Saturday 7 February 2015

On Local Beer (And A Sudden Recant)

It was something I read over at Stan's blog that has had me thinking about local beer for months.The fundamental question that I kept coming back to was simple: what is local beer? It's a question that has spawned several long-lasting threads in my mind.

At one level, local beer is local beer. It's beer that is produced and consumed within a tight geographical locality. There are obvious geograhical constrraints to beer that is unique to, or celebrated as being from, a particular locality. Cantillon and Brussels, Schlenkerla and Bamberg. But that reply is too trite, too obvious - that means that all beer is local beer, and just by starting a brewery and brewing beer, you are making local beer. So that's obviously not quite right. And the extension of this is that if you become a successful brewery, and sell your beer nationally, or internationally, does that make you less of a local brewery, making less local beer? Is reach a factor in local beer?

So maybe it's more to do with engagement? So this takes the initial theory about local beer being just what it says on the tin, and adds how the community around the brewery engages with the beer, or conversely, how the brewery engages with the local community. So local beer isn't just about the beer, but it's how the brewery has been adopted by the people around it. Is engagement another thing to consider when talking about local beer?

That got me to thinking about other things that might have a local aspect. So football (that's soccer to my American readers) is something that over the last 50 years has moved from being a local phenomenon - geographically tight followers supporting a team made up of (relatively) local players - to a much more dispersed fanbase supporting a team with a much more geographically disparate membership. Can the same be said for beer? And can that beer be considered local?

Well, on the first count, I think it can. I cut my drinking teeth at a time when the beer business was largely simple and transparent (in relative terms). I drank at the Wyndham Arms in Salisbury when the Hop Back Brewery was in the back yard. The brewery eventually moved 10 miles down the road, but it's still a brewery making its own beer. But the beer business isn't like that any more. Start-ups now look to the export market as part of their business plan. It isn't even necessary to have a brewery to be a successful brewery - there are many globally celebrated "cuckoo" brands, and still more breweries who contract when capacity is exceeded. And that's all fine by me. You pays your money and takes your choice.

And are those international beer brands local? Well, this is where it gets messy, because what constitutes local has changed massively. In the relatively new world of the internet and social media (20 years old tops, and more like 10 years if you view Facebook as a key factor), you find communities that are geographically dispersed, but still hugely engaged with certain brands. And this operates across all sectors, from macro, to craft-macro (say Sierra Nevada) to craft-niche (say Mikkeller and Evil Twin). While these communities aren't geographically tightly located, they have their homes online, and essentially function as a locally engaged community.

Which brings us to the surprising conclusion that local beer is alive and well, but it means a variety of different things to a variety of different people, because the meaning of local has been changed by technology.

At least, that's what I thought until I saw it written down just now. But when I read the last bit back, it sounded like so much nonsense that I'm not so sure any more. So does a beer have to have genuine, geographically local support before it can be called local beer? Or is it less local the more widely that engagement is dispersed?