Wednesday, 28 July 2010

My Words, Thrown Back In My Face.

I've swapped a few emails recently with Stan Hieronymous. He's reviewing a few books for 'All About Beer' magazine, including '500 Beers'. I'd been fairly frank in my discussion of a few things relating to the book, and he's extracted a few bits of the emails for inclusion in the article. One of these is the sentence "Beer's future rests on cultivating those curious amateurs, and, in the UK at least, home drinkers". When I saw it, I thought that it would likely provoke some interesting discussion.

A week rarely passes without being asked "is this an ale or a bitter?" or "is this a lager or a beer?". There's clearly still a lot of work to do at ground level in terms of education, and it's pretty clear where this education will happen. I'd argue that it's the job of specialist retailers to answer those questions, and educate people to the differences. the offering of even a great pub or bar is outstripped by the offering of even an average beer off-licence. The beer-curious could always look up information on the web, of course, but there's no substitute for spending 10 minutes with someone who really knows their stuff.

And what of my assertion that beer's future lies in cultivating home drinkers? Well, I certainly believe it, and although cask ale is best enjoyed in a pub (and let's not forget, it's the only on-trade beer sector in growth at present), and must surely be about to reclaim it's place as one of the UK's great foodie treasures, the offering on a good bar is limited. But as people learn more about beer, their curiosity will grow and their heads will be turned to the pleasures of bottled beer.

Here's the final paragraph of my column for the next issue of Off Licence News. I was hoping it might raise some interesting points for discussion:

"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. And crucially, this was a pleasure that you could enjoy at home. The last couple of decades has, for various reasons, seen a growth in home drinking and entertaining, and I think 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"

[Note: This post has had a re-write overnight - I hope the spirit of the original is still in place]


  1. I think in Britain home drinking has just over pubs as being where the majority of alcohol is drunk. In the US 90% of alcohol is drunk at home. Home drinking is indeed where most of beer's future lies.

  2. While there is likely to be a continued rise in the appreciation and consumption of "craft" beer, I'm very doubtful that we will see a renaissance in appreciation of beer comparable with that of wine, for the following reasons:

    1. The decline of on-trade consumption still has a very long way to go before it bottoms out

    2. There is virtually no writing about beer in the mainstream media. How many quality newspapers have a wine column? And how many a beer column?

    3. The only significant beer consumer organisation in the UK does not promote (shall we leave it at that) a wide swathe of quality craft beers

  3. "Beer's future rests on cultivating those curious amateurs"

    Do you mean that in terms of the next generation of pro breweres being todays amateurs?

  4. "In the US 90% of alcohol is drunk at home" - this may well be one of the reasons that I drink far less now that I have moved to the US, I am really not much of one for drinking en masse at home. I much prefer the comfort and sociability of the pub.

    However, I think that the availability of bottled beer is only one reason for the majority of drinking being in the home over here. A bigger reason I would suggest, in particular outside of the bigger cities, is the reliance on the car as a mode of transport. Without a well funded, efficient and reliable public transport system trips to the pub mean needing a designated driver or if you are foolish enough, breaking a state's DUI laws.

    Here in Virginia if you want to sell alcohol you are required to serve food as well - which is sensible enough but it does rather create a culture of restaurants with beer lists rather than pubs. Thus the contradiction seemingly of a growing craft beer scene and a diminished pub culture.

    I would lament the future of beer being home drinking, simply because beer has always been the great leveller of society - the everyman drink as opposed to the working man's drink of lore. I can think of many times I have been in the pub sat with blue collar workers, top executives at multi-national corporations, the occasional actor/actress doing a film locally (that was Prague mostly), all in a single room enjoying beer.

    You simply do not get that with wine. Home drinking simply encourages financial apartheid within the beer drinking community. Beer and people belong in the pub.

  5. Is it not the case that some other US states prohibit the selling of food and alcohol for consumption on the premises in the same establishment?

  6. Ed - I think it's more or less equal, but in terms of trends, home drinking is on the up.

    Curmudgeon - again, in terms of trends, it's my feeling (and clearly I'm biased, but also observant) that there is a significant increse in coverage of beer by the mainstream media, whereas because wine columns have become part of the landscape, they have been cut back or cut entirely in recent months.

    Chunk - I guess that is a bit unclear. I really meant beer drinkers who are getting into flavoursome "craft" beer, and want to expand their knowledge and drinking repertoire.

    Velky Al - I agree with you that it would be a shame, but all the trends point towards it. I do wonder how much of that sentiment you express (and to a certain extent, a similar feeling comes through in Curmudgeon's blog) is more to do with nostalgia or a wish for an idealised drinking experience/society/life (that's just an observation, not a criticism).

  7. Pub drinking is a bit like the lottery. "You have to be in it to win it". If you have been steeped in pub drinking for a long time, you can adapt to almost any pub and get the things that make you comfortable and content out of it. If you have a local or locals where people know you, that makes the experience a much broader one.

    If you rarely go, you will doubt the point of it much more readily.

    But you are probably right about trends, though I reckon I'll be singing with the choir invisible before it affects me.

  8. Zak,

    I am sure there is a certain amount of nostalgia on my part, and perhaps as a Brit who has lived outside the country now for over a decade, I am out of touch with pub life in the UK. Having said that, whenever I do make it back home, I make it a point to find a local pub or two to try wherever I am, and so far I have found some wonderful places, the King's Arms in Oxford stands out in my mind.

    I think though we need to look at pub culture within the wider context of society in general. For all our mobiles, twitters and blogs, society seems to be becoming more and more fragmented as people spend their lives (and I realise the irony of what I saying) staring at a screen rather than being with people.

    Perhaps one of the reasons for drinking at home becoming more popular is because it is easier to drink in the comfort of your armchair, and being cynical then write about it on Twitter/RateBeer/BeerAdvocate for other people sitting in their chairs doing the same, than it is to wander of down the pub and establish real relationships with other locals and the staff.

    Even when I am in one of my 2 week beer free stints, I still like to go to the pub and see people I know and whose company I enjoy. Being nostalgic, the pub was always the heart of the community, and with the death of community (blame Thatcher ;) hehe) the demise of the pub was inevitable. Don't like it though.

  9. Tandleman - maybe you're right, I am a bit out of practice, and the pubs within easy walking distance aren't wroth visiting.

    Velky - I sort of agree with what you're saying, although someone (and I forget who it was) pointed out to me that peoples' homes are simply nicer places to be now than they were 20 years ago. I guess by that, they mean that there are more leisure options available to homebodies, even if that extends to drinking. WHen was the phrase "staying in is the new going out" coined?


Sorry about the word verification - the blog was getting spammed to bits.