Katie Mather, on the dirtiest word in craft beer
Sunday 06 June 2021
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I’ve never had a signature drink. I always hoped I’d grow up to be a sophisticated adult, casually ordering my favourite drink at the bar — at ease, ready to enjoy. It would be something slightly off-menu, perhaps; a little unexpected. In my early twenties I tried to force myself into a Bourbon habit, but I still don’t like it much without a splash of coke. Brandy, the same. I like a vermouth from time to time (who doesn’t?) and occasionally a decent negroni hits the spot like nothing else can. But I don’t want the same drink every round. Like my food preferences, I crave variety. I wouldn’t eat carnitas for every meal, and neither would I want caviar on everything (or anything at all, you fish-egg-loving wronguns).
Beer became my favourite drink because it was easy to find variety. A pint of pale ale changes by brewery, by town. A bottle of Guinness export gives me something a can of pils cannot. And vice versa. But despite the best efforts of thousands of brilliant beer bloggers, champions, brewers, writers and fanatics, beer is still often seen as a drink that’s solely for beer drinkers. What’s more, it’s often the case that beer fans choose to only drink beer, forsaking the flavours and experiences of other beverages in the name of loyalty. How come? And how can we change that?
Slurring the Boundaries
I was on a podcast recently talking about my passion for cider, and I was asked: “do you think it’s partly because you’re young that you aren’t particularly tied to either beer or cider or wine?”
I thought this was a funny question because I hadn’t really considered that drinking anything I felt like drinking was weird. I decide what I fancy based on what I’m craving at the time — this is also how I pick the food I eat. Sometimes I choose to drink beer over cider because of the meal I’ll be enjoying with it, and sometimes I go for a bottle of wine because that’s just what I’m feeling. I’d forgotten that for many people, you are either a beer drinker or a cider drinker or a wine drinker. There is no overlap, and if you cross into enemy territory and get caught, you’d better call it a guilty pleasure, or you’ll have to hand back all your Untappd badges at reception.
After a moment of consideration I replied that it might be less to do with my trademark youthful exuberance and more to do with the range of options that have always been open to me as a drinker. While my mum’s generation might have only had the choice of bitter, mild, Old Rosie or shandy, I’ve been lucky enough to grow up surrounded by an abundance of choice. So is that to do with age, or is it about the widening and growing accessibility of the drinks market?
Something else that’s intriguing to me about the alcohol world is how we align ourselves with certain brands within the certain drinks we choose. It’s nothing new — since marketing teams learned about the power of tribalism we’ve had Coke people and Pepsi people; two very similar products that people throw themselves behind. One of them? Disgusting! The other? Perfection! Does it matter? Grand scheme: not even a little bit, but to our lives it’s somehow incredibly relevant. Identifying with brands is part of what makes branding so effective — we see ourselves in these products, and they become parts of our personality. I’ve worked in marketing long enough to see both sides of this. It’s gross, but it’s also totally fascinating. In beer, wine and cider, the same thing applies. For some of us, choosing a drink is based only on the base refreshment it will provide us. For others, other considerations are made: how the brand “feels” to them, what the can art looks like, whether they seem “cool” or “authentic”, what other people have said about it, and whatever other metric the drinker wants to measure their drinks by. Increasingly, drinkers are also looking deeper into brand identities, and thinking about who the maker is, how ethical they are, how eco-conscious, how fun, how friendly, how exciting. We can rant until we’re blue in the face about the fact that all that really matters is flavour, aroma and enjoyment, but I’m past pretending (and I also don’t agree). There is more at play. How can we isolate drinks from their constructed stories and packaging? How can you definitively prove that you only drink a certain beer because you personally like it — and not because you’ve somehow built a legend of it in your mind?
I thought of this when a customer came to my bottle shop and talked at length about how they would only ever drink “real” beer, that carbonation was an abomination and that modern beers were too full of “other stuff” to ever be truly classed as great beer. However, they then pointed to the fridge and said “ah, Cloudwater! My favourite brewery!”
Picture me as that meme where a man holding a solo cup turns to the camera and pulls a baffled face, and question marks appear around him like concussion stars in a cartoon. Modern craft beer was not to this customer’s taste, all power to them. But they’d also decided that they’d make an exception for Cloudwater, despite them being one of the main breweries pushing craft beer to ever dizzying heights of expression, exaggeration and experimentation in the UK. Why? I have no idea. Humans exist in mysterious ways. For whatever reason, this person had aligned themselves to Cloudwater’s excellent beers and recognisable brand, when according to their stated preferences, they don’t produce products they usually enjoy. Cloudwater in this instance stepped out of “craft beer” and into a different space entirely, where brand matters more than the beer itself. Isn’t that interesting?
When I was a teenager, Busta Rhymes brought out “Pass The Courvoisier” and I remember thinking “I’d love to hate this blatant product placement, but good for him. If he likes cognac, fair play.” Now I think about how influencers do this all day everyday, switching loyalties for cash. I’ve had many, many conversations with people in the beer and cider industries about how influencer culture has changed the way people drink. Are people new to these drinks choosing them based on what they find delicious? Or are things mainly being bought because they’re fresh and exciting, colourful enough to take a great photo, rare enough to incite envy? This is nothing new — luxury items have always sold themselves on these perceived merits. Fine wine has relied on influencers to shift its product for hundreds of years, whether it cares to admit it or not. Influencers are not a new phenomenon, but the way that influencer culture has become part of everyday life is. I’m willing to bet that every one of us has taken a photo of a drink and shared it on social media, with the tiny secret goal of showing off. You’re influencing. Why wouldn’t we like to be seen that way? I’d venture it’s a question of how virtuous we see ourselves as. Is doubling down on a personal preference a reaction to this, then? Do we somehow feel like what we drink marks out our integrity? I think there’s some truth in that. Maybe steadfastly sticking to beer, in all of it’s thousands of modern guises, feels less like chasing hype. You’re not a hipster or an influencer — you’re an aficionado.
Explorer, Not Abandoner
When I said I choose what I drink based on what I feel like drinking, I was telling a little lie. There are a lot of factors at work behind the decision, including and not totally restricted to the following questions: What do I have in the house? How can I make something that’ll taste like that drink I just saw on Instagram? What drink have I been ignoring too much lately? What would go with my tea tonight?
I remembered a conversation I’d had about this very subject with Susanna Forbes, and I wondered if she felt like trying to drill down into why some people feel loyal to drinks, and others don’t. Starting her enviable drinks career in wine, then moving into beer and cider journalism as editor of Imbibe magazine and Full Juice magazine and now the co-founder of Little Pomona cidery in Herefordshire, I felt like Susanna would be the ideal person to help me get to the bottom of it all.
“I love the chance to explore any drink, and I don’t know if it’s an age thing or not,” Susanna told me. “That doesn’t mean if I love something I won’t go back to it, but it does mean that if I see or hear of something with an ingredient I want, or that I’m interested in it: beer, wine, cider, sherry — love my sherry — I’ll seek it out.”
“The things that keep me going is the love of the new combined with knowing what I already love.”
“I have French family links, so we had wine on the dinner table, that’s what we drank, and I didn’t get interested in beer until much later. Only then did I have the chance to learn about beer and find out how fascinating it is. And then as a journalist I wanted to know more…”
Which I can totally empathise with. Some of us are just curious, nosey creatures and we like trying new things — it becomes part of the experience of drinking. As much as I adore particular drinks, sometimes the allure of the new makes a drink seem all the more enticing, and even delicious.
“I read an interesting quote which Dick [Withecombe, northern cider champion and co-organiser of Manchester Cider Club] had picked up from the American Cider Association about how over in America, perhaps because they were unencumbered with tradition, they took a fresher, more open approach to cider. This means there was less of a resistance to trying new things. So maybe in this way young people do have less preconceptions and are more open to trying new things. But I think there’s a lot to do with your initial culture, about what you get a chance to explore, what your peer group drink, and what’s accessible too.”
“Crossing categories is something to be encouraged, there’s nothing to fear,” says Susanna.
“I think when any members of a community start saying “Ooh, you shouldn’t be doing that” with regards to drinking different things or changing the way certain drinks are made, they’re coming from a time when they felt embattled. At one point it was probably hard to get hold of that drink that they wanted, or to gain respect for their drink that they felt needed to be respected, and they’re bringing those tensions forward.”
“I see it in the cider world — when you put a lot of energy into something, you don’t like to see that diluted. But I love a fresh take on something. There’s so much to gain from a different perspective. When I got into beer having done so much in wine, I hope I managed to bring something different. There’s still so much out there to be explored.”
“It would be nice if people got less precious and could redirect their energies into championing what they love.”
I asked Susanna if, after all we’ve spoken about, loyalty is overrated.
“The geeks are the ones who are always looking for something new — and I would class myself as a geek here. But when we find something we like, we never let it go. So it’s all to play for really.”
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