Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The paradox of choice

Whilst in Lewes the other week I picked up a copy of "Sussex Drinker"; the quarterly news-magazine published by the combined Sussex CAMRA branches. Seeing as my son and I were in the company of friends from Maidstone & Mid Kent CAMRA, I also picked up the latest edition of “Draught Copy”; their own magazine, which also appears on a quarterly basis.

I hadn’t really looked at these magazines until the other night, when flicking through them I was amazed, and also somewhat taken aback, by the numbers of breweries there are in the two counties. Kent currently has 39 operating breweries whilst Sussex can boast a staggering 60!

Now I know other writers, such as Curmudgeon and Boak & Bailey have written about this before, but the number of breweries in this south-eastern corner of England is surely way too high, and in the long term, unsustainable.

With beer sales in decline, fewer people going to the pub and indeed pubs continuing to close at an alarming rate, where exactly is the market for all these beers or, more importantly, where are they managing to sell their beers?

Of course some of these 99 breweries are brew-pubs, or one man bands. Others specialise in bottles and concentrate on selling their beers into farm shops or at farmers’ markets, but this must be a pretty precarious way to earn a living. On the other hand, there are also quite a few success stories amongst this number,

But where will it all end? It was rather sad to read in “Sussex Drinker”,  of the demise of Ballard’s Brewery; one of the pioneers of the small brewery movement, a phenomenon which actually predates the much more recent micro-brewery explosion.  Ballard’s started brewing in 1980, so were not far short of their 40th anniversary.

However, just over two weeks ago it was announced that Ballard’s would be closing, but their beers would continue being brewed by the Greyhound Brewery in West Chiltington, which is just down the road from Ballard’s home at Nyewood, West Sussex. Francis Weston, Ballard’s brewer for many years, will oversee the transfer of the recipes to their new home, whilst the brewing plant has been sold and is being shipped out to Serbia, of all places.

“Sussex Drinker” also reported on the closure of the Beachy Head Brewery, due to the imminent retirement of its founder and brewer, Roger Green.  Then of course there is news of start-ups, such as Brewing Brothers in Hastings and Brew Studio at Sompting.

As others have pointed out, we must be close to saturation point with regard to breweries; if we haven’t reached it already, and although the choice of beers which are now available appears a good situation to be in, the converse is actually true. These days when confronted in a pub, by an unfamiliar beer on the bar, I am likely to think twice before ordering a pint, whereas at one time I wouldn't have hesitated to give it a try.

Too much choice, actually means less in a perverse way, and the fact that the beers brewed by some of these new breweries are mediocre at best, actually helps no-one, as for a while at least, it ties up bar space which could be taken by beers brewed by people who know their trade.

Ultimately, some of these poorer efforts will fall by the wayside, but in some instances not before one or two of the better breweries have been driven out of business by too much competition chasing far too few outlets. This really is an example of competition actually stifling choice and not working in the consumer interest.

The pattern of what is happening in Kent and Sussex is being repeated up and down the country, with most areas of Britain potentially offering a range of beers which would have seemed unimaginable a decade or so ago. But will this amazing choice ultimately "kill the goose that laid the golden egg", or will we see the long predicted, but yet to materialise, shake up in the brewing industry, and the cutting out of the slack?


Anonymous said...

Good and timely article.

Choice is never a substitute for quality, and quality always suffers when there's too much choice. Never mind beer, look at our energy market.

Choice is illusory as well. 30 years ago you could choose to go in a pub which sold Bass, or Boddingtons, or Sheps, or Harvey; you'd know what was on. I couldn't choose a pub selling Old Dairy or Brewsmith or any of the other newer breweries whose beers I've bumped into over recent years. Running your own pubs, or at least a brewery tap, is the only way to guarantee a market and quality of your beers.

But if you want Doom Bar or IPA, you'll be fine.

Martin Taylor

Paul Bailey said...

The energy market is a good analogy, Martin. Too many supposedly different companies, all competing for the consumer's business, but with fiendishly complicated supply agreements and a myriad of different tariffs; no wonder people are reluctant to switch.

As you rightly point out, 30 years ago you knew where you stood beer-wise when entering a strange pub for the first time. These days, unless you're a ticker after a new scoop, confusion reigns.

Russtovich said...

I'm currently on board a ferry with fog so thick I can't see the water.

I'll offer up my thoughts this weekend after I've finished all my out of town work.


Russtovich said...

Ok, my out of town work is done for the month; the wife's going nuts getting two fair sized catering orders ready for pickup and delivery; so I'm going to sup my favourite ESB and play contrarian for a bit. :)

Keep in mind this is from my perspective across the pond as it were. It might not be the same over there.

I'm actually ok with a plethora of choice for the time being. I'm of the belief that it will sort itself out via preference (and price?) over the long run. In BC (British Columbia) we are blessed with a variety of choices as compared to the rest of the country. Some are looking to expand while others are quite happy to be local.

I don't know how it was in the UK years ago but over here, going into a 'pub' (or bar) was a choice of the big two (Molson, Labatt) plus the usual US stuff (Bud, Coors etc.). We have almost no Cask over here to the best of my knowledge but having a choice on Keg now is so much nicer.

Keep in mind, it's still a North American mentality over here; by which I mean the colder the better (ugh). This local 'pub' linked below actually brags that it has your favourite beer in a frosted mug! (and notice they use the American spelling of favourite):

You would not believe the number of times I've had to specifically ask for a non-chilled beer glass at bars over here (sigh).

Finally, I like the fact there is choice and perhaps different beers depending on the region. God forbid we wind up with pubs being like the big chain hotels in the sense that you could be anywhere in the world and would not know the difference judging by the hotel bar alone. Remember back in the 70s when Brits would complain about going to Spain and not being able to get Watney's Red Barrel? (Monty Python did a great skit with this in it). :)

So, I shall have to slightly disagree at this point. Whilst over-saturation is most decidedly not a good thing I'm content to let new players enter the field with the hopes that it will all work out in the end; and regional beers will stay just that. Something to look forward to when going outside one's local area. :)