Thursday, 21 July 2016

Power to the Punters

In this post, Yvan from Jolly Good Beer talks straight about supply chain quality for beer, and the often frustrating lack of shits being given about it. Yvan suggests that a push for better practice should come from brewers, anxious to maintain their reputations by getting their beer into people's glasses in better condition.

As a punter, I see a more obvious source of pressure for better beer at the point of dispense, namely, me. My problem, though, is that if I have some particular beer that's just "okay" rather than "great", I can't always tell whether the beer's not fresh enough, not to my taste, or just not that good. Over time, I might start to associate some pubs with consistently good beer more than others, but it's a slow and uncertain process, and it'll take a long time to turn into any sort of market pressure.

So in an ideal world, if I'm going to pay top dollar for beers at a self-proclaimed craft beer bar, I'd like to be able to look at their website and see a note above their tap list reassuring me that all of these beers are going to be in perfect condition because the keg beer has barely been out of coldstore from the moment it left the fermenter to the moment it comes out of the tap. I'd also see when the hoppy stuff was kegged, too, so I'd know that it wasn't some months old keg they picked up for cheap. I wouldn't expect this from every village pub, but if you're going to charge me six quid a pint then I want to see some justification.

The reason that this doesn't happen is presumably that I'm a relatively unusual punter. I'm aware of this stuff through talking to people like Yvan, and I suspect that a lot of people, like me until quite recently, don't really think about what happens between the brewery and the glass at all. There's also a tendency to assume that keg beer is basically inert and so nothing you can do to it will make much difference to what comes out of the tap.

Which brings me round to this blog post from Matt "Total Ales" Curtis.

In it, he argues (again) that for the good of UK beer culture, we need to come up with a definition of craft beer. In the inevitable Twitter argument that ensued, he made the point that the US is light years ahead of us in terms of standards and professionalism - which is probably true - and that we need to start catching up.

For my money, the way that beer writers can help us to catch up is by educating drinkers about the stuff that we ought to care more about. It's not about telling us stories or spreading "passion", or even about defining "craft beer", fun though those things can be, but about making us aware of the relatively dry technical stuff that makes the difference between great beer and shonky cash-ins. It's about celebrating pubs who'd rather sell the freshest beer than the beer that makes the biggest margin, and the distributors who are proud of their coldstores. It's about questioning the "craft lagers" whose brewers keep suspiciously quiet about lagering times. It's not about the big picture of defining craft, but about the simple, quantifiable, objective stuff that could help punters to spot when they're being taken for a ride. It's about informed drinkers, who are going to challenge the industry to raise its game.


  1. Addenda:
    i) Obviously there's more to beer writing than educating drinkers about supply chain issues! But maybe that is something that more beer writers could be thinking about?
    ii) It does seem like throwing down the gauntlet on the matter of freshness and proper storage is something that the best pubs and bars should be doing, though, particularly as the market gets more crowded.

  2. I think part of this is about the long-term viability of breweries and bars - hell, maybe of the "craft" sector as a whole. There are too many disappointing glasses of what should be good beer out there.

    Of course this has long been the case of cask, "it doesn't travel well" - well, there are reasons for that that are usually nowt to do with the beer or brewery.

    But the trend for vibrantly hoppy beers brings about a different set of problems with the same root causes in the supply chain.


  3. ...

    I've a vague hope that a few folk doing it right will start to show up those who don't. Jonny from Hereford Beer House seems to be seeing as much already going by his comment on the Facebook post.

    Problem at the moment is most "craft beer bars" just want "brands" and most breweries just want sales. The bit in-between isn't given any thought. So we have dozens of folk distributing "craft beer" where kegs of Session IPAs are right at this moment sat at 20C or more in a shed.

    I've done a bunch of my own testing on this stuff. In the vague hope that these beers were more robust than I thought. But my suspicions generally prove correct. And this is an easy experiment for anyone to do, across various beers: Get a 6-pack - put 3 in the fridge, 3 somewhere warm-ish (shop temperatures...) and taste them as a warm/cold pair (chill the warm one 1st obviously!) at intervals. One month, 2, 3... and changes present even at 1 week, 2, 3... especially at summer temperatures where some of these warehouses are higher-than-ambient internally. (And retailer shelves are another matter here... one that really needs fixing, I also cite Jonny's exemplar of an establishment for this - it really isn't hard, it just needs shop owners to have a real passion for the quality of their product.)

    If you want consistent product and higher consumer acceptance of your product you need to look after it well. It seems quite simple really. And in my role in distribution I see it as my duty to both the brewer and drinker to ensure the product I deliver is in as close a state as possible as to what it was when it left the brewery. Unfortunately neither breweries or bars show any appreciation for this - for your typical brewer a sale is a sale, and for your typical bar brand+price are all that matter.

    1. ...

      There are of course quality issues all across the supply chain for beer. Be it a plethora of brewers who's practices are slipshod at best, pallets lost for days in summer in ambient transit, distributors with beers sat under a tarp outdoors (yes, this is a thing), shops with beer on warm shleves, and "craft beer" lines with grim dispense cleanliness and top-pressure kegs dispensed with compressed air. I've seen it all... I'm trying to do my small bit within the part of the system I sit at, but it often feels like it is of little use - in economic terms it is a competitive disadvantage.

      It would be good to see more folk caring about the product more than about the brand... maybe this will come with further maturity in the "craft beer" sector. If bars and shops start taking this seriously as well then the consumer should notice the difference and quality might actually become a competitive advantage.

      I don't think drinkers need to be *educated* to be able to pick a beer in great shape from the same beer in grim shape. I reckon it tends to be pretty evident. I know pubs that buy Neck Oil by the pallet and it sits in their 12C cellar for 3 or 4 months. This is basically my smallpack experiment done en-masse... and I drop fresh kegs of Neck Oil regularly to other venues and I've had feedback about the difference between this beer in one of my venues and the same in the pallet-o-beer one. It never makes me happy to see huge stockpiles of beer in bar cellars. Bar owners cynically retort "our customers are only drinking the brand anyway, it doesn't really matter"... well, joyousness...

      Drinkers need experience, and perhaps to be educated, to work this out when there is no better competition of course. The next step, as I see it, is for more beer-savvy folk to open bars and shops that do it *RIGHT* and up the game, show up the craft-pretenders who're focused only on GP and brand with little interest in quality.

      Rant. Over. Oooops. Sorry about that, I just sat and typed and this lot came out... Apologies for any typos... it's hard to reviews in this tiny text box :-p

    2. I guess the not-completely-implausible scenario that I'm imagining is for some number of new places and/or one or two of the more established chains - Brewdog or the Taps or the Craft Beer Co or someone - to turn it into a selling point that they publicise. Which seems like it ought to be reasonable business as the market gets more crowded and people start to look for an extra selling point beyond just having a decent beer range. "Hey customers, sure there's loads of bars with good ranges, why take a chance going somewhere where the beer might be well past its peak when you come here, where it's guaranteed to be at its best?"

      And if even a decent proportion of the customers take this on board then you get consumer pressure, and some incentive for people to raise standards across the board.