Monday, 18 June 2012

Spoilt for Choice?

Note: This is an article I wrote for the Nottingham Drinker, hence why I refer to Nottingham. However, I'm also interested in hearing if this situation sounds like a familiar one in other places!

Here in Nottingham we can be rightly proud of some great local breweries keeping us all happily contemplating life through the bottom of a beer glass. However it's interesting to compare the range of choice that we have in Nottingham compared to other great beer cities like Sheffield and Leeds. Although the East Midlands now has more breweries than our neighbours up in Yorkshire, many pubs don't take advantage of that range.

Why is this? I think that in some ways there is a vicious circle that has arisen that restricts our choices. We have our city's award winning ales, and it's only natural that publicans want to stock them and drinkers want to enjoy them. This all sounds rosy, so what's the problem? Well it can mean that one pub ends up stocking a very similar range to other pubs nearby.

A pub manager can hardly be blamed for wanting to stock and advertise 'award winning ales,' and indeed if everyone around you is doing so you are almost obliged to just to keep up – it's a competitive business after all. Similarly you can hardly blame the breweries for selling the pubs the award winning beers they sell so much of, they too are fighting to make a living. Unfortunately it can provide a disincentive for diversification.

We, as drinkers, when faced with an array of different beers, are often attracted to the familiar, or understandably enticed by the 'Champion Beer of...' sticker on a pump clip, if only to see what the fuss is all about. To digress briefly; try popping into your local wine shop the day after one of their wines has been recommended on Saturday Kitchen – I'm pretty sure it'll all have gone.

The final part of this circle is the award system itself. Again it's entirely natural for people to want to rank and order things – getting together with like-minded individuals and thrashing out opinion on what's better than what and why is a lot of fun. The problem is that once the award is decided upon, the loop closes, and it can lead to a homogenisation of the range on offer.

Is there a solution? I'd certainly not advocate increasing a pub's range of beers for its own sake, too often it can come at the expense of quality. Should we ban the CAMRA, SIBA and the like from holding their beer of the year awards? Well, no. It's impractical, unreasonable, and quite frankly why spoil the fun? It's what beer is about after all. More awards? Well, the more awards you have the less the fact that a beer wins an award becomes relevant. I do think that there is scope for a re-think in terms of how awards are given, particularly in the light of the explosion in numbers of breweries, and especially in regognising the new and innovative. Although ale is a traditional product there is nothing to suggest that introducing it to people has to be done in an old-fashioned way.

On a more personal scale I do think that there is also a point here about customer and pub relationships. If pubs are to survive and prosper they need to be dynamic and forward thinking, and coming up with new ideas can be difficult. If customers build a good relationship with a pub's management then they can become a great source of those ideas. So if there are interesting beers or breweries out there that you'd like to see more of, why not see if it's possible for the management to get them in?

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