What are we like?

Anthony Gladman looks past the camaraderie of lockdown, and asks whether UK beer culture is heading in a meaner direction


Ugh. Coffee people. Have you seen them? I mean really, have you seen them? Spaffing on about which beans, what roast, and how to grind them. Weighing out their coffee grounds. Weighing out their water, for goodness sake. With their special kettles with the stupid prissy spouts that don’t boil water but heat it to exactly 91°C. Have you seen them? Arguing endlessly over apparently identical filter methods. Have you seen them? Pouring their water over the grounds in special patterns like it makes any difference at all. Droning on about extraction rates, and ‘did you account for the water left in the coffee?’. Have you seen them? With their steam this and foam that, and of course it’s never the same at home. Sheesh. What are they like!?

Well, they’re a lot like us craft beer fans if you think about it. A hobby never looks the same to someone on the outside as it does to those in the know. I mean, have you seen us? With our insufferable glass-peeping and lip-smacking and all that bloody sniffing? It’s a drink, mate. It goes in your mouth. Have you seen us paying five quid for a thimbleful of neon pink pastry sour and whipping out our phones to stick it on Instagram and Untappd before we’ve even taken a sip? Have you seen us scribbling tasting notes into tatty notebooks in the middle of a busy pub? Have you seen us arguing endlessly about what is and what isn’t ‘craft’? Have you seen us pointing to the rings of foam in our glass and chuntering on about head retention?

My aim here isn’t simply to churn out another ‘hurr-durr, craft beer nerds do dumb shit’ article. Although god knows it can do us good to poke fun at our own foibles occasionally. No, there’s more to it than that.

Hard times ahead

The beer industry has been hit hard by COVID-19. Sales from independent breweries dropped by a staggering 82% during the lockdown, according to estimates from the trade body SIBA, and 65% of breweries stopped brewing altogether. Even as pubs reopen it is unclear how many of them will start back up again.

Those who do will be left chasing a smaller market, as some drinkers, left skint and scared by the pandemic, choose to drink less often. Moreover, the routes to market, which were already being squeezed before 2020, will become even narrower. The on-trade will be busy trying to square the almost impossible circle of running profitable pubs, bars and restaurants while maintaining social distancing. And shelf-space in the off-trade will be even more fiercely contested than it was before all of this batshit hit the fan. (Or was it pangolins?)

The multinationals will be best placed to take advantage of society reopening. They brew and ship their product quicker and cheaper and have a wider reach. Craft breweries will be left struggling to catch up. Some may not want to risk reopening (thereby incurring more expenses) only to see lockdown close them down again before they can recoup their losses.

It all boils down to one thing: craft beer needs to attract more drinkers. To do that, we need to be aware of how we look to outsiders. And that’s not always a pretty sight.

Casting stones

Nate Southwood used to write a beer blog. He sustained it for many years, but stopped when he found the beer world had become less welcoming and more judgmental. “I didn’t want to be part of the craft beer culture anymore because it’s turned bitter,” he tells me.

It may not surprise you to learn that this bitterness was expressed online. The beery backwaters within Twitter and Facebook (and in particular the UK Craft Beer Forum) were mentioned again and again by people I spoke to for this article. Craft beer fans online were described as preachy, judgmental, and quick to attack.

“I know a lot of people who don’t even entertain the idea of getting into craft beer because they’ve joined a craft beer forum because they like beer and then suddenly they see all of this stuff.” 

Was it always like this? Nate thinks not. He says craft brewery buyouts, such as when AB InBev bought Camden Town Brewery, were a catalyst for a change in attitude. “For a while I thought people were having a bit of a laugh about my beer choices, but then I was like: actually no, these people are seriously judging me for what I drink.”

He tells me he received online abuse because he buys beer from supermarkets and continues to drink Camden Hells. “I’ve personally been accused of wanting independent breweries to close,” he says. “I’m not going to stop buying something I like because it’s not uber-niche and independent and local. The people who work at Camden still need jobs. If we put them out of business aren’t we as bad as anyone else?”

I can’t afford to live the craft beer lifestyle that I once did

Plus there’s price to consider. Now that he’s a little older Nate is saving to get his own home rather than live in shared houses. “I can’t afford to live the craft beer lifestyle that I once did.”

Nate says he appreciates that people want to stand up for independent breweries and retailers but they go too far. “People are well intentioned but it gets to the point where they can be downright nasty and judgmental about what people are drinking.”

“I’m not gonna lie, I’ve been there,” he says. “I’ve been that judgmental type, going like ‘what are you doing drinking Carlsberg when there’s Punk IPA on tap?’ And I got to a point where I was like actually why am I judging these people? They’re just drinking what they enjoy. I realised I was being a bit of a knob. I realised I was actively judging my own friends. It wasn’t a nice feeling.”

Sanj Devaraj has also seen craft beer move away from the fun and collaborative ethos of its early years. He tells me the culture recently has become “very preachy, very judgy.”

Sanj knows craft beer well. He worked in the sector for over 20 years in businesses such as Draught House, Late Knights Brewery, Utobeer (which runs The Rake, craft beer’s minuscule Mecca in Borough Market), and importers/wholesalers James Clay. He left the industry a couple of years ago to start a spirits consultancy.

He tells me that this attitude of caring too much about the contents of someone else’s glass has grown over recent years, and is not limited to keyboard warriors trying to look like the big man online. Sanj has seen judgmental attitudes in person too, from people who ought to know better.

“The majority of people I know don’t go into craft beer places,” says Sanj. He tells me attitudes of those inside are just too off-putting. “The term craft beer wanker exists for a reason.”

“I’ve seen it so many times. I used to work in The Rake and someone would come in and go ‘what lagers do you do?’ and they would get laughed at.” When I ask who was laughing, Sanj tells me it was the bar staff. Let’s consider that for a moment. A customer being belittled by a member of staff in the hospitality industry. Hospitality. You see what’s wrong here, don’t you?

Be encouraging and nurturing rather than having this really close-minded sector

Lager remains the most popular choice for beer drinkers by a long, long way. You might as well ridicule someone for liking bread. And yes, it may be a bit ignorant to walk into somewhere like The Rake and try to order a Heineken. But so what? That doesn’t mean a potential customer deserves to be treated with arrogance and disdain. “We should be encouraging and nurturing rather than having this really close-minded sector.” 

Human nature

At this point, you might be saying to yourself this doesn’t sound like the craft beer culture you know and love. Craft beer at its best is joyous and welcoming. It’s about exploration and sharing. Perhaps you’ve never had the bad luck to be laughed at by a snotty barman. Maybe you haven’t had strangers try to shame you for drinking a supermarket beer. It could be you’ve never had a string of hateful comments directed at you online. But it doesn’t mean that these — and worse — things aren’t happening out there.

I spoke to a lot of people for this article who felt alienated by craft beer. All sorts of issues came up. The sheer scale of choice can be intimidating. Price was a big barrier. Concerns around alcohol often came up too. We may think we’ve put the macho quantity over quality culture behind us, but it hasn’t gone away completely. People choosing non-alcoholic options still don’t feel normalised, and can face resistance from friends who somehow feel this choice reflects badly on them. And craft beer remains very male, very white and very straight; people who don’t see themselves reflected in this can worry they won’t fit in and may not be welcome. But arrogance and judgment was a common factor — it was the one thing everybody I spoke to mentioned.

Judging people based on whether we think they are like us or not is a fundamental human behaviour

Judging people based on whether we think they are like us or not is a fundamental human behaviour. We all do it all the time. And before you at me on Twitter saying ‘uh actually no but’, just google the term in-group bias.

Some craft beer fans can be judgmental fucks, for sure. And as craft beer fans we are also subject to judgment from others, sometimes unfairly so. How many times have you heard someone say with disgust that they’re not drinking ‘that pretentious shit’ and that everyone who does is a wanker? How many times have we all heard the same derivative and misinformed idea that craft beer is overpriced crap, drunk solely by the posh and the gullible?

Yucking it up

Ugh... this is turning into a downer. Shitty behaviour sucks and having to talk about it is unpleasant. So how about those of you — those few, I hope — who indulge in this sort of stuff just knock it on the head? For the sake of the rest of us. Go on.

Because in the end, who cares if someone enjoys something that you do not? The judgemental attitudes we see stem from the belief that such enjoyment is somehow wrong. But to put that enjoyment down to ignorance or bad faith is arrogant, and points to a basic misunderstanding about the world.

Some people really do like macro lagers. You may never convince them that a better beer is out there. I’m not saying we should never try to show them other options. I’m just saying to respect their choice if they are settled in it. If you bang on too long about it, saying what they like is actually ‘wrong’, they will switch off and disengage. And worse still you may dissuade onlookers from checking out the alternatives too.

Sometimes we just need to shut the fuck up and let others enjoy their fun

To borrow a phrase I’ve heard elsewhere, ‘don’t yuck my yum’. It’s pretty terrible, as phrases go. But it does a great job of explaining that sometimes we just need to shut the fuck up and let others enjoy their fun. No one should be shamed about what they choose to drink. There’s enough shit in the world already.

As for those coffee nerds I ragged on at the beginning, it should come as no surprise that there are good reasons behind their odd behaviours. Craft beer fans will find them very familiar: it’s all about getting the best flavour in a drink you love. But unlike beer, the coffee you buy is only part way through its journey from crop to drink. How you prepare your coffee can have a huge impact on how it tastes. It’s actually pretty interesting once you talk to someone who knows about it. Don’t yuck that yum. You might miss out on the chance to learn about something great.

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