Monday, 14 May 2012

Anyone for Shiraz?

Put yourself in the position of an irregular or occasional beer drinker. How do you differentiate between the masses of products available? I touched before on factors that might make us (writers, readers and twitterers of the beer world) decide what to buy, but what about the yet to be converted, those we'd hope would find the joys of the interesting flavours on offer?

Much of the boom in wine sales since the seventies can be attributed to simple, clear, varietal labelling. Even if many wine consumers aren't able to pinpoint the characteristics of, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, it's easy enough for them to remember that they've enjoyed one before, and so look for it again. Despite the rise and rise of hop varieties appearing on beer labels it's nowhere near as prevalent as you see in the wine industry.

I think it's a great thing that stylistic boundaries are stretched, sometimes to the point where the original meaning of a style becomes almost irrelevant, but it does mean that it's difficult for someone to decide whether or not they're going to like a beer when they're considering what to buy. If I like Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA am I going to like Greene King IPA? A similar point can be made about colour in that it doesn't dictate flavour - all though much of the time if you read the label it tries to do exactly that. 'Delicious amber ale?' Maybe my palate is faulty because I can't taste colours? Malty and hoppy are useful terms as at first glance but they're no more helpful for narrowing down the choice than say 'red or white' when it comes to wine. Country? Well, looking at the winners list from the recent World Beer Cup makes it fairly obvious that flavours generally have nothing to do with geographical origin.

Obviously in pubs this is less of a problem, any decent pub will offer samples before sale, although bear in mind (you're still in irregular drinker mode remember) many people will find it difficult to describe what beer it is they like - even to the point where they are intimidated my being asked. Add to this that, like it or not, more drinking is being done at home, and therefore from the bottle (poured into an appropriate glass of course). It seems to me that many of the beers in the 'Speciality' section (and I hate that term) of your local supermarket are going to struggle to stand out from one another, and that might send people right back to the familiar.

Comments appreciated - the blog post was long enough without me rattling out more of my thoughts!


  1. Another excellent piece Gareth, I've long thought about how 'speciality' beers will stand out from each other without better branding and more 'common sense' blurb on the bottle to make it easier for the occasional drinker to choose something more interesting.

    I did think to myself when looking at the new and improved Waitrose beer selection just how much the bottles of Punk IPA stick out as the Brewdog branding is so different to all the other ales on the shelf, it will certainly help a few more bottles find their way into baskets, the same with meantime and their interesting and unusually shaped bottles.

    We beer bloggers now talk about hops in the same way a wine critic would talk about grape varieties so I think publishing which hops are used in the brew is surely going to become part of any sensible breweries branding.

    1. Aye, BrewDog get you coming and going. Their branding stands out, and once they've lured you in their bold flavours keep them standing out. Question is where you go sideways if you don't buy into brand loyalty or if you've already tried the BD offerings and want something new?

      I mentioned the same thing about hop varieties to a brewer last summer, and I think hop information is great. I'm not convinced I'd welcome a move towards lots of varietal beers like you see in wine, it's a logical conclusion but it strikes me it might get a bit dull.

  2. Not to sound defeatist but I really cannot see bottle labelling ever meeting the standard needed to help the irregular drinker. Hops varieties may be one of the few ways they could come close - but as you said - the descriptions name/label/appearance can be confusing even to the seasoned drinker.

    This is where I think bottled beer has a real challenge to solve, communicating what is in the bottle and whether someone might like it is something as yet not dealt with.

    Standing out and then not disappointing when bought is a beers best bet in the supermarket shelves. Though the ideal method at present is to get recommended to the irregular drinker - which brings its own challenge of how to connect.

    All a challenge which I think beer will have to try and solve in an ingenious way...

  3. Choosing a beer is very difficult for the uninitiated. I'm currently relying on suggestions from my more experienced other half, recommendations via the tinterweb or knowledgeable salesperson/ barstaff. Left to my own devices, I would choose something familiar, something based on a well produced label, or pick something from a standard supermarket aisle (in a belief that they would be less likely to stock risky offerings). In doing so, I am in no doubt that I am missing out, but until my beer education really gets underway, I see no alternative.

  4. Cheers for the comments as ever... I think you've got it bang on with respect to the confusion and challenges.

    The grape variety thing is almost all things to all drinkers (hence the post title). It's an easily identifiable thing for none wine-buffs and still an important consideration at all levels of wine making and study - even if it's at the point where you're differentiating between different Pinot Noir clones.

    It'll be interesting to see if beer as a sector (away from the really huge brands) can find something that will engage consumers in the same way.