You’re answering the wrong questions about craft beer

If you follow me on Twitter, you might already know that I successfully completed my first bar shift in more than 7 years recently. No mean feat, considering my customer service and mental arithmetic skills have been made slow and lazy by desks. I’d been tentatively excited about it. Working behind a bar is something I remember with extremely pinkish lenses, despite knowing in my heart that, much like the fond memories of comradery I assume the Deer Hunter chaps felt about their first days in Vietnam, the fun and games were short-lived and tinged with tragedy, injury and lifetime-lasting scars. But that’s working at Leeds Train Station Wethers for you.

As it turns out, working a cash till and pulling pints is like pulling on a comfy old pair of boots. The best part of working in a local pub is the conversation and the people watching, but this particular pub – The Ale House in Clitheroe – has a magical combination of folks from all walks of life. You’d be hard-pressed to spot a millionaire in there, or a sheep farmer, but I’m just saying, you’ll probably pass both on the way to the loos.

Obviously, most of the conversations taking place centred around the range of beers on offer. When you’ve got a tiny bar and a clientele who demand only the finest hand-pulled ale, there’s not much room for any other sort of talk. I’d brushed up on my knowledge of the stock we had in before my shift like a right old nerd and was expecting to get into one or two barneys about sexism on tap badges or the haziness of unfined IPAs. What actually happened was a bit of a surprise.

Yes please, what y’avin?

 It turns out, outside of the craft beer bubble, nobody really gives a shit. I’d learned the wrong facts. I was ready to have the wrong conversations. 30 miles north of Manchester, craft beer is just beer. How weird is that?

Marketing a product to people who already love that product is about trends and loyalty and surprises. Finding new fans is a more difficult endeavour, especially if you’re so far down your own rabbit hole that you don’t know what they don’t know. A large percentage of drinkers aren’t invested in the breweries you care about/you are. Many people don’t understand what they’re buying. A lot of drinkers aren’t actually sure what the difference is between cask and keg. And yes – some drinkers, to our constant unfair derision – truly believe that cloudy beers are off. It’s time to admit it: we’re answering the wrong questions about beer.

These basic misunderstandings keep the craft beer scene separate from the average drinker, and whether the intention is to add mystery or superiority or not, the truth is that most find it off-putting. I spent long, long transactions attempting to convince beer lovers that yes, all craft beer is for them. And bear in mind, these are people who stepped into a craft beer pub by choice. I felt guilty for being so heavily invested in a culture that relishes being so “other,” that people who’d actually enjoy being part of it feel they’re not knowledgeable, or cool enough, to join in. Call me sad, but I like it when everyone is included.

So, I collated a little list of the actual questions I was asked during my shift, from real punters, who genuinely wanted answers. Whether you pay attention or not is up to you, but what I want to do is show the disparity between beer fans and beer drinkers (which includes the Song of Ice and Fire that is CAMRA v The Craft Beer Folk) and maybe foster some sort of truce. If we can be a little less insufferably keen, maybe everyone will get along a little better?

What’s the percent of that?

I would say around 80% of customers were concerned with the strength of the beer on offer, and most who weren’t concerned about taste (we’ll get to that) chose their drink based on ABV and nothing else. NOTHING ELSE. Not who made it, not what it looked like, not the hops, not whether it was light or dark, even. Strength, or weakness, was their sole priority. Make U think.

What’s the strongest beer you’ve got?

Sensing a pattern? Most visitors who asked this were the after 8pm crowd, and they didn’t want to waste valuable catch-up time drinking session pales. Some, it has to be said, quickly changed their mind when it turned out to be an 11% Noa Pecan Mud Cake Imperial Stout at £8.70 a bottle, however we did still sell one based on a combination of strength and colour. Happily, the customer who ended up with it told us later that it was the best beer he’d ever drank. Now that’s customer service.

Which beers are local?

That’s right – I got asked on more than one occasion which beers we had on from nearby breweries. I liked this question because supporting local breweries is obviously a great thing to do. It did seem that people didn’t care much about what the beers were like though, just that they were from the village over the hill.

Is it like Magic Rock?

People have started deciding that they like beers based on the brewery. I heard somebody say the words, “You can really taste the Beavertown in that.” I was modifying my recommendations based on brewery, rather than type or taste of beer. I can understand it, every brewery has their own style, but we all know that you can’t really gauge whether you like a beer you’ve never tried from a brewery you’ve never tried based on whether they make beers like Magic Rock. This phenomenon is strange. It’s exactly like when I was really into drum and bass and talked about music by label rather than artist. Is Beavertown RAM Records? Is Verdant Shogun Audio? Who, apart from me, would really get this analogy? I should quit while I’m ahead.

Why is this £5 per half?

A common complaint. Explaining the ins and outs of brewing expenses falls on deaf ears at 9pm in a small rural town and the best thing to say is, “It’s just really nice. Would you like to taste it?” My only thought is to create a written menu people can look at if they want, that explains what’s in each beer, to try and foster some sort of interest in the craft (and therefore cost) of making specialist beers for anyone who’s interested. But not many people will be, because in all fairness, if one pint is £2.70 and another is a tenner, and you don’t really know what you’re drinking, which one are you going to go for?

Can I have a half?

Biggest surprise of the evening – a lot of people drink halves. It’s not a fancy hipster pub I work at either. Northerners both male and female drink halves by choice and nobody mentions it. I need to do more research on this because I’m not sure if it’s because people need less alcohol or if they just don’t like drinking whole pints of liquid.

Can I try that?

Punters are ready to give things a go. They are open to guidance too – as long as you’re not patronising about it. Even the stoniest-faced Lancashire auld boy wanted to test the liquorice porter.
“Oh, those are just the hops they used. Want to give it a go?”

Is this it?

Four cask pulls and two draft pumps looks like nothing when you compare it to the number of taps in a Wetherspoons, for example. I learned quickly that people are too hard-pressed to want to spend time looking in the fridges for something that takes their fancy, particularly if they don’t know what they’re looking for. One person wasn’t interested in the cans because they didn’t want anything “fruity.” None of that mango shit. Again, totally understandable, the fridges at our place are home to a lot of weird and wonderful things but I didn’t realise how offputting a wall of unfamiliar products is. They’re just a customer, standing in front of a bar, asking for something delicious to enjoy on their night off. I think the key here is to be as approachable and helpful as possible, and not go into too much detail. I lost someone once I started talking about hop profiles. Down girl.

I’d be interested in hearing from you on this subject. It’s hard to balance knowledge and passion with genuine helpfulness. There’s a lot to be said for complete immersion in something you care about and trying to get other people to care just as much is only natural. But what if most people just aren’t that into it?

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15 thoughts on “You’re answering the wrong questions about craft beer

  1. some drinkers … truly believe that cloudy beers are off.

    Let's not forget that some cloudy beer (perhaps not in your bar) is cloudy because it's off, or else because it's gone on too soon & hasn't settled. Some (most?) of the beers currently being poured cloudy may be veritable pinnacles of the brewer's art, but until we can eliminate all those pints that are cloudy and are also flat/sour/full of trub, I think we need to show some patience to those suspicious punters. (I have actually had a pint of cask that was hazy, flat and sour, and was meant to be all of those things, but that's another story. I didn't have a second.)

  2. "Can I have a half?" It is something I often do with unfamiliar beers. Both allows you to not invest too much in something you might not like, and also allows you to try more beers.

    Great observations!

  3. Of course, that's why I think it's unfair that as a whole there's a lot of patronisation about the issue of hazy beer around. It is possible that the beer is bad. It is also possible that the beer is meant to be hazy. But how is the regular customer supposed to know that if they're not informed at some point? I even had this conversation on shift last night – the guy was adamant that hazy beers are a result of lazy new upstart brewers who can't be bothered to learn the proper techniques. After a short and friendly conversation he tried a hazy beer and was therefore won over. It's all about approach.

  4. Exactly – I recently succumbed to the joy of a half and to be honest, it's improved my drinking experience dramatically! Thanks for reading.

  5. Excellent piece and good reminder that whilst the 'hopster' brewers are doing a great job creating some funky beers the volume is still with the foreign mega brewers and to get a bigger share of that we need to understand those customers and work on taking craft to them rather than trying to drag them to the cloudy world of fruity sours.

  6. I think so too. What's the point in dragging someone kicking and screaming when you know they'll always be reluctant? And I do think a lot of that reluctance is because people don't like feeling left out of the loop. Beer is something people like knowing about, they like having favourites. All these new beers isn't just confusing, it's off-putting to some of our locals. It's like waking up and realising you know nothing about K-Pop and the whole world has gone bananas for it. Where do you even start? haha

  7. I was talking to the owner of a craft beer shop in Newcastle and he was saying Thrice Brewed were having trouble selling their IPA in their pub because it was ‘too strong’ at 5.1% so the ABV popularility seemingly shifts from pub to pub.

  8. Definitely, and it also depends on how separate from more trendy beer-saturated areas the bars are and what the patrons are actually used to. We get a lot of people asking for dark beers but actually going for a bitter. This is mainly because one of the most popular real ale pubs in town only tends to send the blondest of the blonde beers and the darkest they have is often a bitter. Strange how these things happen locally!

  9. Very nice piece from first hand experience and the high credibility of the comment is what’s missing from a valuable discourse IMO. I’m your equivalent in the wine trade (well, retail more than bar to be fair) and I have been pondering over this subject for a long time. And the beer (and craft beer) scene has been a source of inspirations and “food” for thought on these questions. Wine is starting from an opposite position to beer: more people think it’s too scary or pompous. It has been overly complicated from the start in the UK and there has been many attempts at trying to lighten it up whilst trying to retain the essence of the excitement but it hasn’t really worked out… so far. I think we can learn a lot from you guys and the beer drinkers. Because at the end of the day, the common denominator is, everyone wants a good drink. Life’s too short to drink shit, but it doesn’t need to come with a Master of Bullshit.

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