Though the conversations and opinions are becoming tiring regarding investments and acquisitions of beer businesses, due to recent developments bringing them to the fore once more, I still have a little to add regarding the disillusion of extra choice.
This is in response to comments I made on a poll formed by The Beer O’Clock Show for their Hopinions podcast. In response to the question "Do you think Heineken's investment in Beavertown is bad for the independent sector?” I added:
My thoughts were based on an assumption that people talking about “increased access to good beer” as a positive, when large conglomerates become involved in smaller breweries, were referring to it in a retail sense. Both Twitter users and the podcasters themselves rebuked this as they were actually discussing the positives from a licensed premises point. As a huge advocate of people using pubs, my response was seen as a little hypocritical as it seemed to imply encouragement for drinking at home. So, as usual, I thought I’d elaborate away from 280 character restraints.
Your Local has more choice than you think.
I realise when discussing the future of Beer in relation to large investments and takeovers that much of the conversation is hearsay and estimation. Still, there are many who use the contrary line about large brewery buying power leading to greater choice on the fonts of their local pubs. People have started to really believe this. They are buying into this illusion that the only way a pub has access to better beer is with the "help" (read: millions) of bigger business.
This isn't always true.
There are many pubs tied to breweries and pubcos that have access to a much wider selection of beers than they are revealing. Even those belonging to the huge tied estates are allowed to order from a number of distribution companies that your favourite craft beer bar also uses. Some will even be allowed to go to local breweries direct. That local down the road that you don't visit because it only sells branded macro has a couple of catalogues somewhere from distribution companies that sell a range of beers you’ve never seen near the place, including some of that Salty Rock you love.
There are numerous reasons why they don't. The first does relate to the tactics employed by the bigger brands that cannot be understated. Paying bribe money for a certain keg line. Giving away free sports viewing deals in exchange for selling a particular beer. For many licensees these are deals that cannot be turned down.
But, for the majority, it is a case of supply and demand. Macro sells. The pub customers want it. The pub customers haven't demanded Salty Rock served from handpump so the manager hasn't presented it. If that beer is then owned by big money it changes nothing about this situation. There is the unusual belief inside the bubble that licensees do not want your business or want to make money, therefore do not stock the beers that you personally want to drink.
The solution is to use the pub and perhaps begin the conversation. I only have this information because I did start the chat. Running a pub is much more than having knowledge about a niche area of artisan beer. People who exclusively drink macro lager run some outstanding pubs. If you go in and say "hey, myself and a group of others would come in here loads if you had some different choices," they might just* listen and perhaps talk about the beers available to them - usually with an endearing mumbling of "don't drink the stuff myself, but..." I've seen this change instigated in numerous places.
Perhaps this is part of the sense of entitlement emanating from new beer drinkers. Searching out good beer and taking the gamble that an establishment might have something worth drinking used to be part of the charm.
I'm aware this is sadly not the case for all establishments and some pubs trying to stock better beer are blocked. There will be limitations and understandably. The point is that investment or takeover from larger breweries is not the opportunity your local pub has been waiting for. The concept that Inbev (or whoever) being involved will suddenly mean your favourite IPA appears permanently on keg is nonsense.
Beers are the Brand - not the breweries.
One thing I've learned by using the pub a lot is the way consumer's learn the names of beers. Brewery names are irrelevant to them but if they are the most prominent word on the clip then that is the beer association.
Modern examples come in beers such as Track Brewing Co's Sonoma or Squawk Brewing's Crex - both beers that are loved by many drinkers. But they are not called Sonoma or Crex by the drinkers, they are called Track and Squawk respectively. This then confuses things when a 7.4% stout by these breweries appears on the bar. "Pint of Track please" because it is a reliably good drink. Though it isn't normally this expensive...or this dark... or this strong... wait, what?
Larger companies are not buying smaller breweries to showcase their widened range. I keep hearing people say things such as "Oh imagine being able to get Black Betty (a 7.4% Black IPA) at a music festival." I am imagining because fantasies are fun. Your big business has no interest in such a beer. You will see one or two of the most basic styles begin to appear a little in supermarkets with the name they want to peddle the most prominent word on the can. It is not going to be the experimental sour or the barrel aged range.
I am not going to be having a third of Imperial Smoked Stout at half time in football stadiums any time soon.
Remind me again how this has gone previously
I've heard the line "If it means I have access to better beer in more places, then I'm fine with it" so many times I actually hear it in Martin's (from the Beer o'Clock show podcast) voice. I've no issue with the viewpoint; I have issue with the fact it is still being repeated years later with hope.
It is three years since Camden Brewery sold to AB Inbev. Another reason for my above comments being associated with the retail aspect of beer is because of breweries such as Camden. Three years since big business apologists told us we would have access to better beer in more places.
I am speaking only from my own experiences in and around the north-west but I have seen Camden beer on tap - outside of beer focused bars - once in a pub where I was attending a family meal, and I'm not even sure that wasn't before 2015. Hells and Pale - the two beers AB InBev have decided they wanted, see above - are not adorning the taps of all the local pubs that previously stuck to a rigid portfolio. Football stadiums I've attended are not suddenly swamped with London's finest ex-Micros.
The supermarkets, however, are and so are the smaller shops. Camden Hells comes in a 4-pack at my local corner shop, in the fridges, next to the Kopparberg. This is why my assumption is retail when people talk about having greater access to beer, because that is where we see the effects.
Perhaps it is different in other areas; that down south every back street boozer is awash with Camden, Brixton and Wicked Weed beers. I am only speaking from experience but I do drink in a lot of different pubs and I am yet to see a single beer from anywhere that has been bought out or invested in by AB Inbev - or Heineken - or Lion - or SAB Miller etc... in the last six years.
Perhaps I am missing the point
I can recall seeing Freddie Gibbs live in Manchester in 2014. Throughout the entire gig I was drinking Magic Rock High Wire in bottles. It was great. A couple of years ago I saw Xzibit and drank Thornbridge Jaipur for the entirety.
Great times and with tasty beers from breweries not (currently) owned by big business.
So I think back to nights such as these when people repeatedly say lines similar to: "It will be great to get a decent beer when you go to a gig." The decent beer is already available to gig venues because I've been drinking it for fricking years. Without large brewery investment. For years. If you've been attending live events at places that sell a limited range of alcoholic drinks, this is similar to the pub situation above. A larger range is available to them; they are just choosing not to stock it.
Large swathes of drinkers seem to have come to a worrying acceptance that the only way they will have access to better beer is through the involvement and money of the world's largest brewing companies. I use the rail companies in this country as an example: we have Red Willow Brewery on Virgin Trains and Cloudwater Brew Co on Transpennine Express. These are huge companies working with independent breweries directly. These deals can be made without big business.
These are all generalisations and I really have no interest in individual cases, of which there will be many. ("My local pub is the Red Lion and is owned by such-a-pubco and the manager said in there that he's not allowed to stock bla bla bla *person throwing up emoji.*) Routes to market are blocked, some of which were laid out in this post by Dave Bailey or Hardknott. I recognise that. And yes I’m aware that in some areas the choice is limited – I am not suggesting that absolutely everywhere has access to any beer they want, so please read properly.
I am sure that we will, eventually, see a few beers come to prominence; that I might be able to get a Neck Oil on tap at a few surprise venues. It doesn't change my view from what I have seen in the beer scene today and over the last few years. We are buying into these ideas that better beer is being denied to us and that only a few companies in the entire world can make it available. The availability is already there, whether it is actually on the bar or not. The demand outside of our bubble is not always high enough.
I care not whether individual people care about big brewery involvement, because the average beer drinker in the street certainly doesn't. It is important that as a community (yeah, I said it) that we don't start to believe that we have a reliance on it. You have more choice than you think.
*Read the room of course. There are pubs that don't want a local friendly beer evangelist telling them what to stock. Don't be a dick.