Lost in the beer aisle
Words: Mark Dredge
Wednesday 18 July 2018
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Someone help me. I’m unable to focus on the blaring colours and patterns and random words on the never-ending shelves of cans. I don’t know where to look. I don’t know what to look for. I’m dizzy and slightly nauseous, yet still spinning around. I’m overwhelmed by the disorienting pick and mix of pastel colours, the bold and bright wrap-arounds, the pop art, surrealism, abstraction, illustration, photography and typography, all mushed together like a schoolboy scrap book. When did beer shopping get so complicated?
I find my way, blinking in the glare of the brightest lights, to the IPA fridge. It sucks me in, but do I want the DDH IPA Mosaic Galaxy or a Simcoe Mosaic DDH DIPA? Have I had that brewery’s Citra Double IPA (or was it the Double Citra IPA) and do I want to buy the same beer again (was it even any good?) or get something else?
I pick up a can that I’ve never seen before and it’s from a brewery that I buy regularly. Why doesn’t it look like their other beers? I see cans with just patterns. There’s lots of drawings. One requires 3D glasses, I think. Many have names that I’ll never remember. Some are childish, some stand out with their bare simplicity, some are bold pieces of art, but most require a lot of work to understand them.
When I can finally adjust my vision and focus in on one small area, I see that many cans are wonderful to look at and they demand that I pick them up and spin them around, making me engage with them, but in the end I put most of them down again and look at the thing next to it, lost in the choice.
The constant one-up of colour and double-up of hops has a triple consequence: shiny and colourful cans are the opposite of the fuddy old 500ml brown bottles of brown ale, marking the beers out as different, and maturing beer with a youthful excitement, which is great; also great is that this excitement has seen so many new breweries and beers and different styles and a growing interest in beer – and in particular new beer; yet the never-ending search for newness that comes with this excitement has led to the growing need to stand out on packed shelves.
And exciting isn’t always delicious. Beer has got more eclectic, electric, eccentric but also erratic, and I want everyone to be able to drink and enjoy great beers, and the way a beer looks with its bright labels and interesting ingredients, is enticing. But what if that beer isn’t excellent? How often will a new drinker struggle through a soupy IPA or sugary stout? Will they resent paying £6 for a 440ml can of something they didn’t like, even if it looks really cool?
But it has to look good or no-one is picking it up in the first place. As the beer industry unfurls and grows, it’s moving in different directions and no one really knows which way to go. And I’m here in the shop, spinning around and dizzy and the colours and shapes and patterns and words no longer mean anything, and it’s my job to understand and know about beer, so how does anyone else manage it?
Or are they just asking ‘what’s new’ and buying that? Or just picking up the brightest thing on the shelf and hoping for the best? Are they just picking the latest collaboration brew (Surely the riskiest choice in the shop: a one-shot brew that’s never just going to be a straight-up tasty pale ale)? Or going for the freshest Mosaic Citra IPA? How do we even buy our beer any more?
I end up stumbling to the fridge at the back of the shop. In there I see the German lagers and I know that I’m safe; I’m no longer lost in the beer aisle. On the way back to the counter I pass a local brewery’s core range pale ale and I get a couple of those. I then add some classic Belgian beers. But then I’m back in the IPA fridge. I’m grabbing at cans like a kid in the sweet shop. I’ll have that one and that one and I heard someone say this one was excellent and that brewery is supposed to be good and then I’ve paid and I’m halfway home and I’ve got more beer than I want or need. I did the same last week. And the week before. It’s the bright colours – they get me every time.
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