3- Beyond the Amber Sea
Recently, I was overseas on a holiday that was in no way related to beer and nor did I have any specific intention of consuming alcohol for professional or research purposes. Yet, I still wasn’t entirely prepared for the reality of finding myself so far beyond the normal dominance and reach of liquor of any kind. Partly, I put my awkward adjustment phase down to having it too good for too long with the choice and quality of drinks I’m used to at home, and the remainder resulted from being in a place where alcohol isn’t known to the general populace (at least not widely known) so hospitality providers were less concerned with it’s quality when it was available. In the past when I’ve been stuck with subpar beer and spirits on holiday, I may have been guilty of not properly doing my research. This time my choices were limited by political and religious sensibilities as well as raw demographics. Without besmirching any specific business, during my time in Maldives and UAE I saw Budweiser, Fosters, Guinness and others on the same fluid list as several thousand dollar plus bottles of wines. The only one that arguably had any business being there was Guinness. The point being that if you’re going to offer to dress someone in a silk jacket, make sure you’re going to have silk pants available as well. My concession is that in the past, that’s what the market demographic wanted. Thankfully, now that’s changing.
There are travellers and customers out there who know what good beer is and they’re willing to pay more to get it and furthermore, they’re not satisfied drinking a lesser beer, just because it’s made by anheuser busch (or anyone else for that matter – unless that’s genuinely what they like). The only way to change this is to take the time to let the hotelier know first hand that your expectation hasn’t been met. No one should ever feel guilty about giving negative feedback. You don’t have to do it in a negative way and most good businesses appreciate it because it gives them a chance to improve. The best etiquette is to do it via a private medium like email or in a letter and not via twitter or facebook. Bottom line is if you’re paying a premium for your accommodation and you’re surrounded by top shelf wine and spirits – you won’t be satisfied drinking second rate beer (in the same way that a scotch drinker wouldn’t be happy if their only choice was Johnny Walker or a wine drinker wouldn’t be satisfied if their only choice was Spumante).
But the problem is not just limited to the UAE and the Maldives. The message of good beer may be taking a long time to get traction abroad but it has also been slow for it to be adopted top to bottom by the mainstream culinary community at home. This may be in part still true because the reputation of beer as a drink overall is still struggling to be seen as anything other than an inferior selection, just a clear lager with a mild bitter finish. But that’s beer history, not beer present and it’s exactly this perception that still needs to be broken down. (I once had an ex-professional brewer tell me that he still smirks every time he hears someone talk about the depth of flavour and character in a given wine, because in his opinion – even more of that complexity from flavour, body, mouthfeel, start, finish, etc – exists in beer.) While there might be issues with some small brewers struggling to maintain consistency and volume, there are also a large number of brewers that can deliver quality and variety which I would argue is more important than volumes (as long as the product is well made and well regarded, people will accept it’s seasonability and demand for it will increase).
The numbers people look at when talking about the craft and handmade beer industry, are in terms of market share and consumption volume versus the mainstream product offered by super produces. What I see is a bigger picture. For me the biggest contributing factor to increasing overall craft consumption rates is flavour. A taste-driven revolution, that wins the battle for hearts and minds. Many people within the good beer and handmade alcohol communities see us at the tip of craft beer development, inside the beginning of wave that might grow and might still sink. But not too many people are articulating exactly why and how it might and can grow. I see beer as now being inside a window similar to that which wine went through during it’s public re-education phase of the 80’s and 90’s. In my opinion this is the best opportunity that has ever existed for beer and other alcohol offerings to follow that trail blazed by vino a couple of decades ago. How do we grow and sustain this with beer? We get it on menus in restaurants outside craft specific venues, it’s time for the handmade artisan alcohol community to do what wine did by getting ordinary chefs, restaurants and customers invested by making sure the delicious meal at any table gets the perfectly matched and delicious beer it deserves. At the moment the biggest beer producers in the world have astronomical sales that they perpetuate with marketing, but craft producers have a product that wins on taste, quality and conscience.
The biggest reasons that good beer, handmade beer should be on everyone’s menu is that A) it’s worth the effort. B) The product drives the consumption (Whereas with the old super-beers marketing drives the consumption). C) buying local and or supporting small independent businesses along the way strengthens local knowledge, local skills, pathways and job security.
I am convinced that it will transpire that beer is as collected and sought after as wine and that the quality and subtleties of various districts making the same styles is appreciated as widely as it is in wine and spirits. The selection and volumes of unusual varieties coming to market will continue increase. The rate at which all this unfolds (especially locally) is down to the passion of those people inside the industry and those around it educating people and converting them to the product until the underdog becomes a part of the the consumer mainstream and is enjoyed as widely and with the same stature that wine and premium spirits are today. The people deserve the best product, every time I see someone drink a boring beer it spurs me to do more to get the word our about the good stuff.
I hope to see a future where artisan alcohol explodes. No doubt in the industry there will be moves and countermoves, acquisitions mergers from big brewers as they continue to want to control as many of the little guys as possible and position their own product as craft as much as possible. But if we as a community concentrate on the beverages and the people that drink them as a the heros in this story, then it will mean more true artisans will keep finding opportunities to emerge and compete with the big guys.