Friday, 27 March 2009

Beer materialism

That brewing is a business sometimes gets forgotten. A brewer who can't sell his beer won't be around for very long.

Brewers do not live in a vacuum. They're part of a common space in which we all live. Much of our lives are determined by the culture around us and the laws to which we must adhere. And an economic system.

Where am I going with this? Well, some seem to think that brewing works the other way around. That brewers are free to experiment and brew whatever they please. According to this theory, the current beer scene in the USA is the result of daring brewers pushing the enevelope. European countries, so the argument goes, lag behind because their brewers are lazy or complacent or lack balls. Basically, it's an idealist line of reasoning.

Though many of his ideas are out of fashion, Marx did get to the nub of how socirty works. It's not driven by ideas, but by economics. Ideas follow money. Me, I'm a materialist, just like Marx.

How does this relate to brewing? Simple. Brewing is moulded by economics, just like every other business. Here's an example: why don't British micros brew hop-monster IPA's? Because they are expensive to brew, would cost more than punters are prepared to pay and aren't what they want to drink anyway. You could brew the best beer in the world, but if no-one wants to drink it or the price is wrong you won't be in business long.

In most of Europe, there just isn't a big enough market for "extreme beers" for it to be worth a brewer's while making them. Unless it's for export to the USA. Which is why many experimental breweries - De Dolle, Fantome, Struise - sell most of their beer not in Belgium, but in the USA.

There have been a couple of failed attempts to get American micro beers into British supermarkets. If British drinkers cold-shouldered such beers why would a British brewer try to copy them? Seems like a guaranteed way to fail. Where there is a market for wacky beers, Denmark is a good example, local brewers quickly started brewing them themselves.

Ultimately, brewers are only going to brew what they can sell. I'd love to walk into a pub and find a strong Mild, weak IPA, Burton and Stout on draught. But as almost no-one else does, that just isn't going to happen. For me to whinge about it to brewers would be merely twattish.

It's American drinkers, not American brewers who are adventurous. Without a market to support it, envelope-pushing would end in a few weeks. Oh, and the flat rate tax on beer helps, too. I don't know any European brewing nation that taxes beer that way.


Ed said...

Interesting post. There's more to materialism than just economic determinism though (unless you're a vulgar Marxist).

Other factors than just the market do affect whaht people will buy. Marketings all ready been mentioned. Fashion seems to affect what people drink as well. And certainly larger brewers, particularly when they have a monopoly or near monopoly, are to some extent able to sell the beers they want to make. Shame they want to make cheap crap lager really.

Also the market for American style craft beer is slowly growing in Britain e.g. Brewdogs Punk IPA is in Tescos.

Pivní Filosof said...


I was just thinking about writing a post on pretty much the same subject. In my case, it was triggered by a few comments that were derogatory towards beers from big brewers because they are "just commercial". As if micros didn't brew for money.

Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting to note that of the three Belgian brands you mentioned, most are very difficult to find in Belgium. In fact, when the American beer sites first went bananas over Pannepot, the only place in Europe we were able to find it was Denmark!

Secondly, there is a third force, one unknown to Marx because the lucky devil lived at a time before it had been "invented": marketing. I would guess that marketing would influence beer in the US more than consumers. (And Kristen might even agree with me!)

How else, for example, could a company (Sam Adams?) sell a 75cl bottle of "barley wine" for hundreds of dollars?

Unknown said...

Good post Ron.

Anonymous said...

I'd be very happy to see the line-up you propose in the pub!

I think you're right -- the market is a reality, whether we like it or not, and brewers have to make a living.

But I do think there's a market for a few stronger, more interesting beers knocking around in bottles behind the bar. Fuller's seem to do OK with 1845 and Vintage, both of which are pretty intense. They keep forever, more-or-less, and sell at a fair old price.

I also think some brewers are making assumptions about what will sell without testing the market. As I've said elsewhere in the last couple of days, lots of my non-beer-obsessed mates will choose dark beer over brown if its on offer because it's different and a bit "edgy".

Final thought: why aren't more small British brewers making lagers? There's a fairly big market for those...

Anonymous said...

Pushing the envelope, an US specifi trait ? C'mon, what about Italy and Denmark, then ? ;o>

Mark Andersen said...

I must be old fashioned but I don't understand how some of these extreme breweries in the US are making money. Take Dogfish for exampe. They don't have beer in their lineup that isn't unusual. Like "Aprihop" for example. I might try that beer once just for the fun of it but who the hell is going to buy and consume that on a regular basis? Apparently somebody is because they seem to thrive.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a complex relationship between consumer taste and the prevalent level of technology. When British brewers could only brew intense-tasting beers (e.g., 1700's- 1800's) that is what people bought and liked. They had to, and taste accomodated. Once beers could be made stable with far less hops and, often, less alcohol, that is what people bought and liked. Since most people who drink beer, in North America at any rate, do not actually like the taste of it -I read this once somewhere - the end result is most people will drink beer with little flavour. I know craft beer fans often say that if the average person could taste a "real" beer he wouldn't have that view but it is not my experience.

This in fact describes the beer market in all the countries we are talking about, even Belgium, even Germany. I am not saying most people in those two countries do not like the taste of beer (I don't know), but most of the market there is for pale, relatively mild lagers.

The rest of it is deciding where consumers, for whatever reason, are more adventurous than in other places. I do feel a brewer's own proclivities can sometimes affect the market in a limited way but enough sometimes to make him or her successful. Dan Carey is a good example with his fine fruit beers in Wisconsin. Fritz Maytag in San Francisco. Of course Dogfish Head. The real ale segment in England and the recent moves here and there to American-style, more intense beers are another example. But I believe the taste for these beers always will be a minority taste when the national market is assessed - in any country. I don't think it is because of marketing, but inherent public taste. Thus, I find myself in agreement with Ron on this one.


Pivní Filosof said...


I've spoken once with a couple of microbrewers from Argentina about why most of them don't do lagers. The answer was simple, costs.
If you want to brew a proper lager you will need the beer to be at least one month in a low temperature environment and that is not cheap if you have to set it up, and there is also the fermentation issue.

Anonymous said...

Mark A.:

I don't know about Aprihop (the tart finish doesn't do it for me), but if I had the money, I'd keep some Dogfish Head 60-Minute in my refrigerator constantly.

Anonymous said...

Major Lucas - I once worked with the granddaughter of Mr Major Lucas, brewer of Northampton. What a bitch she was. What's that mild called E all about?

Ron Pattinson said...

Zythophile, that's Extra Light Mild Ale. I think.

Ron Pattinson said...

Bailey, that's basically my Edwardian theme pub beer lineup. Maybe you can persuade a publican to stock those beers. If they can find anyone who brews them.

Fatman said...

What a great debate and some excellent observations.

Can I add the cask angle?:

Most craft brewed beer in the UK is cask conditioned and, as such, needs to be consumed within a short period of time. If only 1 in 10 people like a beer it is less likely to sell sufficiently well to warrant a pump on the bar. Thus a nation of beer lovers are weened on 'consensual' beer and the expectation of what beer is, is formed accordingly. In this way purchases in the supermarket of bottled beer is influenced too.

It's changing over here though and when we look back I think we'll agree it changed pretty quickly and pretty radically.

Andy Crouch said...

I just wrote a BeerAdvocate column on this issue in the reverse, namely that the exportation of the American beer palate may threaten the brewing traditions of certain European countries, most specifically Belgium. We're beginning to see a slow but steady shift in Belgian breweries from "traditional" styles to more Americanized versions of them or a complete abandonment altogether. Not such a bad thing perhaps in a lager driven country such as Denmark or Italy, but more concerning in Belgium.