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?


  1. No, the meaning of 'local' hasn't been changed by technology.

    Yes, people can and do feel a real sense of identification with breweries which aren't geographically local to them, which is comparable to the identification you might have with the local brewery.

    But no, it's not the same thing; 'comparable' doesn't mean 'identical'. Perhaps the main factor is that local identification is at most only partly chosen. If you're a Mikkeller fan, it's because you tried their beer & decided it was really good - it's your decision. You can't help who is going to open a brewery down your street, or (more importantly) who opened a brewery down your street 10 or 100 years before you started drinking beer.

    A lot of people are really resistant to the idea that things are getting worse in any way, or that progress means that anything is being lost: talk about folk songs and they'll say ah, but aren't the pop songs of today the folk songs of tomorrow? No, they're not - the world has changed, in ways that are good (no rickets) but also bad (no folk songs). Similarly with localness (locality?) - it's been massively eroded over the last few decades, in ways that are good (I can go to my local bar and drink Weird Beard or Wild or Camden) but also bad (if Manchester pubs sell beer from all over, what's the Manchester style of beer?).

    1. Thanks Phil, you've sort of helped clarify the question a bit. The bit that I really struggle with is when there's a beer with a very distinct local identity like Cantillon, which is indelibly linked to its place of production, but is so sought after on a global scale that is actually hard to find outside is immediate locality.

      And equally, if Boddingtons was once an archetypal Manchester beer (pale and markedly bitter), is that a local style of nobody is being it? Or is Marble Manchester Bitter now the torch bearer for the local style.

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  2. I like the engagement thing to define local. The flesh and bone kind of engagement, mind you, where the brewery plays a role in its town that often goes beyond solely making and selling beer. From the point of view of this side of the counter, it would mean a brewery where I can go to physically without needing to make any special plan or requiring a special occasion. Needless to say, a properly local beer will have a taproom of sorts.

    But like many other things, how important "local" is, it's very much open to debate. If the brewery in village was rubbish, local or or not, I wouldn't give them my business.

  3. Isn't the real problem that "local" simply does not fit? You have described engagement and loyalty and even locality but " local" is just a bit useless when it comes to beer. Fresh beer is good but in the US most fresh beer is made of regionally and internationally imported ingredients. It is too manufactured and subject to too large a supply chain.

  4. I think 'local beer' is something of a misnomer in general. Yes it may produced locally, but when the malt is from Germany, the hops from the Pacific Northwest, the yeast from Scotland, and the water has been stripped of its minerals and then has stuff added back in to match the water profile of somewhere else, is it really local at all?

    Such beers may have (god I hate this word) 'terroir', but it is not the terroir of the place where it is being brewed, so that concept is blown for most beer straight out of the gate.

    Being brutally honest, we should only talk about 'local breweries' and the beer as being just beer. Very few beers can claim to be truly local.

  5. Local is any beer brewed and sold in a place. Engagement adds a value that is subjective and not necessary in any case to the concept. It doesn't matter that beer uses ingredients sourced from far away. That has always been so, beer has always been made with stocked ingredients or at least for a very long time. In the late 1800's, some English beer used malt made in part from American barley, and hops from Germany. It was still a pint local to were the brewery is. Heineken is local to Amsterdam (except where brewed afar under license, and in that case it is local to that area). Meantime Porter is local to Greenwich, London. Fuller's to west London.

    The quality of all these and degree of identification are irrelevant to the question of place (IMO). If one doesn't accept this, ironies will arise which are insupportable. I'd wager in west London, even within a small concentric circle from Fuller's brewery, a majority of pub goers drink lager. They would say London Pride isn't local for them. Does this mean Pride isn't a local beer? Of course not.


  6. I'm not sure about your last point, either.

    But I think you're dead right that localism - or at least, the bit of localism that makes for better and more interesting beer - is a social / cultural thing rather than a logistical one. To me it's about a beer style that's evolved to make sense within a particular drinking culture in a particular environment, and brewers who come from that culture and understand the style and have spent most of their careers mastering the art of brewing it. It'd be relatively hard, for instance, for an American craft brewer to make a great UK-style session bitter, because a) they're unlikely to have tried many of them at their best and b) they're particularly unlikely to have spent lots of evenings drinking six or so pints of the same one.

    To me this is much more important than splitting hairs about exactly how far away your hops were grown.

  7. Thanks all for the extra thoughts. It's still bugging me, and there's something about the whole thing that I can't quite nail down. Something to do with tribes, technology, and the erosion of local "stuff"

  8. Is it more about dilettantism vs expertise? Breadth vs depth of experience?

    As in, it used to be assumed that to brew a world-beating weissbier you had to have grown up in Bavaria, developed a taste for the stuff at a young age and drunk it on a daily basis since, coming to appreciate all it's nuances. You then had to have spent years training at a traditional brewery where you mastered every aspect of the process before taking a few cautious steps to try to improve on it. Whereas now we seem to be getting closer to thinking that to brew a world-beating weissbier you have to have tried a few different bottles, got a recipe off the internet and done a few trial batches. And dry hopped it with loads of New World hops, because everything tastes more awesome dry hopped with loads of New World hops.

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