How to save "Proper" beer
Last Updated : 27/03/06
Beer Prices and why we must pay more to save “proper” beer.
ood beer is in crisis; more and more classic brews are being lost each and every year as our brewing heritage is smashed by the cogs of the relentless multinational machine which cares only about money; if they have a competitor in the shape of a well-known “brand”, they will do their best to close it down by means fair or foul (such as InBev closing the specialist maltings in Belgium which supplied many of the micros in the country with malt) or, failing that, try to buy it up and then proceed to ruin the beer by making wholesale changes to the recipe or production methods although, by that time, they will run the market so consumers will have no choice except take it or leave it whatever it tastes like.
Why don’t the big companies care about “proper" beer, you may ask? Well, it’s simply a matter of economics; think Cantillon Kriek versus Belle Vue Kriek or cask ale versus keg bitter – the “proper” beer takes more time to brew, uses better ingredients and costs money to condition and package properly whilst the crap version uses cheap and/or low cost ingredients, is made quickly and cheaply and is packaged and sold with the minimum outlay allowing more of the cost, which should have been used providing quality ingredients or an extra few weeks’ conditioning, to be squandered on “brand-building” advertising, that’s why.
Proper beer used to be the drink of the masses because, in the misty past, there was only proper beer and no rapacious companies intent on grabbing market share at any cost. It was when firms began to buy competitors and set up local monopolies that the runaway train-like rush for cheapness and convenience kicked off in the minds of those in charge of these odious organisations; “We sell most of the beer around here, people will buy what we sell and like it” seems to have become their mantra and, unfortunately, the populace fell for their slick advertising, allowing it to ride roughshod over their tastebuds’ protestations - the saying “The people want what the people get” seems to have come home to roost around this time.
With the proles now drinking what they were told, it was an easy matter for the big companies to reduce once fine local brews to pathetic parodies of their former selves – witness SAB’s recent destruction of the once superb Plzeňský Prazdroj from Plzeň, in the Czech Republic, from an internationally-famous beer matured in wooden casks to a laughable travesty of itself with a lamentably short lagering time in metal ensuring a mass-market friendly flavour. The only dissention to this wholesale destruction came from small groups of beer enthusiasts such as the “Campaign for Real Ale” or their equivalents abroad; surely a few beardy radicals couldn’t derail the gravy train the big companies’ execs had going, could they?
Fortunately for everyone who enjoys “proper” beer, yes they did – in the main - and we reaped the benefits for many years as the big companies ran scared and “proper” beer was available again for the delight of the people who wanted to drink it which, unfortunately, was a dwindling number resulting in the situation we have today where the large companies are once again flexing their muscles, guided by the avarice of globalisation, and cutting beers and breweries from their portfolios and reducing consumer choice by whatever means they have at their disposal. This has resulted in the situation where, by and large, only the small brewers now carry the flame as champions of good, tasty, proper beer.
So, that’s the problem, what can we do about it? On the face of it there may seem very little we can do and, if we don’t like what we’re being told to drink, all we can do is to shrug our collective shoulders and either give up alcohol or brew a beer we like ourselves – which, if the truth be told, is all we can do apart from token activities such as campaigning against these closures and dumbing down of classic beers whilst trying to make more people drink and appreciate them. There is, however, one more thing that might just help to save “proper” beer, but you’re not going to like it!
Price = quality, or so some people think. They are usually half right in the way that, for example, a classed growth Bordeaux wine can be very good, but some classed growths are expensive and still not a patch on some of the more enterprising “Cru Bourgeois” châteaux – so the motto is that not all expensive things are of inherently good quality! “Proper” beer, however, with it’s higher costs of production (better ingredients, more staff, allowing enough time for conditioning and the rest) and smaller production runs costs more than the industrial slops foisted upon the hapless people by the global megacorps yet it is still sold at the same, or even cheaper, price – this has to stop! Bordeaux wine from a top châteaux can cost twenty, fifty, even a hundred times more than a bottle of the generic Bordeaux wine but, back in the beer world, Cantillon Gueuze doesn't cost a lot more than Belle Vue Gueuze - maybe half as much - and the quality differential is staggering. Why is this?
In order for small breweries to survive and grow they must be able to charge an appropriate rate for their goods, and by this I mean a premium rate for a premium product; for an example, I will return to Bordeaux – most wine drinkers know a “Cru Bourgeois” châteaux such as Pez of Saint-Estèphe is of far better quality than a standard Bordeaux AC châteaux and priced accordingly. Similarly, most people realise that a £10 bottle of wine from Tescos is probably going to be better than their usual £2.49 plonk in the same way sausages from a local butcher are by and large better than pre-packed ones from the corner shop. Considering all this, why is it that we are prepared to pay extra for quality in wine, food and just about everything else but we baulk at paying an extra 50p or so for a glass of top-quality beer?
Following on from this wine analogy, why is it that processed cheap junk like Stella Artois can be sold “reassuringly expensively” at over £2.50 a pint, yet if most “proper” beer drinkers see a pint of real ale at the same pub at over £2 they kick up merry hell about it? How is that we think “proper” beer should be cheap, yet still be of high quality? This view seems to hark back to the age when real beer was cheap and the drink of the masses, yet we still think this way in the 21st century! In my view we need to step back and take a look at what proper beer is worth to us, and I think that most knowledgeable drinkers, if they look into their consciences hard enough, will concede that it’s worth paying that extra bit more in order to keep these breweries in business and the quality beers being produced – as long as this extra money goes to the brewery and isn’t siphoned off by the wholesaler, pub chain, manager or any other leeches along the way!
What is needed, therefore, is a sea change in the attitude of beer drinkers to be prepared to pay more for a quality product and therefore demonstrate understanding that “proper” beer costs more to produce than industrial tat. When a distinction is drawn between “industrial” and “proper” beer then I think we will see more people who are into quality products come across to try it; by this I mean some wine lovers who still think of beer as cheap swill for the masses and nowhere near as complex as wine – whilst we who know beer would just love to tell them about the almost infinite variety of beer styles out there if only they would listen to us! Promoting “proper” beer as distinct from “industrial” beer will go a long way to giving it more credibility with non-believers of the quality beer cause as well as helping the producers to continue making the stuff for us.
Clearly, one problem with this hypothesis is that, if “proper” beer is priced too highly, then the everyday drinkers who presently buy it will abandon it in favour of something cheaper. This is a valid point, but in my experience most real ales/bottles beers don’t qualify for the top-rank prices to which I’m alluding here; for example everyday drinking bitters, no matter how good, shouldn’t be priced out of their market but, importantly, the real versions which obviously cost more to make need to be priced realistically – i.e; more expensively than the competition’s “industrial” beer. The brews I’m heralding as being “top of the range” are the prime expressions of Lambic, Baltic Porter, Traditional IPA’s and the like – beers at the top end of their category - which are being sold too cheaply for some people to take seriously (and for brewers to carry on making), consequently we need to bite the bullet and be prepared to pay the cost of drinking these pinnacles of the brewers’ art in the same way wine drinkers will cheerfully spend £100 upwards on a quality bottle of wine - and think about this - that's probably 20 times more than they could spend on cheap piss if they so wanted; I hardly think raising the price of a pint of Roosters to a quarter more than it's industrial rivals is overkill, do you?
In my view, “proper” beer needs to be pitched about halfway between the "drink of the people" that it once was and the "drink of the thinkers". It will probably never again be the drink of the people due to the multitude of choices these days which simply weren’t available 100 years ago and the dumbing down of all aspects of life – including people’s attitude to extreme flavours which some call the “Coca-Cola” effect, whereby sweet tastes sweep aside more complex flavours. There aren't enough thinking (and by this I mean beer lovers prepared to pay what a product is worth) people in the UK to support enough sales to keep most beers afloat purely through this sector of the market, so the beer must be affordable enough so that ordinary drinkers, if they so wish, can sample them without breaking the bank or feel intimidated by the price. What is needed is a good old-fashioned compromise where beer is no longer seen as working class and cheap, yet not exclusive and pompous. There is common ground here, and obviously every beer has it’s own realistic value, but it needs to be found for each individual brew before it’s too late and they are lost.
Selling well crafted, highly distinctive beers at a minumum of £2.50 - £3 a pint (or bottle) should not be laughed at. After all, many people pay that for industrial brews such as Guinness and Stella, so why not a pint of Roosters Yankee or bottle of Cantillon Gueuze which cost far more to make than the large-scale brews? By insisting “proper” beer is sold cheaply we are giving a disincentive for landlords to stock it – if they can make 100% more profit flogging Stella then why should they bother even trying to keep and sell specialised cask ale or foreign bottled beers? It’s just not worth the hassle for many of them. Likewise, if brewers don’t get a decent return on making specialised beers then some may abandon them in favour of cheaper versions which are nowhere near the original in quality, but carry the same name - which still means the beer is lost, probably for ever.
This, in my opinion, is the root of the problem; let’s say that if "premium" real ale was to command a higher price, a more realistic price for it’s artisanal production methods, it would make it worthwhile for more outlets to stock it. Furthermore, some snobbish wine drinkers may just be persuaded that these "premium" beers were a cut above the rest and maybe worthy of tasting – and may then discover the endless fascination of the world of beer and all it’s infinite variations. Once these people begin to enthuse about specialised beers in the media then the snowball may indeed begin to roll and collect more snow as it progresses, and we may be onto something big; naïve of me, maybe, but you never know.
This argument leaves the majority of volume producers, who don’t produce specialised beers rather ordinary (if properly brewed) standard beers, rather out in the cold as they won’t be able to command the prices the more specialised brewers will be able to. I’m not quite sure what can be done about this, but only education of drinkers can make sales grow; it has to be tried as, even if the education fails and only a fraction are persuaded to try it, then that's better than nothing. I feel “proper” beer has a future in both volume and premium production but they both have totally different customers and marketing requirements with very little overlap. In my view the two need to be treated separately to give them the best possible chance – volume beer must be priced as realistically as possible whilst still promoting the “proper” stuff as high quality, whereas specialised beers have a much higher ceiling to what can be charged for them – as long as knowledgeable drinkers are prepared to pay for a quality product, which is the crux of the matter.
For “proper” beer to survive as a serious drink we must support all brewers equally, true, but some more equally than others. As Tony Blair once said - when he still had a mind of his own - education, education, education; that's the answer. The ordinary drinking public must be shown that “proper” beer is a special drink, the equal of a good wine, and promoted as such with the top beers being heralded as the equals of the Latours and Margaux of the wine world; even if this approach fails then at least we have tried: the alternative of doing nothing is potential the loss of everything we hold dear in the beer world. Marketing “proper” beer as a mass-commodity product is a dead end strategy; those days where everyone drank ten pints a night of their local brew have passed with the advent of alcopops, heavily discounted beer in supermarkets and countless other "lifestyle" choices. If quality beer is promoted as a special drink for thinking people, and if there are enough of them, it may still have a future beyond beer festivals and ghettoish “proper” beer bars - but only if we support the brewers who make the premium quality beers and actually buy the stuff!
I conclude my case by stating that those brewers who concentrate on quality beers are the ones deserving of our support, and we should shout their achievements from the treetops to all who will listen as well as not bleating about the prices of what, after all, are top end products. The other brewers, who continue to produce lacklustre and mediocre beers and believe that “just enough is good enough”, can look after themselves; the champions of “proper” beer are those taking risks and putting everything into brewing the very best that they can – so let’s all support them in their endeavours in every way possible because, as Joni Mitchell once said in "Big Yellow Taxi", “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”. Wise words indeed.