Two-way street: Modern beer drinking is so much more than ‘take my money’

“It’s the basis of loyalty – no, devotion – a fierce passion for some beers and breweries that few if any other products can summon among their core customers.”

This was beer writer Pete Brown’s closing statement in response to last week’s news that Fuller’s, the UK stalwart behind London Pride, had sold its brewing business to the Japanese firm Asahi.

The story shook the beer world. It was out of the blue, but not isolated, and the torrent of commentary that ensued was typical in the aftermath of any Big Beer buyout.

For consolidation is viewed with just hints of scepticism to as much as pure vitriol among avid beer drinkers. But as Brown points out, it’s a level of personal hurt that’s fairly specific among food and drink categories.

Another beer writer, Martyn Cornell, crystallised this fact last year when taking on the backlash to another high-profile sale and those who claimed it was an affront to the “craft beer community”.

He was right, to a point, about the absurdity of the notion. No, there aren’t sourdough bread communities. Yes, many of these hot takes were tribal responses from self-appointed keyboard warriors with corporate jobs who don’t give a hop about, say, coffee distribution networks.

Five Points was set up with the aim of bringing brewing back to the heart of the community, and to help do that it runs fundraisers like this one in aid of the Hackney Winter Night Shelter where customers could exchange unwanted clothing for free beer (Five Points)
Five Points was set up with the aim of bringing brewing back to the heart of the community, and to help do that it runs fundraisers like this one in aid of the Hackney Winter Night Shelter where customers could exchange unwanted clothing for free beer (Five Points)

Nevertheless beer’s transcendental quality does unite communities, from the once-ubiquitous neighbourhood pub to the endless websites and forums that cross borders, in the name of brewing.

The technology that’s simultaneously brought us together and pulled us apart has changed the relationship between producer and consumer. As the ownership debate continues, it is clear brewers are being held to a higher standard than ever – so where does that leave them?

It means for pubs, producers and other beer-related ventures, great brews are just the beginning. 2017 saw 430 breweries open in the UK, down from 520 in 2016, so companies must now mark themselves out in a crowded market by what they can offer the communities they serve.

And with fans happy to discuss and plug their favourites on a multitude of channels, becoming sometimes literally invested in a brand, the rewards are there for the taking.

Beyond the local

I’ve made plenty of noise here about the disappearance of UK pubs and the trouble that spells for social cohesion. There are all sorts of interesting subscription boxes and ways to get good beer at home, but in the end, they’re only complementary therapies.

London Pride has been brewed in west London’s Chiswick since 1958 (Getty)
London Pride has been brewed in west London’s Chiswick since 1958 (Getty)

The rise of taprooms owned by micro- or craft breweries has helped give the local a revival, albeit in a different guise.

Ed Mason, co-founder of Five Points brewing, set up five years ago with the dream of bringing great brewing back to the heart of Hackney. Opening the revamped Pembury Tavern last year was a big part of realising that dream.

“I think that people love the fact that they can drink beers from a local producer, based literally a minute away over the road,” he says.

But for Mason along with other brewers, making an impact goes beyond the taproom doors. As well as initiatives such as board-game nights for local charities, or a winter drive in which customers received pints in exchange for clothing for homeless people, Five Points runs an apprenticeship scheme.

“It was really important for us to make a commitment to the community, and to try and give something back to the next generation of emerging brewers,” he says.

This ethos underlines the workings of brands like Ignition, a Lewisham brewery which trains and employs folks with learning disabilities, paying them the London Living Wage and donating profits to charity. Or Earth Station, currently under construction in London’s Royal Docks, a “community-based” operation which aims to offer training and employment to underrepresented groups, such as women or people of colour.

Impressed to invest

But once a fledgling brewery, whatever its mission statement, establishes a legion of fans, how can it expand to quench their growing thirst without selling out and pissing them off?

Crowdfunding has become the method of choice. Many devoted drinkers would rather cough up and be part of something than see their favourite beer in a conglomerate’s hands. After all, they’re already brand advocates.

And, Mason of Five Points says, investing deepens this relationship: “What appealed to us about crowdfunding was that we could welcome aboard a community of engaged, committed fans and enthusiasts who will help us spread the word.”

As always, there’s a catch: accountants have warned of the danger of relying too much on crowdfunding, saying it can dilute the stake of the founders, who end up giving away too much equity by the time they’re established enough to get a better deal on bank loans.

But where transparency; ingredients; distribution; environmental credentials; ownership; and local impact are becoming as important to some customers as the product itself, it’s a risk many firms are willing to take.

Because it seems the beer community – real or unreal; amorphous as it may be – is only going to get more woke.


What’s new in the world of beer

Northern Monk reveals a rebrand

The King of the North has revealed a new look for its core range, with slick, clean artwork by Leeds-based design agency Robot Food. With the rebrand comes the addition to the range of Origin gluten-free IPA and Striding Edge, a light IPA originally conceived for the brand’s Patrons Project.

Signature announces new support acts

Continuing its mission to bring craft beer to gigs and festivals, Signature Brew has announced its running order for the first half of the year. Fresh additions include Reverb New England IPA, the bittersweet Jam Sour and Crowdsurfer DIPA, which will back up the award-winning core range. We can’t wait to try the new arrivals.

Peroni and Lucky Saint launch alcohol-free beers

If you were drinking alcohol free beer last month and have plans to continue, these new releases may pique your interest. The household name Peroni has released Libera 0.0%, and newcomer Lucky Saint brings its 0.5% unfiltered lager to the market, along with a tongue in cheek campaign featuring a beer-drinking nun.

Salcombe Brewery Co launches new porter

The Devon-based brewery has added the 5.9% ABV Island Street Porter to its craft beer range. Packed with flavours of chocolate, coffee and Black Forest gateaux, it’ll be a good one to cosy up with as chilly weather continues.

Millionaire joins Wild Beer Co’s can lineup

If you hadn’t heard, cans are great. The big-bodied yet relatively low-ABV Millionaire is joining its brothers and sisters in the Westcombe brewery’s canned range. Another one for dark nights, it’s a decadent salted caramel and chocolate beer with a velvety finish.