Playing along

Watching England going one up against Sweden in the World Cup
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Foot-ball. Foot-ball. Football, football, football. Foooootballlll, foot-ball. Football. Football.”

Watching England going one up against Sweden in the World Cup (I’d later learn that, true to England’s real form against half decent national teams, we’d bottle it against Croatia in the next stage) is an interesting experience, not least when the bloke behind you at the pub has had a few pints, and his far from stage-worthy voice is in full swing. Naturally, there’s a whiff of something on his breath – is that Sierra Nevada IPA? Or Frontier? Either way, this kind of etiquette is what begins to wander into people’s minds when we think of the beer plus football equation. The two mix either all too well, or not very well at all.

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The powers that be are in the latter camp, what with their 30-year-old ‘no alcohol in sight of the pitch’ rule at league stadiums, and UEFA’s continent-wide abstinence at its competitions (just repealed, mind you). Ironic, you could say, when some of the biggest clubs take big sponsorship money from big lager brands, such as Carlsberg and Liverpool, Chang and Everton, Roma and Peroni. Not to mention Heineken’s status as official beer partner of the UEFA.

Of course, these brands are still drunk in stadiums around the world, and in pubs before, during, and after matches. All right, it’s drink for the masses. But this is modern football, dammit. Can’t we have beer that appeals to modern tastes? Well, generally, no. Most craft breweries can’t begin to hope to match the output needed by stadiums, which sell tens of thousands of pints on a good matchday. And the big guys – like Carlsberg – won’t be having it anyway.

But then there’s Beavertown. The first brewery in the world to, albeit with financial assistance from Heineken, install its own brew kit in a football stadium. At Spurs’ new home, it’s a full-scale operation, with what they call a ‘full-scale’ microbrewery. It needs to be, if Beavertown are to deliver a maximum of 10,000 pints a minute. Many ardent craft fans feel as though Beavertown have turned their back on them by accepting Heineken’s advances. But many more will feel it a god-send that local beer has, at last, come to top flight football.

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Someone ought to break it to them: it’s already there. When Brighton got promoted last season, they became the only Premiership club to pour cask Harvey’s (brewed five miles from the stadium) at every home game, as they had for years prior. They sell some 9,000 pints at some games.

Then there’s Thornbridge, who brew a Wednesday pale and Owls Session IPA for Sheffield Wednesday. Huddersfield Town have HatTrick, a cask pale; and Promised Land, a pilsner; brewed especially for them by Magic Rock just the other side of the River Colne. Both are popular tipples, despite Heineken’s partnership with Huddersfield Town. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to speculate if this is where Heineken got their Beavertown-Spurs idea.

Look further down the tiers of English football, and it gets even better. Especially when supporters of non-league teams can drink in sight of the pitch. There’s my local club, Dulwich Hamlet (due to some copyright issues, soon to be Dulwich Something Else), whose fans have a certain reputation for drinking bottles from Brick Brewery, or pints of Canopy’s Sunray pale at home games. Sometimes while chanting ‘the referee’s a Tory!’ when a decision doesn’t go their way. Fourth tier Forest Green Rovers – who pride themselves on being the world’s first vegan football club – have Stroud Brewery’s (Stroud were ‘craft’ before it had a name) vegan Tom Long and Budding on draught.

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Particularly in FGR’s case, when better beer and better food started to happen at football grounds, it opened people’s eyes to the notion that yes, a club could actually look after its fans’ food choices. A refreshing thought in a world where top tier ticket prices are so high, and when fans have been subjected to steak and kidney pies and identikit lager for most of their club-supporting lives. Little old Forest Green Rovers have had on their menu salads, sweet potato fries, Thai vegetable curries, falafel wraps, half-time cake, and strawberries and cream smoothies.

Not such a big deal, you might think: some French or Italian stadiums, given their respective country’s culinary heritage, probably smash down foie gras on toast, cacio e pepe, and natural wine. Nope, not even close – find little else but an abundance of hotdogs and popcorn sold in and around the San Siro, and large queues for pizza, fries, and Kronenbourg at the Parc des Princes. With one of the few exceptions being State Rennais and their penchant for Galette-Saucisse (the fans, in their Dennis the Menace black-and-red, sing ‘Galette-Saucisse, I love you’ on the terraces), it seems even when surrounded by some of the most interesting cuisine in the world, food and drink culture fails to penetrate the fortress that is your average top-tier football stadium.

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Britain offers up its exceptions. Although, we can’t be completely smug – the Americans have had it all figured out for a while now. Tailgate-ers and paying fans were spoilt when Mikkeller moved in with their new 10,000 square foot brewery taproom at New York Mets’ stadium, with 60 draught lines, including porters, quads, wits, IPAs, saisons, pilsners, lambic-styles, barley wines, and Berliner Weisses. Oh, and six ‘Ball Park’ beers brewed at that site and that site only.

Though the Mets have a bar in a league of its own, it’s hardly the exception. A couple of breweries, including Terrapin in Atlanta (who have a taproom at Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park), have taken to aging IPAs on Louisville Slugger baseball bats. Sierra Nevada and New Belgium started partnering with local American football teams last year, including Sierra Nevada brewing a blonde ale exclusively for the Sacremento Kings’ Stadium. Meanwhile, in the MLS, smaller-batch beer is a common sight. Seattle Sounders’ CenturyLink Field – as just one example – has beer from 13 local breweries on the taps.

British venues can’t compete. But there’s a good reason – in direct response to growing concerns about the quality of the beer at major league games, and the times spectators spend in the queue for the bar, US venues have hustled to make live sports more attractive. What’s especially interesting is that they’ve prioritised localising and diversifying their draught beer selection as a way of getting people out from in front of their high def TVs and into the stands. And, to some degree, it’s worked.

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Perhaps that’s not so surprising – if loyalty is what sports teams are looking for, then there’s a lot of that to be found in beer. See brewery t-shirts and club kits, the price of match tickets and the price of beer festivals, and the heartbreak that occurs when teams or breweries are taken over by foreign investment. Beer is almost as much a game in that sense as the beautiful one.

Loyalty’s only a good thing when it has its limits. What people need to realise is craft probably doesn’t ignite the kind of Fosters-fuelled antics depicted in East End bar fights in 2005’s Green Street. I don’t want to be too presumptuous, but I can’t imagine anyone smashing a bottle of yuzu tea leaf IPA over their head before throwing someone through a pub window.

But whatever form it takes, people generally still think beer gives football a bad name. As part of a conscious effort, last season was the first season no breweries appeared on Premiership kits since the league formed in ‘92. A good thing, some may say, especially if you want to get young children interested in the beautiful game. The main problem with it? For the large part, these sponsorship contracts have been replaced by something arguably worse – gambling platforms.

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Beer is featured in football advertising because, for better or worse, the two go hand-in-hand. Besides – collectively, was it ever really that bad? We all remember that John Smith’s advert. As kids, we recreated it – whenever you blasted one, howitzer-like, over the bar in an inter-school match, an utter howler of a miss, the best thing you could say to regain at least some level of face was, ‘Ave it!’

Beer is, and has been for a long time, a part of universal football culture. Even if it might not be to everyone’s liking. Micro is a part of it too, and now at just about every level, from making a Champions League appearance this year at Spurs’ new gaff, to what’s drunk in the pub after chasing a ball around a village green on a Sunday afternoon.

Football and beer? Name a more iconic duo.

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