that might seem unusual, but it's a model that has kept people coming back for a decade, so there must be something in it.

    Personally, I think Flying Dog are undervaluing their excellent beers by selling them in Tesco, but that's the market for you.

    I don't hold with the notion that supermarkets screw over the brewers - they know what they are letting themselves in for when they sign up and hand over their listing fees. It's about volume rather than anything else, but it does skew peoples' perceptions of what a beer is actually worth. But that's such a complex toic as to warrant a post of its own.

  18. Well, with any luxury product, what it's worth is what people will pay for it. But I know exactly what you mean, and that your business model is a very different one to Tesco's -- and your customer base is better served for that. I'm blessed with several local beer specialists that take the same approach.

    My point, really, is that there is no customer interest served by charging more for a beer than necessary. Talk of "brand devaluation" and the like always sounds to me like a thin cover on gouging the punters.

  19. I am with Beer Nut. I can buy Ommegang 750 ml bottles in CNY corner stores for around 5 bucks. Heck, I can get Orval for around 3.50 for 330 ml here in Ontario at the government monopoly. I want ease. I want my budget to be taken into account through the marvel of the marketplace. I was young once and could deal with myth and aura and pay for it but time is running out and the kids need shoes. I want good beer at a reasonable price. If Ommegang and Orval can make enough to keep going at those prices I am willing to support them by buying.

  20. They do bottle Sticke. Actually.

  21. "Talk of "brand devaluation" and the like always sounds to me like a thin cover on gouging the punters."

    Some need no excuse. I'm feeling generous, so I won't name names.

  22. I couldn't agree more on the magic of going to the source, but another way of looking at it is that if we couldn't get any exotic beers in bottles I'd never have been inspired to find more beers and appreciate them and would never have been inspired to want to go and search out breweries and beers.

    As soon as Sarah finds a job my pennies will start to go to saving for all the trips we have planned, but magic or no magic, money is the biggest obstacle and I doubt I'll sea the seaside in the next year let alone foreign soils.

  23. I have a minor issue with this notion of “people that buy on price”. Everyone to a lesser or greater degree buys on price. There is a price that everyone that has commentated on here would baulk at paying. As much as many may love beer there is a price at which people would say no thanks, its only beer. Beer has never historically been an exclusive product; it’s always been a product of the people available and accessible to all.

    When you look at all those dismissive of cheap grog and Tesco providing quality products cheaper than elsewhere, I conclude and I think I conclude correctly that what they are dismissive of are poor people. That it’s okay for a professional middle class person (of which I am admittedly one I have no chip on this shoulder) to drink as much as they like, the problem is all those poor people getting pissed.

    I love Tesco, they flog national and international brands cheap, and they flog unusual products of the small brewers of the globe comparatively cheaper than the same product elsewhere. More people in the UK will try a bogoff at Tesco than any other store.

    But I’m a consumer, I don’t flog grog, only neck it.

  24. I agree with much of what you say Cookie, except your assertion that beer has always been a product of the people. The grog of the people has come in many forms over the years (gin springs easily to mind), and the is a distinctly aristocratic edge to the history of barley wine.

    There's a lot of food for thought here, and I'll return to this idea of pricing at a later date. I guess as a retailer, it's such a part of my day-to-day life that I totally overlooked it.

  25. Beer is seen as a people's drink but there are still price tiers, the difference between mild and best bitter many years ago for instance.

    You're right that everyone has a price they'll baulk at Cookie, no matter what's on offer.

    Oh, except Newcastle United perhaps..

  26. It doesn't take any of the magic out of my experience. Without BeersOfEurope and BeerMerchants, I wouldn't have been able to sample any of the products of Stone, Port Brewing, Victory, Founders, Dogfish Head, Rogue, AleSmith and many others. I don't have the means to taste these beers at their source (at least, not very often).

    It's difficult enough acquiring this sort of stuff online. I think I probably do get a bit of an extra kick from the rarity of the beers and the effort involved in obtaining them. But there are undoubtedly lots of people who would appreciate the quality of these beers but are unable to go even to this sort of expense to obtain them. In this context, I think it would be impossible for any reasonable (and unselfish) person to advocate the continuation of inaccessibility of such products just so that the people who *are* able to acquire them can enjoy greater exclusivity of their experiences...

    (Of course, the experience of drinking something rare and difficult to get hold of is an entirely different phenomenon from that of drinking beer at its source and (perhaphs) in its best condition; nobody could reasonably object to the latter.)

  27. A nice summary of the arguments, Michael, thank you

  28. Beer is one of the 'businessiest' businesses going, the proliferation of beers in to the mainstream is pretty inevitable in my opinion. However I'm sure that great brewers will always produce stuff to get connoisseurs hot under the collar, it's all part of maintaining the mystique..


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