What's new pussycat?
Anthony Gladman channels his inner magpie, to investigate our obsession with all things shiny and novel.
Saturday 29 September 2018
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t’s a shame how book lovers can claim to be widely-read, but I don’t sound quite as good if I say I’m widely-drunk. And yet there is a certain cachet in having tried a lot of different beers. If you drink a lot of different beers you become a connoisseur. If you drink a lot of the same beer, you’re just a pisshead.
Craft beer has always been an industry that pushes boundaries and looks for what’s next. But in recent months its fans have grown thirstier for new beers than ever before. One-off brews are flooding tap lines and shelves up and down the country. Like kids let loose on the pick ‘n’ mix, drinkers are lapping them up and ticking them off.
Dan Sandy, General Manager at bottle shop Kill The Cat in London’s Brick Lane, has a idea what’s behind this. “Beer has become a lifestyle product. It’s about being seen to be drinking new beers. I think Untappd is unintentionally driving the Top-Trumpsification of craft. I’ve seen people pick up bottles and scan the barcode into the app, and if they’ve had that beer before they will put it back on the shelf and look for something else.”
As you might expect, it wasn’t long before Cloudwater came up in our conversation. The Manchester brewery doesn’t have a core range at all. Everything they do is seasonal and constantly evolving. Paul Jones, Cloudwater’s Co-Founder and Managing Director, says he based his decision to brew this way on his own habits as a beer enthusiast. “It was very common for me to be hitting refresh on Twitter around three or four in the afternoon to see what was going to be on tap in the craft beer bars. When I saw a beer pop up that I had heard of and wanted to try, or hadn’t heard of and was curious about, that would be very alluring and very attractive.”
It would be fair to say that with Cloudwater, Paul took this idea and ran with it. To many, his brewery is now the prime example of one which releases a lot of shiny new beers and generates a lot of interest by doing so. Or some might say hype. So is Cloudwater following or fuelling the thirst for new beers?
“Oh I absolutely think we fuel it. Yeah. We weren’t the first brewery in the UK to make a rotation within a number of styles. Brew By Numbers charted a course of exploring new styles and making a lot of one-off releases before us. But I certainly think that we’ve made a very solid contribution to demonstrating the market for constantly evolving, modern British beer. Beer is not a static product. While there are wonderful traditional products that have been steady for years, decades even, beer itself is constantly evolving. And I think that there are many consumers out there, especially younger ones, who really enjoy keeping up with this evolution and experiencing it as it happens. I would say there are more and more drinkers interested in new experiences as time goes by,” says Paul. To back up this observation he cites the volume of collaborations and one-off brews in the marketplace. And he points out that many breweries which before might have released specials only once a month are now turning out two or three times that number.
Gipsy Hill Brewery is one such example. Founded in 2014, the same year as Cloudwater, the South-London brewery took a more traditional path at first. They chose to concentrate on a core range of beers which they would brew repeatedly and seek to improve each time they did so. It wasn’t until their 100th brew, 18 months later, that their first special appeared.
Now specials make up a very large and deliberate part of the brewery’s strategy, according to Director Sam McMeekin. “Right now it’s about 55% core beer to 45% specials.” This increase in specials came hand in hand with an expansion at the brewery. By mid-2017 the brewery was releasing two specials a month. Then, from August to November, they more than doubled their brewing capacity. At the same time, they switched from bottles to cans. Both of those developments put a break on plans to expand their core range. “We realised if we’re going sell all the beers that we make then they’ve got to be specials, so we started putting together a solid, balanced rotation. We’ll go through a lager every two months and hoppy pales every month and the rest of it.” Since January the brewery has released four to six specials a month. “It’s not easy to pull off. But I think if you can it’s pretty great. Certainly our specials are being received really well. We’ve sold out of some of our batches in a single day.”
There’s no doubt that all this new beer is good for business up and down the supply chain. Not far up the road from Gipsy Hill is independent bottle shop Hop Burns and Black. The Peckham institution has recently opened its second branch in Deptford. Owner Jen Ferguson understands the power of new beer to pull her customers in. “We make a big thing of ensuring people know what’s coming as soon as it lands. Every week we send out our newsletter, which has a big new beers section, and we’ll have hundreds of people clicking straight through. Most of our online orders will happen after we’ve sent out that newsletter. Our biggest sellers on a weekly basis remain our core beers - the likes of Brick Brewery’s Peckham Pils, Gipsy Hill’s Hepcat, or The Kernel’s Table Beer - but the thing that brings the boys to the yard is the new beers.”
Dan sees this too at Kill The Cat: “The first thing the majority of our customers look for when they come into the shop is our just-in stickers. It can be a shame sometimes. I know there are great beers that have been around for a while that I’d love to stock but which just wouldn’t sell.”
There are many consumers out there... who really enjoy keeping up with this evolution
So how do people navigate their way through all this new beer? For some, having someone else curate a selection for them is the answer. When you combine this with the increasing preference to drink at home, it’s no wonder beer subscription services are so popular. But for plenty of people the process of finding the beers themselves is part of the pleasure. Dan reckons a lot of this type of drinker will shop by brewery: “Customers will look for beers from Verdant or DEYA. Or they’ll come in and ask whether we have any Cloudwater or Northern Monk in, and if we don’t they’ll just walk out again.”
This positioning of certain breweries as brands, rather than their individual beers, did not come about by chance. With their specials range, Gipsy Hill hope to present a brand people can trust even if the beer inside the can is unfamiliar. Cloudwater have done the same. “We worked hard to establish the Cloudwater name and its association with high quality beer,” Paul tells me. “Even when we put out a style of beer that folk might not have heard about, we’ve worked hard to make sure that if it’s got our name on it there’s a reasonable assumption that it’s going to be a quality product.”
But take a step back for a moment. No one drinks new beer all the time. And with so much of it about, even the most hardened hypebeast has to give up on the Pokémon-style, gotta-drink-em-all attitude eventually.
Dan at Kill The Cat recalls the moment he realised he had to kill his FOMO. “Many lifetimes ago I was a music journalist and had a hard time accepting that there were songs out there I knew I’d love but would never get to hear. It affected me deeply! When I got into beer I quickly came to the conclusion I couldn’t afford, mentally or financially, to chase every beer. In my role I’m very lucky. I get to try a lot of beer, but I decided I must be a fan of good beer and great examples of styles rather than a box ticker feverishly trying to collect them all.”
Paul Jones shares this love of beer in a broader sense as well. “When we were down in Sussex last year working with Mark Tranter on a beer, that evening I very much enjoyed drinking some of Harvey’s cask beer because that’s what was there. It was local, it was fresh, it was novel. If I’m in San Diego at Pizza Port, I’m definitely not craving a Tergernseer Hell, I’m just loving the fact that I’m having a very San Diegan experience. And if I’m in Munich drinking a helles I couldn’t give a shit about IPAs at that moment. I find the quality of experience I can have by embracing whatever’s in front of me is enough.”
When people learn that I’m a beer sommelier, their first reaction is often to ask me what my favourite beer is. The truth is I have no answer to that question. The best I can come up with is something like ‘the next one’. Which is both true and a cop-out at the same time.
It’s all just beer in the end, and as long as you’re enjoying the beer in your glass that’s all that matters. Of course it will always be fun to try the new and exciting beers, but there’s a lot to say for drinking what feels right in the moment. Context plays such a large role in our experience of a beer on any given occasion. There’s a strong argument in favour of getting to know certain beers more deeply by revisiting them from time to time.
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