Don't dump on big brewers
Added: Thursday, April 5th 2012
Something unprecedented happened at the Great British Beer Festival in 2004. When the winner of the standard bitter category in the Champion Beer of Britain competition was announced, people started to boo.
The beer in question was Greene King IPA. The Campaign for Real Ale, which organises the festival, was roundly condemned for boorish behaviour but it wasn’t CAMRA members who were responsible. The winners of the Champion Beer awards are announced before the festival opens at a trade session attended by publicans and brewers.
But irrespective of who conducted the heckling it, it summed up a general attitude among many people involved in making, selling and drinking beer: big brewers are all bad, tarred with the same brush, and they couldn’t make a decent pint of beer to save their lives.
Last month I attended a Greene King press event in London where the Suffolk brewery announced a £4m promotion for IPA. It includes two new stronger versions of IPA – Gold and Reserve – eye-catching new pump clips and a TV commercial that will be broadcast during major sports events. Greene King has spent a year conducting research among beer drinkers and it reveals that cask beer is no longer consumed mainly by people of 35 years and above but is finding favour with younger drinkers.
All good news, you would think: a big promotion for cask ale and exciting news that the style is winning support among a growing number of younger drinkers. And yet, when I reported this on my website, I started to receive messages via Twitter that cast doubt on my sanity and objectivity. How could I write approvingly of a big brewer who produces such bland beer, several Tweeters asked. Some dismissed the new versions of IPA even before they’ve had the opportunity to taste them. The attitude is simple: if it’s produced by a big brewer, it can’t be any good.
The point was rubbed in when I suggested on Twitter that the leading British crime writer Peter Robinson – author of the DCI Banks series – must be a cask beer drinker. The narrator in his novel Before the Poison, set in Yorkshire, always orders either Landlord or Black Sheep in pubs. In one instance, he carefully ensures he gets Tetley Cask rather than Smooth.
“Tetley Cask?” was one response. “Can’t be much of a fan, then.”
Last week Pete Brown wrote in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser about the growing importance of the micro-brewery sector of the industry. Like Pete, I’m an enormous fan of small brewers. They have brought passion, commitment and, above all, flavour back to beer. They have revived old styles and developed new ones and they have delivered a much-needed kick up the backside to bigger brewers resting on their laurels while the beer market stagnates.
But without the three large national brewers – Greene King, Marston’s and Wells & Young’s, with Fuller’s in close pursuit – the cask beer sector would be tiny. The big three independents have worked out a clear strategy in recent years: they can’t compete with the global giants who concentrate on lager. Instead they have built sales of cask beer and have helped “grow the category” as the marketing people say.
On top of Greene King’s £4m promotion for IPA, Wells & Young’s announced last week it’s spending £5m on a new TV campaign for Bombardier. Marston’s has built 50 new dining pubs and plans a further 25 this year. Each pub costs in the region of £2.5m. That’s a massive investment.
We may wish that Greene King’s bitter at 3.6% was not branded IPA – I have made the point many times. But it’s the biggest-selling standard bitter in the country. A lot of people like it and it’s patronising for beer geeks to tell IPA drinkers they’re imbibing bland rubbish.
To use further marketing jargon, ales such as Greene King IPA, Fuller’s London Pride and Wells’ Bombardier are “gateway beers”. They bring people into the cask sector and they may then move on to the more aggressively hopped beers from the micros. I love hops. Correction: I adore hops. One of the many pleasures of beer drinking is the aroma – piny, resinous, spicy, floral and citrus – of fresh hops.
But some drinkers find excessively hoppy and bitter beers a struggle. It would be absurd to attempt to turn them away from the likes of Greene King and Wells on the grounds their beers don’t make your eyeballs pop when you sip and sniff them.
At the risk of being consigned to eternal damnation, let me say that I like the new Greene King Reserve. At 5.4% and 36 units of bitterness, it’s not a bland beer by any definition. If it brings more people into the cask beer fold, then three cheers for Greene King. We dump on the big brewers at our peril.
*First published in Publican’s Morning Advertiser, 5 April 2012. Main image shows Rik Mayall in new Wells Bombardier TV ad.