13 November 2019
in which he discusses the various crazes for particular styles of beer, their resulting prevalence and the influence that certain quarters have on current trends within the UK craft beer scene.
Coming just a smidge too late for nomination for this year's Beer Writing Awards, it's the kind of article I could only dream of putting together and serves as an excellent if ironic example that while he has fears about the beer scene in general in this country, the UK beer writing scene is better than ever (present author excepted of course).
Whether you agree or not with the conclusions Hall reaches - namely that the UK beer scene shows worrying signs of immaturity, kneejerk reactionism, obsession with trends, tails wagging dogs and brewers desperately fighting to stay relevant in a zeitgeist increasingly and artificially created, nurtured, propagated and inhabited by a generation of Untapprs, Instagrammers and....er...bloggers (nervous wave) - there can be no doubt that diversity in current beer style trends is an issue that needs addressing.
Or does it?
After all, Hall, others like him and even yours truly, are just some of the voices in the vast crowd of beer appreciators fighting to be heard in this modern digital age of instant feedback and live ratings. As I argued in a recent post about Untappd, the validity of individual opinions inamongst the ocean of noise that is Beer Social Media is difficult to quantify objectively. It's a sad state of affairs but it seems to me that the amount of stock attached to an opinion varies based on the needs that opinion serves. Experience, knowledge, history, research... these are all concepts that are easily and readily discarded if the end conclusion is wrong. It's the "we've had enough of experts" argument we see propagated so readily by populists and power drivers in all fields. Of course on the flip side, lack of the aforementioned laudable attributes can be quietly ignored if the end opinion is more conducive to the needs of the recipient.
It's partly why BrewDog have such standing as they do. On one hand they are borderline macro, obsessed with money and status, using bully-boy tactics that fly in the face of what is perceived as the craft ethos. But to others they are craft beer heroes, small guys done good, pushing back the boundaries of big beer and bringing quality and accessibility to the masses.
Both opinions have a degree of validity, but when it comes down to it, the existence of a BD bar in every town and a range of beers in every Tesco leads one to the conclusion that the prevailing, stronger, more pervasive view is the former...er....latter...er....
Yes, we're dealing with tribalism. Welcome to the binary black and white world we live in. Welcome to a community with Team A and Team B. How depressingly predictable. How depressingly foreseeable and preventable.
And how depressingly easy it is to foment it, to provoke it, to nurture it. Take the case in point... you could almost imagine it from a phalanx of bearded bros: Watch out - the boring old bastards are out to take away our fruity hazy wunderbeers! Can't possibly experiment with flavours or styles, no no, we must stay within boundaries! All hail conformity!
Well, maybe. Discussion does have a horrible tendency to give way to open hostility when something as emotive, personal and involved as beer is criticised in even the most remote and benign terms. The human mind has an uncanny knack for second guessing and extrapolating based on a minutiae of evidence. The mere suggestion of opening up the beer market to include styles not currently in vogue or favoured by the masses could immediately and erroneously be seen as a way of imposing restrictions on the current prevailing styles or trends. Ironically, this means accusations of hypocrisy could so easily be made by those who have been responsible for restricting the beer market to its current perceived headlong reductive spiral.
The parallels with wider society are all too noticeable; one that springs to mind for me is the opening up of marriage to members of the LGBTQ+ community and how naysayers thought that this was not only taking the sanctity of heteronormative (straight) marriage away from cishet folk but also starting down a slippery slope that will ultimately allow geese to marry pigs. I will never understand how increasing the levels of accessibility of any concept to a wider constituency necessitates those already enjoying the benefits of said concept losing any value held in it. Perhaps people are naturally enticed by exclusivity and exclusionism.
It is striking that this is how the craft beer movement in the UK exploded in the first place - as a rebellion against the elitism, the closed shop of the macro, bland, white male-dominated pub world. Ironically, the very uniformity we perceive emerging in the current climate was started by folk railing against exclusivity and exclusionism.
But if we take a step back, perhaps this is all hyperbolic hypothetical. I doubt anyone in our community - even those with follower numbers that could fill a stadium - would get so het up about such things. On the surface most inn-fluencers seem to be largely open to a variety of styles, ingredients, techniques, adjuncts and all the rest of it. Cynically one would suggest they almost have to be -- why wouldn't they want to project an image of inclusive sophistication to draw in as big an audience as possible? At the end of the day, you're never going to get people reading your stuff or retweeting your photos if you only focus on a narrow slice of the wonder that is the modern beer spectrum.
Yet that is what is happening. By design or by Darwinism, craft beer in the UK appears to be heading down an alley. Deliberate or not, we are on this road and choices will be made - stay on the charabanc, jump off and risk injury, or take control and drive somewhere else.
And herein lies the thorny issue - if something needs to be done, how do you go about it? How do you get a community/industry as disparate, wide ranging and, let's face it, haphazard as the current UK craft beer scene to act in a co-ordinated way? What would the end result be to such external stimuli? Would we suddenly be inundated with an artificially increased number of token uninspiring brown ales? Would we see a reversion to the mean of meh mid-range mediocrity just to balance the board up a little?
Er, no. Of course not. Remember what we said earlier - this is about expansion in a different direction, not in shutting off the avenue and forcing the charabanc to reverse. We need to build side streets as well as motorways. (How many metaphors is that now by the way, anyone counting?) A good beer must not be sidelined by a bad beer just because it is the "wrong" style. That's discrimination - even if it is positive discrimination. The new beer must earn its place like all the rest.
But - and this is the big but - when a beer board at a tap room is 99% IPA with a single imperial stout or porter, that's tokenism of a different kind. That's like going to a restaurant that only serves one vegetarian option and that's beetroot tart. With pickled cabbage. And coleslaw.
The balance must be struck. Give the unfashionable beers a poke up the arse and lay off sticking another D on the already consonant-heavy DIPA. If you build it, they will come.
There are examples of gentle positive discrimination working well elsewhere in the world. Look at the South African rugby team. A few years ago a decision was made to introduce a racial balance rule so that the Springboks were more representative of the country they represented. There was resistance, there was anger, there was whitesplaining and there was indignation.
And then they went and won the World Cup. In 1995, there was just one black player on the team, the late great Chester Williams. And a few days ago, the captain of the team lifting a cup made of gold and named after a public school boy from England was a black kid from the shanty towns.
Of course, you can only have 15 men in a team, 23 in a matchday squad, 31 can go to a World Cup. In a bar, you are limited by your tap capacity or fridge space. In a shop you are limited by your shelf space.
And in a brewery, you are limited by your bank balance. By your ingredient suppliers. By your skills, knowledge, experience. You need to sell this stuff, and you know what people are buying. There's little room for romance, or risk-taking, or re-balancing perceived wrongs. It's brew & buy or bye-bye. Money matters more.
So it's down to us. We don't need to pressurise already pressured brewers into doing "the right thing". We don't need to pressurise bars and bottle shops to sacrifice their capacity for our lofty goals. That's not where the battle needs to be fought. That's the wrong end of the mobius loop. After all, it's not like these other styles aren't being produced - they are, they're out there - but they're not getting enough exposure, enough promotion, enough love.
We need to raise our voices up above the din and shout loudly for stouts, sours and saisons, brag about bitters and mouth off about milds.
Maybe we can just gently suggest to the driver of the craft beer bus that they would maybe like to turn left at the next junction rather than going straight on. It may be a bit of a bumpier road, but the scenery is a lot more varied.