The kids are alright
In Gen Z, The Future of Beer is in Good Hands
Sunday 14 February 2021
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I remember my first legal beer like it was yesterday. It was a pint of Fosters, bought for me by my Dad at the Bottle & Glass, in the village of Scothern, Lincolnshire, right on the stroke of noon as the pub had opened. I was so excited to get a pint of beer in my hands I didn’t care what it was, I was just desperate to be an adult, and to do grown up things. Going to the pub, and drinking pints, the most important among them.
In 2001, when that time eventually came, the selection of beer on offer was largely pitiful. Pubs serving real ale did not feel welcoming to my generation during this time, nor did they pique our curiosity. Our lot was mass-market lagers, alcopops, and questionable shots of a mouthwash-meets-cinnamon flavoured liqueur called Aftershock.
This feels like a different world to me now, because it is. Over the past two decades the beer landscape in the UK has changed forever. Case in point: my hometown, Lincoln, is set to be the latest to host a BrewDog bar. I am excited by this and what it will bring to the town. I am especially enthused when I consider what my younger self would have made of it: a bar that is welcoming to a younger crowd serving multiple taps of interesting beer. More importantly however, I’m interested to hear what 18 to 24 year olds now make of today’s beer culture.
“It’s so engaging being able to drink, compare and converse about different styles and take yourself through a complex and detailed journey through the power of hops,” Isaac Vernon, aged 20, who works at bottle shop 7000 Jars of Beer in Kingston-upon-Thames, tells me. In our conversation via-email, his excitement for craft beer leaps off the page.
“It gives meaning to drinking and makes it a more social occasion compared to just mindlessly chugging pint after pint of plain tasting mainstream lager,” he says.
I can’t wait
The media would like you to think that Generation Z isn’t interested in drinking alcohol – especially delicious, high quality, expensive craft beers. Hit the search bar and there are plenty of headlines that proclaim young people are drinking less, and more are choosing sobriety. A piece published by the Morning Advertiser in January 2020 claimed that “a third of people in the UK are drinking less than they were a year ago,” with data within provided by soft drink and mixer brand Franklin & Sons continuing to say that 79% of the surveyed group of 18-35 year olds would actually prefer a non-alcoholic option at the bar, to an alcoholic one.
Another feature published by GQ back in May 2019 quotes Aveek Bhattacharya from the Institute Of Alcohol Studies (IAS), saying we’re seeing an increase in teetotalism, stating that “9% of those aged 16-24 said they never drank in 2005, compared to 23% in 2017.” The article goes on to state that many of those in the age group may never go on to touch alcohol in the first place. My next bit of research took me to the US, where an article published in February 2019 by Business Insider summarises that American Gen Z-ers (which, for the purposes of this article are people born after 1995) are drinking less, especially beer, because they “don’t think drinking is cool any more.”
The reality is that if you look at the actual statistics pertaining to alcohol consumption in the UK, things are largely flat, if down a little over the past decade. According to data I pulled from research firm Statista published in November 2020, in 2018 the UK drank a whopping 48.6 million hectolitres of beer – down from an equally impressive 51.5 million ten years before. However, you only have to dig a little deeper to see that the 2018 figures are, in fact, up on all years from 2009 to 2017, with consumption hitting a low point of 42.4 million hectolitres in 2013.
What I’m interested in flipping here is the narrative that runs through all of these stories: that under 25’s are not interested in drinking alcohol. That craft beer, specifically, is not cool to them. While the youngest bracket within the above data might be drinking less, I believe they are almost certainly drinking better. Case in point: In putting out a tweet asking for 18-24 year olds to reach out to me about their beer preferences, my inbox was overwhelmed with a flood of positivity. An eagerness to discuss beer by young people who love it, including Isaac at 7000 Jars of Beer.
“[In about 2016/17] my local started doing £2.50 a pint on some lines, one included Punk IPA which had the highest ABV of the lot, so was the obvious choice as a teen,” he says. “I began to learn about different styles through trying what else BrewDog had to offer in supermarkets, [but] the brewery that thrust me into going super micro with my buying choices was probably Almasty in my hometown of Newcastle. I felt like a much more responsible consumer for supporting local.”
Charlotte Rose, 23, describes herself as an avid craft beer drinker and supporter of the industry. Like Isaac, she’s also worked in beer for the past couple of years, and it was her burgeoning interest in it that spurred her to do so.
“I enjoy the fact that there’s a lot more open-mindedness [in craft beer],” she says. “The simplest example that comes to mind is British craft lager. The more old school drinkers I know wouldn’t touch any of it due to biases or perception of UK lagers or lagers in general as being subpar.”
As Charlotte tells me about the breweries she’s into, such as Norfolk’s Duration, Dolphin Brewery in Reading, Bristol’s Lost and Grounded and Pomona Island in Manchester, I get a real sense of how deep her passion for beer runs – a common thread in all of the responses I received. This enthusiasm is not restricted to the latest pastry stout or lactose-infused IPA – biases that could easily (and lazily) be levied towards younger craft beer drinkers. There’s just as much appreciation for a nice pale ale, a great lager, and a lovely pint of cask.
“I think what draws me to craft beer is firstly the quality and care that goes into the product,” Zack Stephens, 20, tells me. “As I’ve gotten deeper into the world of craft beer the creativity, lack of rules and excitement that can go into a beer has really gripped me.”
Something pure can last
As The Campaign for Real Ale’s (CAMRA) National Young Members Coordinator, 24 year old Dan Maycock is responsible for stewarding the Campaign’s 18 to 30 year old members. While this portion of CAMRA membership is small – just over 6% – it’s evidence there’s appeal within the organisation outside of the white, older, beard-and-sandal wearing stereotype that unfortunately, and inaccurately, still haunts it. Put that percentage in real numbers and when you consider that CAMRA has almost 180,000 members (myself included) that means there’s over 10,000 youth members.
“I think that drinking culture has changed from my dad’s generation to mine,” Dan tells me. “I know from speaking to others that some older pub goers are happy to sit in a pub, drinking the same beer for the whole evening. When I go out with my friends we visit a range of venues and try different beers. I think the latest drinking culture is a sort of treasure hunt.”
According to Dan, the biggest obstacle to younger drinkers discovering real ale is real ale itself – specifically, poorly kept examples that would put anyone off after one sip. “Real ale also has a stereotype of being ‘warm, flat, boring, and for men’,” he continues. “One-third of my committee are women. We want CAMRA to be known as a space in which women are welcome. There is certainly more work to be done on diversity in the beer community.”
James Croft, 22, has worked in beer since turning 18, and is currently assistant manager at ÖL Brewery & Bar in Manchester. His gateway to craft beer was from the (now sadly defunct) Mad Hatter brewery in Liverpool and their Tzatziki Sour (now brewed by Orbit in London, where it’s creator Paul Spraggett is head brewer.) He’s part of a growing wave of young people whose enthusiasm has spilled over and become a career in beer.
“I love the freedom that comes with helping to run an independent beer bar but the most important thing is definitely the interaction with customers,” James says. “Being able to share and facilitate the experiences of trying awesome beers with them is something I always look forward to.”
Being part of Gen Z doesn’t necessarily mean you’re new to the industry either. Jodie Kennedy, 24, has worked in beer since turning 18. Her career started at a Greene King pub, before moving on to the likes of legendary London beer bar The Euston Tap, Beer & Burger and most recently Two Tribes Brewery in Kings Cross.
“I feel constantly challenged by this industry. After seven years, I’m not bored – if anything I’m more excited to continue my journey,” Jodie tells me. “I personally feel like I need to continue to represent what a young, queer woman can achieve in a male dominated industry. I want to experience everything this industry has to offer.”
Gen Z are not turning away from beer, they’re the bar and brewery owners of the future
Jodie admits to me that one day she’d very much like to open her own venue, in turn contributing to the increasing amount of equity, diversity and inclusion that many within the industry are pushing for. Gen Z are not turning away from beer, they’re the bar and brewery owners of the future, and for some that future is already very much the present. Take Lincoln Slagel, 25 and co-owner of Emancipation Brewing Co. in the town of Fairbury Illinois – around 90 minutes drive south of Chicago.
“I love providing a product and experience that plays a huge part in creating memories for people,” Lincoln tells me. “They celebrate a birthday at our brewery, open a special bottle of our beer on a holiday or at home, or they run into an old friend and share a beer in the taproom.”
Despite this, there are obvious barriers preventing many within this generation discovering and enjoying craft beer – and one in particular. When asked what obstacles there are to entering beer culture, “cost” was the universal answer. Craft beer is very expensive. In the UK a single can of IPA can be priced more than four or five times higher than a six pack of mass-market lager or pale ale from the supermarket. Despite this, those that replied freely admitted that they would rather buy less beer if it meant they could access more premium products such as those produced by small, independent breweries.
In terms of raw numbers this does back up the data that suggests the younger generation are less interested in alcohol, but it does not support the narrative that they are not interested in great beer. A point backed up in an article published by Real Business in September 2020 that suggested “Gen Z drinking habits could boost the growth of small breweries.”
Reassuringly, our youngest generation of drinkers doesn’t just seem to be incredibly enthusiastic about drinking craft beer, but forging a career in it too. Considering that when I began this piece I had honestly expected to discover the opposite, I can’t help but feel something of a warm glow thinking about how, in Generation Z, the future of great beer is going to be in good hands.
“My relationship to craft beer is a continuous road of curiosity and boundary pushing,” Jodie Kennedy tells me. “I don’t want to leave anytime soon.”
A special thank you to everyone who emailed in response to my call for comment on this feature – and apologies to those I couldn’t find room for in the piece.
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