It’s certainly been an interesting five years in beer so we thought we’d take a look through the lens of our bottle shop.
This has changed a lot, with 2/3rds of our fridge space now given over to UK breweries, and with US beer being almost non-existent. This is not because American beer has got worse, more that UK beer has got better and our customers have told us they prefer to buy local and buy fresh. It hasn’t helped that foreign imported beer has also gone up in cost significantly simply due to exchange rate fluctuation – why should customers pay more for a beer just because the pound is weak? Why indeed, particularly when better beers are now being produced closer to home.
When we opened up in 2014, if someone poured a beer out that was as hazy as the current wave of New England Yeast Coast pales, they’d have demanded their money back. It just wasn’t a thing, certainly not here in the UK. Clarity was king, big bold bitterness and as much resiny pineyness as you could cram in. Beers like Weird Beard Five O’ Clock, Stone IPA, Kernel IPA (still arguably the best beer we sell), and BrewDog Jackhammer were what people wanted. West Coast is best coast, customers might have shouted as they browsed (they didn’t).
Then, just over 3 years ago, along came a little upstart brewery named Cloudwater, who were heavily influenced by the US East Coast beer scene. Alongside their ever changing ‘core range’, they released into the world DIPA v1.0 – a juicy, hazy double IPA that was like nothing else on offer at the time. This was an IPA but not as we knew it. Gone was the bitterness. In was the juice. Gone was the clarity, in was the haze. It’s no understatement to say that this beer (along with DIPA v2) changed the UK beer scene more than any other over the past decade. Since then, we’ve seen a craze for haze, with breweries of all shapes and sizes getting into the East Coast style game, some better than others. Now we have breweries dedicated wholeheartedly to this style, such as Verdant, Deya, Brew by Numbers, Neon Raptor, Pressure Drop and Left Handed Giant, amongst many others.
In terms of other styles, Black IPAs never quite took off like we expected, neither did hoppy red ales. Sour beers caught on more than we thought they would and long may that trend live on! ABVs are all over the place. Where most stuff used to sit between 4 & 6%, we now probably sell more beer at either less than 4% or over 7%. Drinking stronger beer, in lesser quantities, has certainly become more normalised with the rise of the double IPA.
When we opened in 2014, supermarkets didn’t have a clue what they were doing with craft. They were still talking in the language of ‘Premium Bottled Ales’ (PBAs) which were 500ml bottles of London Pride, Young’s Banana Bread, Adnams Ghost Ship etc. Nothing wrong with them of course, but supermarkets were not where the new ‘enlightened’ craft beer aficionado went (with the notable exception of those seeking BrewDog which was becoming ubiquitous). That situation has slowly changed – supermarkets now offer a much better range of craft beers, and we’ve definitely noticed this in our sales. When our big sellers go into supermarkets (Fourpure, Beavertown, Kona etc.), we notice their sales slow down in our stores. No major bother, as there are plenty of other great beers we can stock but there’s no doubt that an improved range in the supermarkets hurts the independent sector.
Having done our own research, we’d rate the supermarkets in the following order for craft beer: Waitrose, Tesco (only the big stores), Asda, Sainsbury’s/Morrison’s =, Co-Op. The range doesn’t change regularly so it’s not good for the eternally beer curious but it is a marked step change since we opened up 5 years ago. I’m often asked how I feel about the supermarkets selling more craft. My answer is simple. It’s a good thing because it takes away space from macro lagers and helps widen knowledge of the category. But, I worry that some breweries might be biting off more than they can chew – supermarkets are not pleasant bed fellows and breweries should make sure they are fully setup for the good times and the bad times that can come from working with major retailers (I say this as someone with experience selling to supermarkets). We’ll continue to do what we can that supermarkets cannot – provide great service, knowledgeable staff and a roster of events that emphasise education about the product.So that’s our brief look back at the past 5 years of craft beer, at least from the perspective of a small bottle shop in South London. Beer is evolving at lightning pace with new styles, breweries and festivals popping up all over the place. It’s hard to predict what the beer scene will look like in another 5 years time but what we can guarantee – it certainly won’t be dull!