OK, so the link between the title and the subject is a bit tenuous, but it's one that elicits a real knee-jerk reaction in me every time. It's about the gap between the beer producer and the beer drinker, and specifically who fills that gap. At a point where the volumes consumed in the on-trade and off-trade are roughly equal, with trends suggesting that the off-trade will eclipse the on-trade in the next few years, who is connecting producers and consumers?
You'd be forgiven for believing that the supermarkets are king when it comes to beer. Certainly, nobody tries to compete with them when it comes to commodity beer. They have a stranglehold on that market, although interestingly, very few people talk about the time when Tesco delisted Carling due to a price rise, and then caved in and relisted it after a month of people saying "what do you mean you don't stock Carling?" (see here, for example). Whatever you may think about Molson-Coors, it takes some guts to tell a notoriously tough-dealing supermarket that you're not going to play ball with its pricing policy.
But I digress.
Who is connecting brewers and drinkers these days? The big book of BBPA stats that plopped onto my doormat the other day suggests half of it is the on-trade, and half off-trade (50.9% vs 49.1%, if you want to be picky). Now let's assume that 80% of the beers in the off trade are volume brands, that leaves 20% of the volume that might be said to be premium bottled beer. The more alert amongst you will already have noticed that this is only around 10% of the market, but crucially, this is where the growth and the value is at present.
But aside from that, why would you expect supermarkets to get this sort of thing right anyway? Surely if you're looking at a 10% market share (and if you're talking about 'craft' beer, my hunch is that you're looking at less than a 1% market share), this is the realm of the specialist, and when you talk about bottled beer, you're talking about specialist off licences. So when I see articles like this well-intentioned piece on the Guardian's "Word of Mouth" blog, which in turn references Mark's piece about Tesco's epic beer fail, it makes me want to slam my fingers in a drawer, because at no point does anyone say "of course, you'd be better off seeking out a local independent off-licence, which will have a better range and better-informed, more passionate staff". And while I rarely draw comparisons between beer and wine (which I think is like comparing meat and cheese - THEY ARE DIFFERENT THINGS!), I will say that it's almost taken for granted that you will get more interesting wine at an independent wine merchant than you ever will at a supermarket.
So why is everyone acting so surprised that it's any different for beer? Sure, I have a vested interest. I declare it over there, on the right - a shop, a mail-order service, and a wholesaling business. It's what I do, and I'm currently doing it to the detriment of what I vainly refer to as "my career as a writer", because it's something that I believe passionately in. The simple fact is, there's an amazing network of great beer off-licences in the UK that simply don't get the respect they deserve. From relative newcomers like Eddy at The Beer Boutique in Putney and Anthony at Alexander Wines in Coventry, to stalwarts like Muree at The Offie in Leicester and Krishan at Stirchley Wines in Birmingham, Drink of Fulham, Trafalgar Wines in Brighton - the list could go on (and maybe it should - shall we start a list?). Sure I supply those guys with some of their beer, but that's not why I'm writing this. I'm writing this because unless those businesses get the support they need, they won't be around for ever.
So don't be surprised that the supermarkets don't get it right. By and large, they don't sell the best of anything - that is still the domain of the specialist. The interesting stuff happens in that tiny 1% of the market - that's the bit we're all interested in. Support the specialists. Use them or lose them, folks. To return to the title of the post: "Reach for my hand, and the race is won. Reject my hand, and the damage is done"
*with apologies to Morrissey