Friday, 2 March 2018

Thoughts on beer accessibility

"Peroni is aspirational. Cloudwater is something beamed down from another planet."

These words by the Pub Curmudgeon stuck in my brain after reading his piece on working class drinkers, not least because I am one. It made me think about the angle at which I approached beer from, and why I'm finding myself more and more towards the obscure craft end of the beverage spectrum. After all, given my inauspicious beginnings as both a working class female and a Northerner, it seems I should never have strayed too far from the Carlsberg and lime. Which I maintain is a perfectly acceptable drink.

One of my favourite pastimes is sitting in country pubs drinking perfectly pulled pints and eating pork scratchings. I can't really describe why I enjoy it so much more than drinking at home, but I have a feeling it's more about the context of the beer than the beer itself. I'm a people-observer. I didn't go to study journalism for no reason - I find the human race fascinating and I want to know everybody's stories, from the guy in the waxed cotton fisherman's hat propping up the bar to the quiet couple in the corner feeding crisps to their cocker spaniels. Pubs are perfect for getting to know a place. When I was studying for my degree, a visiting journalist told us a tip that would immediately familiarise any surrounding. Read the local paper from cover to cover in a local pub. Now I'm no longer studying to be a hack, I still like to use my local as a hub. There are no gossips half as enthusiastic as your older gentlemen bitter drinkers.

One of my favourite pubs has the best cross-section of punters,
 including a vast array of taxidermied animals
- The House of Trembling Madness in York
When I set off to uni, I wasn't a beer drinker at all. The name of this blog comes from the sound the only beer I drank made - the snap and the hiss of Tennents cans, drained one after the other in parks, at friend's houses and in fields at music festivals. I didn't care about the taste then. For the most effective buzz, I drank cider anyway, or boxes of Country Manor perry. As a young mosher living in poverty, you made the best of what you could get. Being poor at university didn't make me unusual, but it meant I was still choosing drinks based on effectiveness rather than taste. Everyone I knew had preferences but I hadn't formed mine. I ordered a different drink every time I came back from the bar, sticking to quids offers and freebies. Mates who drank pints seemed impossibly grown-up, and I wondered if I'd ever have my shit together as much as they did. Little did I know I could create that illusion simply by ordering one for myself.

Seeing a pint of Fosters as aspirational is hilarious to me now, but that's how I felt back then. Beer was a drink for adults, something I wasn't really ready for. I didn't start drinking ale and craft beer until my early to mid twenties, when it became more accessible in supermarkets. Despite living right around the corner from the amazing Beer Ritz in Leeds for more than 5 years, I didn't dabble in anything other than cherry Lindemans and Duvel, and the odd bottle of Saltaire Triple Chocolate. When I went to pubs I still asked for a lemonade top whenever I bought a lager. I went to beer festivals and chose scrumpy. I feel bad for younger me.

The thing about beer as an aspirational product is that it excludes in both directions. I know plenty of people who wouldn't touch Carling yet happily drink Estrella. Is there really much of a difference? I know that given the option I choose the latter, but I'm under no illusions - as a marketing exec through and through, I'm happy to pay extra for branding that makes me feel good about myself. By choosing a frosty chrome tap that beams visions of Barcelona heat into my head thanks to their scarily effective advertising campaigns, I'm buying an experience. I'm okay with that. For the same reasons, there are plenty of people who'd choose Carling because of how they feel about its familiar and matey style - and how much they really don't want to be a part of Estrella's smiling, slightly smug Mediterranean lifestyle choices.

I wasn't joking. They've found a tone of voice and rinsed it.
Seeing craft beer and real ale at odds with each other always takes me back to this self-made comparison. To me, it becomes a minor class war. The conversations I have with customers who don't want to try new styles can usually be boiled down to the same sentiment: "It's not for me, that."

I always ask a question in response - so, who's it for then? It's my job as a barperson, I think, to make sure everyone in that pub holding a pint or half glass knows they are beer drinkers, and therefore everything we sell is relevant to them. Nothing has been brewed with the intention of excluding them.

Inevitably, cost is often a prohibitive factor when choosing beer. I can state this as fact because it is for me, too. There are hundreds of beers out there I'd love to drink, but I'm left out because either I can't justify the cost at the moment they come out (I really should learn to beer budget) or I'd have to pay postage on a big ol' shipment because I have nowhere to buy them from individually - one of the only downsides of living in the affordable, beautiful Northern countryside. I am fully aware and appreciative of the costs involved in creating beer and I am in no doubt that prices are fair (for the most part.) I just know that I'm not flush enough. So what am I suggesting here? That breweries should make no-frills beer for us poor people too? That there should be a pay-it-forward scheme involved? No, of course not. I'm just highlighting the fact that keeping up with trends in craft beer is exclusionary in it's nature and there should be some awareness of this. Not everybody can take part. This doesn't necessarily mean that the people who can't or don't take part are any less enthusiastic about beer than the people collecting new cans like Pokémon cards. Which I also couldn't afford to collect, but now I'm just intentionally trying to elicit sympathy so you'll buy me a ko-fi. E-begging is the future, I swear.

I suppose the quote I began with rang in my ears because to many, breweries like Cloudwater do seem like they're from another planet. Perhaps there could be more done to try to bridge that gap. There are people out there who really do want to know more and feel left out through accidental air pockets in market reach. Brew Dog have really capitalised on those gaps, bringing craft-style beers to people all over the country who'd normally never take a second glance. That's great, isn't it? You can say what you like about the brewery itself, but there are now thousands more people interested in the industry we love, enabling it to continue moving forward and generating a new gen of drinkers, bar owners and brewers. Bringing craft beer to everyone doesn't just give customers more options, it benefits the industry as a whole. That's why accessibility is so important.

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