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HARDKNOTT - THE FIRST CARD TO FALL. Musings on the saturated market.

A particularly grainy photograph from IMBC 2012's keg room

There is only so high you can make the house of cards if the base doesn’t continue to expand.

After a lengthy period and many blog posts threatening such a day, Hardknott Brewery announced through Dave Bailey that they would be ceasing production later in the year. There will be many voices on the subject, not least Dave’s own, as there has been since the inception of the brewery in 2005.

The announcement, though, represents much about the current beer scene to me and that is what I want to correlate and surmise here. This is not an official breakdown of figures or reasoning behind the decisions but more an overlook at this saturated market that Hardknott's announcement had me considering. These are initial personal musings - not hard facts.

Hardknott are a brewery in the heart of Cumbria who played a leading role for many in the major overhaul in British beer in the late noughties. Those involved in the scene since then will likely remember more than fondly, as I do, the likes of Infra Red, Code Black,  Queboid and the entire Granite series. They were solid yet ground-breaking. Traditional, yet pioneering. They represented much of the ethos, often hubris, behind so-called craft brewing.

Amongst this increasingly competitive market though, Hardknott began to lose their voice in the conversation and shelf space despite the huge increase in retail space in their thirteen years. They took their place on the supermarket shelves but not on the city centre bar fonts. By 2016, none of the speciality shops I use had room for them.

The modern beer scene has begun a four year cycle of newcomers to its burgeoning landscape. It began with those that believe beer was invented in Fraserburgh in 2007. Then it became those that believe it was invented in Bermondsey in 2011. Now we are with those that believe beer was invented in New England in 2015. Businesses need to keep evolving to keep up. Hardknott belonged to the 2007 crowd but began to be crowded out by the next wave. By the time we entered the days of Pastriarchy and Breakfast Joose, Hardknott were becoming a supermarket brand or beer club filler, at least according to the forum judges and fashion seekers.  

For some of us there are older memories. I associate Hardknott with their starring role in the first Indy Man Beer Con. It may sound offensive to even say that they deserved their place there but for those newer to the scene it needs to be said. Hardknott were held in the same esteem as their peers amongst the 2012 line-up and were more than their equals.

I can clearly remember a video from the event of Dave preaching loudly to the sunken bath room (remembered possibly because my face was in the parting shot.) I was unable to find the video in question but within my search came across this video that perfectly captures a moment in the 2012 beer scene and shows the contrast to today. There is many a recognisable face in the video at a time when beer felt exclusive to a familiar family. The differing fates of the brewers interviewed in it since then shows the progression and development required to keep one both relevant and viable. Some sold their souls for more bar and shop presence. Some sold out altogether. Some have found their position comfortably in the market. 

The Baths are also comfortably quiet in the film in comparison to the current incarnations of the event, just as I recall. It may be recent history but still so much has changed to the market in those five and a half years.

On paper, Hardknott were making the correct moves. Seemingly they’d achieved the status that the more financially rewarding breweries aim for. Shelf space in several of the larger supermarkets and accessible beers for all manner of bars seems like the formula for brewery business success. Many may now be concerned that more is required for survival and readjust their ambitions accordingly.

Hardknott had also often experimented with some of the newer concepts that should have worked. An interactive blog and video section worked to create a face for the brewery. The concept of bringing beer into an online cookery show feels almost revolutionary and was perhaps too ahead of its time.

Though there was one beer that I will always recall whenever the name Hardknott is mentioned that truly showed the innovative ambition of the brewery. Vitesse Noir was a Triple Chocolate Vanilla Mocha Stout that nailed the 11% adjunct stout category before every Joe Bloggs made such a beer. It was near legendary and that is sadly what it may fade to.

I had an inquisitive glance at my Untappd list to see if anybody had tasted it recently, only to see that amongst my personal Untappd connects not one had given the beer below four out of five (rare, in case you didn’t know.) It didn’t surprise me; it is a beer I often think about and had hoped to see a regular return of.

I’d like to defend the beer until the end based on such achievements, yet nothing but Azimuth or the Intergalactic Space Hopper appears to have existed in my local area in the last couple of years. Vitesse Noir ceased to be just at the time when it could have become truly brewery defining. The other previously mentioned beers became rarer sights and became lost from the psyche, whilst competitors opened ever more locally and ever more city centrally.

That may have been the final crux of the situation. In certain areas mediocrity and originality can be matted straight over by a  key location. One needn’t be talented if one is accessible. Hardknott, in its glorious Cumbrian home, was comparatively difficult to see.

It could be that the brewery never recovered from events in early 2014, highlighted in this post. This could be the first example where use of a misogynistic tone from a brewer set on being the face of the business was irreversible. I only became aware of this exchange yesterday and can’t now read the offending posts so it is difficult to judge where this went. But the reaction from  others suggests it may have been seriously detrimental to the business' face. 

It is likely that over the coming months the brewery's own blog will provide some answers and further accusations and criticisms of SIBA. For me though, whatever the financial reasoning to the business, there is something significant about this particular card falling. It has increasingly felt like we are reaching saturation point in many areas; breweries, online bottle clubs and now micro-pubs. Yet major casualties amongst the original pioneers have been avoided thus far. Other scribes will point to other injuries prior to Hardknott, but to me this seems to be the season ending injury. They are unlikely to be the last.

There is nothing written here but opinion. Please do not @ me with who was a bigger fall or a bigger revolutionary as if they are facts. Thanks. 


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