Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Geek Cred

In my experience it's a myth that all craft beer geeks reflexively dismiss traditional British family and regional breweries as producing "boring brown beer" that's not worth bothering with. What I'm more inclined to believe is that we have a typically geekish tendency to differentiate strongly and occasionally arbitrarily between between the breweries that, in our view, "exemplify a great brewing tradition" and the ones that "peddle mass-produced dishwater designed by accountants to a captive audience of tied houses."

Given this, and based on the fine beer blogging tradition of making general statements largely by extrapolating from your own opinions, I've assembled a non-comprehensive list of British family and regional brewers, ordered by how unsurprised I'd be to hear someone in the Craft Beer Co loudly telling anyone who'll listen that they actually make some really great traditional ales. As I said, this ranking is largely based on my own prejudices, and I'd be genuinely interested to hear any conflicting opinions - I might even try running a poll at some point to produce something a bit more authoritative.

With that out of the way, the rankings are as follows:

  1. Harveys
  2. Adnams
  3. Fullers
  4. Sam Smiths
  5. Timothy Taylor
  6. Theakstons
  7. JW Lees
  8. Hook Norton
  9. Batemans
  10. Brains
  11. Shepherd Neame
  12. Greene King
  13. Robinsons
  14. Thwaites
  15. Marstons
  16. Everards
  17. Mc Mullens
  18. Wells & Young

The "neo-nationals" on the list are assumed to include all of their subsidiaries and real ale sub-brands. Conversely, I've not tried to take account of how interested people might be in "craft" sub-brands - this is about how brewers are seen in their capacity as traditional brewers. St Austell would have ranked highly, but I've disqualified them for producing inadequately brown beer - their core range is practically a craft sub-brand in itself! Greene King are perhaps controversially high - this is based on the assumption that the rarity and interest of XX Mild and 6X outweight the ubiquity of IPA and Old Speckled Hen - whereas Harveys and Adnams seem like no-brainers for the top two - it's rare to hear a bad word spoken about either of them. And it's worth saying that even the lowest ranked of these aren't necessarily bad - I've happily drunk beer from almost all of them - just that I wouldn't expect them to inspire many beer geeks to actively seek out their pubs.

What do we learn from this? Well, I'm not a brand consultant, but if I was in a Hollywood bodyswap comedy where I'd woken up the body of one, and I had to bluff my way through a presentation aimed at reviving the fortunes of an ailing family brewer by helping them to connecting them with the younger, beer-geekier end of the market[1], here's what I'd say:

  • Brew distinctive, characterful beer. Obviously people can make a mint with nondescript but well marketed beer, but having a flagship product whose intrinsic properties make people want to tell their friends about it is a clear bonus.
  • Play to your strengths. Your strengths will probably be your history and regional identity, so see what you can do with those before trying to get all trendy. Be aware that everyone and his dog plays the history card, so you'll have to go the extra mile to be taken seriously on that front - it's not enough just to have old-fashioned pump clips or black-and-white pictures in your adverts, you'll need to have a quirky survivor of a style in your portfolio or start digging in the archive for historic recipes.
  • Be personal. Anyone can pay for advertising copy about how much they care about the quality of their beer, but if you have an opinionated head brewer who posts about it on Twitter then people might start to believe you.
  • A "craft" sub-brand isn't the answer in itself. If people think that your core range is designed by accountants, they'll probably assume that your "craft" range is as well.

[1] rather than following the potentially more lucrative strategy of connecting them with end of the market that isn't that interested in beer but can't be bothered with wine and knows that cider's for teenagers and yokels and lager's for football hooligans...


  1. St Austell an obvious, if not scandalous, omission.
    Your inclusion of GK is interesting given the odium they normally attract from the craft-erati, and the old stagers who remember when the likes of IPA had some flavour.
    I'd also be interested to hear what interesting beers you think the likes of McMullens now produce.

  2. Re St Austell, what is Cornish Best if not a "brown beer"?

  3. Greene King I really wasn't sure about - I'm probably biased because I regularly go to a pub that keeps their mild well. There's an argument for having them right at the bottom - as you say, they're frequently reviled - but they do still do the odd interesting thing.

  4. When I think of St Austell I think of Proper Job first (and I did say that the list is partly based on personal prejudice and I'd welcome other viewpoints!) and it doesn't really seem fair to compare that to, say, the Theakstons range.

    And I was trying to be unspecific with my "almost all of them" comment, but I'll admit that I haven't got much time for McMullens.

  5. OK, personally, I'd move Sam Smiths *way* down the list. Their bottled product is good, if pricy, but their cask/keg is rancid and their whole ethos is, at best, idiosyncratic and, at worst, bad for both staff and customers.

    I've still got a soft spot for Wells and Youngs, Ordinary remains drinkable and they still have some excellent pubs (among some less good). I'd also bump Everards a few places up, but then they are a real novelty for me. Would probably swap them with Shep Neame who I've really gone off over the last ten years...

    And GK should be last, obv ;)

  6. And Robbies' Old Tom in a wooden barrel on the bar is a lovely sight, even if I'm really not fussed on the rest of their range...

  7. Not on the list: Arkell's produce some moderate beers; I'd put them somewhere in the middle of that line up. Palmers are dreadful... except for Tally Ho. Never worked out how they manage to produce one beer that's rather good when all the rest of their stable is dismal. Still have a soft spot from my youth for Hall & Woodhouse's cask Tanglefoot; and some of their seasonals are quite decent e.g. Pickled Partridge.

  8. My take on your own list:

    Enjoy for the main part:
    - Adnams
    - Fullers
    - Timothy Taylor
    - Theakstons
    - Hook Norton
    - Thwaites

    All with the caveat that the sorts of pubs where you find any of these locally tend to be crap pubs and thus avoided. Adnams is perhaps the exception as we're not far off being on their local turf.

    Experience causes me to avoid drinking:
    - Batemans - strong dislike of most beers
    - Brains
    - Shepherd Neame
    - Greene King - strong dislike of most beers
    - Robinsons
    - Marstons
    - Everards
    - Mc Mullens
    - Wells & Young

    Mostly just not particularly interested, find them hard to enjoy. They just don't "do it" form me.

    Wouldn't know from a bar of soap:
    - Harveys - hear good things
    - Sam Smith - that twat isn't getting my money anyway
    - JW Lees - rarely even heard of

    I find it interesting that Bateman's is getting more cred than Thwaites on the @BoakAndBailey poll... ick. I am assuming people give Bateman's more cred because nationally they're less encountered and thus win by default. ;) I mean their "craft" stuff in bottles that all tasted of flavourings and sweetness... ick. At least Thwaits seem to have learnt something from involvement with BrewDog as 13 Guns can be a nice brew if found in fresh form.

    Said poll: https://twitter.com/BoakandBailey/status/768717947971960832

  9. No mention of Batham's, who are widely revered, even if your average beer geek has never visited one of their pubs?

    And half the family brewers don't get a mention either - no Holts, Felinfoel, Elgoods or Donnington, for a start.

    While I accept they have some questionable corporate practices, from my perspective the Sam Smith's experience - quality of beer and pubs, and low prices - is great.

  10. On the vexed issue of Batemans vs Thwaites, I was comparing their traditional ranges and giving it to Batemans by a nose on the basis that I have a generally better impression of their XXXB than of Wainwright or Lancaster Bomber. If you took the "crafty" stuff into account then I'd pick Thwaites by a country mile.

    I don't really know Lees that well myself (because geography) but they get significant points for still producing a traditional barleywine. The Cloudwater / Magic Rock collaboration didn't hurt, either.

    Mudgie - I wondered about Bathams. Everyone who's aware of them seems to think well of them, but I'm (genuinely) not sure how many people who are primarily interested in new-wave craft stuff would actually be aware of them.

    As to the others - I did say it was non-comprehensive! I'd expect Elgoods to be well thought of, Felinfoel maybe mid-table (although I've got a soft spot for Double Dragon myself), Holts and Donnington I've honestly got no idea.

    1. Oh, I understand that it's not comprehensive and you're only really listing those breweries who attempt to have some "new-wave" credibility. The likes of Felinfoel, Arkells, Palmers and Donnington are so far off the craft radar as to be invisible.

      Incidentally, Wainwright and Lancaster Bomber are now nothing to do with Thwaites. The brands were bought by Marston's, and the bottles and pumpclips no longer make any mention of Thwaites.