It’s always a pleasure to blog with my buddy, Judd. Although his unrelenting commitment to all things craft beer would likely see him throw me in front of a moving bus lest it not disturb a schooner of Hop Zombie, his enthusiasm is admirable to say the least. It’s not often we disagree, but when we do, shots across the bow will almost always take the form of passive-aggressive blogs.
As my learned colleague alluded to last week, a trip to the Charming Squire proved to be the catalyst for a schism in our friendship, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the phrase Ob-la-di, Ob-la-fucking-da was first uttered. The hot issue: gateway beers.
In case you missed it, Judd argued in his surreptitious blog last week, that the term gateway beer is a load of shite because it too often seems to serve as an excuse for multinational companies - with sufficient market power to muscle out the little guys - to mass-produce and peddle mediocre, craft-like beers.
I have a different take on this matter, and although I am writing this from a panic room for fear of retribution, I will not be silenced any longer. There are questions that need answering:
Are gateway beers a thing? Should we be worried about the mediocre craft-like beers that are being peddled at establishments like Charming Squire? If I find myself staring into the mirror with my wife’s red lipstick on, is it wrong to feel good?
Are gateway beers a thing?
No one ever in the history of the world, after only ever drinking SuperDry their entire, miserable life, suddenly drank an imperial IPA, and weren't filled with at least some terror. Humans just aren't designed to enjoy bitter things. It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view that we’d want to avoid bitter compounds - they’re frequently the taste of things that are either of no nutritional value or rapidly fatal.
However, just as you can go from oranges to grapefruits or iceberg to arugula, once you work out that bitterness doesn't necessarily imply the first signs of strychnine poisoning, we become intrigued at the complexities afforded by an underdeveloped palate, and in the case of some, develop a morbid fascination. Gateway beers are simply those that appeal broadly to those with yet-to-be developed appreciation for bitterness. Yes, and there are many craft and craft-like beers that fit the bill. And yes, bitterness isn't always what divides drinkers, but given that malt-heavy beers have always been more accepted, I’m just going to assume it is.
This provides a nice segue into the second and more complex part of the argument: should we be worried that the market for gateway beers is being aggressively targeted by multinationals?
The market for beer in Australia, as it is in the US, is dominated by a few very large multinational firms that use their economies of scale and market power to sell incredibly large volumes of low-priced refreshingly bland lagers and knock-off medium-priced imports.
However, for the last five to ten years, this status quo has been in a state of progressive upending by the emergence and success of a high-end of the market: craft beer - targeted at discerning drinkers who are willing to part with enough cash for a decent product. The response of the duopoly in Australia (as it has been in the US) has been to buy up larger craft breweries and turn them into craft-like beers, with a price point slightly below that of real craft. The Charming Squire in Brisbane is emblematic of the duo’s push into this market, and the result is a stunningly large pub selling mediocre craft-like beers.
When Judd and I visited on that ill-fated night, the place was full to the brim with humans, drinking all manner of craft-like beers, the one’s often labelled as gateways. Does it matter that hordes of people are washing their taste buds, maybe for the first time, with mass-produced craft-like beers?
Nah. So what if you lost your virginity to a dud-root?
For the uninitiated, the difference between craft and craft-like beers is likely to be marginal. But, for people who already like craft, and drink local beers at home and at pubs, James Squire isn't a substitute. The things that make craft-beer craft-beer - the focus on interesting, quality product, the local-ness of the brewery, the ability to respond quickly to changing tastes, the community - can't be replicated by multinationals. Once you’re in the high end of the market, you’re not stepping down. No craft enthusiast would be seen dead giving over cash at Charming Squire.
The duopoly's strategy of enticing consumers from the low-end to a faux-high end will result in a far greater number of people being exposed to a beers slightly hoppier and maltier than usual. Some won’t like what they taste and will promptly return to their market segment, but for those that get hooked, they’re never turning back.