Welcome to the fold
With time on their hands and no pubs to turn to, many beer lovers used lockdown to explore craft delivery services. Hugh Thomas asks how they’ve found the experience.
Tuesday 29 September 2020
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Romanticising the beer box experience is no easy feat. Signing for parcels is an act of unadulterated bureaucracy, breaking down and recycling cardboard a chore. However enlightening the bits in between can be. Yes, we love the no-hassle of it all, the unexpected belters from breweries in the armpit of nowhere. But, and I’ll wager on the editor not minding me saying this – on an April afternoon in the back garden of a 16th century coaching inn, with the first of Spring’s warmth on the back of your neck, the light turning pints amber and gold, the landlady’s chocolate lab curled at your feet – mostly, we want to be down the pub.
As we all know, a few months ago that wasn’t possible. For the first time in history, every law-abiding landlord in Britain shut their pub, forcing drinkers (many of whose beer knowledge extended little further than what’s usually on at their local) to forage elsewhere. Sometimes that meant raiding the bottom shelves of their street’s small Tesco for mini kegs, or ringing up their nearest microbrewery. Other times it meant desperately sticking “beer delivery” into their favourite search engine and hitting the first thing that came up.
This took breweries, beer subscription services, and online retailers a bit by surprise. One alcohol delivery service reported an uptick in sales of 500% almost overnight, while the folks at Not Another Beer Co. watched the revenue of their 0.5% pilsner Lucky Saint triple.
Is this what we’ll call the “new normal’? Industry analysts are saying lockdown has given birth to a “new breed” of beer drinker. One that, wary of looking after their smaller, less economically resilient breweries, wants to do their bit in keeping them going. One that buys fewer beers but of better quality. And one that, now unafraid to order online, and has bookmarked where to go to do it, may add a few bottles of no/low ABV to their cart to see them through the odd afternoon Working From Home.
Lockdown has given birth to a “new breed” of beer drinker
So who belongs to this group of fledgling enthusiasts? What kind of experience is all this to the neophyte who’s never heard of an impy stout, let alone tried a New England IPA? And do they really mind trading the pub drinking life of “whose round is it” and impromptu pool games to one other beer fans have become more in tune with – cans and quiet nights at home?
Much like the rest of us, Martyn Lowes was missing the pub experience over lockdown. Because pubs usually met all his needs, beer delivery or subscription clubs never crossed his mind. “Until now anyway,” he tells me. “Sounds a bit basic but I used to pick beers based on their colour. I wanted to join a beer box club to try and discover new breweries and beer styles. I really enjoy IPAs and red ales, but I hadn’t made much effort to branch out and try new beers before.”
Once lockdown hit, Tom Dowler was also reminded of what the pub granted him, especially its role as a social enabler. Having beer dropped to his door, though, has in part made up for that. ”It’s a nice way to enjoy a virtual pint with my dad and brothers from different parts of the country,” he says. “We started off taking it quite seriously, discussing notes and flavours. We’re still doing a weekly Zoom chat over a beer, but it’s become a more relaxed way to stay in touch with the family.”
All this time spent at home has, perhaps counter to expectations, significantly added to drinkers’ awareness. Even though he’s now more inclined to order “craftier” beers down the pub, rather than his usual pint of bitter, Rob Gaskell isn’t confident his local will fulfil that desire. More up-to-date beers, the likes of which he’s started getting through the post, will however take the place of his stash of Stella. “They just make drinking at home a bit more interesting,” says Rob. “I like that I’m being told what to drink, and each time it’s something new. I also like that I’m getting the story behind the beer.’
Over the past few months, drinkers’ palates have undergone a lot in the way of shaping. Tom typically chooses an IPA at the bar, but ordering beer online – as well as the lucky dip that is the subscription box – has laid out previously unexplored styles in front of him. “I’d never normally go for something like an imperial Russian stout,” he says. “But I gave the Saint Petersburg by Thornbridge a try, and I actually really enjoyed its smoky flavour. I used to be put off darker ales, but I’m much more open-minded now. Of course, letting someone else take the wheel of your drinks choices works both ways.”
For Martyn, the new options he’s opened up to may have helped untangle the enigma that is the IPA. Then again, it may have only made it more complicated. “The world of IPAs definitely seems intimidating on the surface,” he says. “I’m looking to learn more about American styles – if you put a West Coast and New England IPA in front of me I wouldn’t be able to discern which was which at this point.”
Drinkers’ knowledge has increased so much over the past decade that those left out of the loop have, like Martyn, felt the disparity. Comprehension isn’t just passive – there’s an active thirst for it. During lockdown in June, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (for formal drinks learning, the name that first pops into the mind of hotel, restaurant, and bar sommeliers) said it would start rolling out a beer curriculum. It suggests that, as consumers are getting so au fait with beer, something needs to be done to make sure hospitality staff are just as, if not more, on the ball. As Hakkasan’s former head of wine Christine Parkinson told Imbibe, “I have never come across a qualified beer buyer in the restaurant trade.”
Beer’s rich landscape can often only be explored, new enthusiasts like Martyn are finding, if old prejudices are abandoned as such. “I would say I prefer clear beers over hazy, but that’ll be my dad’s influence. He’s a beer quality technician for Marston’s, and one of the earliest things he taught me was the CAT test of clarity, aroma, and taste. I’m open to trying anything now but I guess I just always lean to clear beers because of that influence.”
Some of the craft beer scene can be a bit much...you don’t always feel welcome
Speaking of prejudices, we may like to think beer has become more inclusive in recent years, but as Tom points out, there’s still a lot to do in that department. Even from a young, London-dwelling white man’s perspective. “I find some of the craft beer scene in London can be a bit much,” he says. “And if you’re not a hipster with a designer beard – as I never will be – you don’t always feel welcome. I can’t point to any particular experiences, but when I see a huge board of numbered beers behind a bar with all sorts of weird names, and the bar’s rammed, I feel a bit silly so you just go for the usual safe choice.’
The pandemic has made us re-think the spaces in which we explore beer. But also the beer we want to drink – in July, a survey carried out by Brew//LDN and KAM Media suggested 57% of beer drinkers are now more interested in hunting down unique beers than they were pre-lockdown. How will it change for our initiates? Martyn tells me he’s extended his subscription through to the end of the year. Tom? Not so sure. Either way, surely the at-home experience has done its job. “I won’t just go for the comfort of a nice hoppy IPA every time I’m at the bar,” he says.
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