Blogger, columnist and soon-to-be author of 9 books, Pete Brown is one of beer’s most articulate and gifted voices. Barely able to contain my jealousy, I recently spoke to Pete who was good enough to chat about craft beer buyouts, the shifting sands of the pub landscape in Britain and a long overdue real ale comeback.
Why do you think people enjoy discussing beer?
I think the reason I write about beer is the same reason that people enjoy discussing it, which is that there’s so many conversations to have. When you’re talking about beer, you’re not just talking about an alcoholic drink; you’re talking about hops, barley and the raw ingredients. You’re talking about a movement – people’s feelings about small brewers versus big corporations – pubs, bars and how people socialise; history, terroir and provenance; regional identity and where things come from; people making good creative things.
What is the most important element behind a good place to drink?
This time last year I went around the country trying to find the best pubs for a book I’m writing, which, as you might imagine, is a very subjective thing. However, at the time, I kept coming back to one consistent theme, which coincided nicely with the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s The Moon Under Water – a column he wrote for the Evening Standard in 1946. It’s the best bit of pub writing that’s ever been done and he said the key ingredient for a successful pub is its atmosphere. These days market research still finds atmosphere as the most important ingredient, and it's the reason that you’ll walk past one pub to get to another.
How are pubs, the traditional bastions of British real ales, adapting to craft beer?
It largely depends on who runs the pub and, so far, the adaption of pubs to craft beer has happened in a very uneven way. If you belong to a big pub chain you can only stock the beers on their lists – and those lists are often very slow moving. I’ve seen cases where pub owners must sell beers from lists that are 20 years out of date – where some of the styles aren’t even around anymore.
Freehouses, on the other hand, are able to adapt really well and these days it’s becoming more and more normal for a new pub to have 20 or so craft beer taps. But we are also seeing many places opening up, which rival the traditional pub. From craft beer bars in London to micropubs in Kent – for the traditional British pub, it’s hard to say where they go really.
Is that worrying for British styles of beer?
I think it is at the moment and it’s frustrating because traditional British real ale is the beer style that inspired the entire craft beer revolution. You get people rejecting real ale, saying they don’t want that boring old shit; they want American IPAs. But if you go talk to the people brewing those American styles they are probably going to say that British real ale is the ultimate craft beer. As a country, Britain has a weird rejection of everything we do. If we’re good at something: it must be shit. You’re really seeing that in brewing at the moment, all these wonderful talented brewers are making American, Belgian and German styles, and not many are brewing real ales.
Pub numbers are dropping in the UK – how much of that is due to big companies simply being unwilling to invest in troubled pubs?
There are so many different currents happening in pub ownership at the moment, including big pubcos declaring a pub ‘unviable’ and using that as the reason they’re selling it off for flats. By essentially saying ‘if we can’t make it work, then no one can’. I think that is a real display of arrogance and corporate bullshit of the highest order. I could reel off pub after pub that has been deemed ‘unviable’ by these people and then someone who gives a shit has taken it over and then turned it into a craft beer pub or a traditional pub that has a better beer selection.
On a positive note, there are loads of pubs that have been bought by their community and run as a cooperative. They are really inspiring and they capture people’s imaginations and get a lot of coverage.
On buyouts and ownership, is it just what’s in the glass that matters or are there other factors that impact your decision making?
It’s mixed and I because I have two different things going on it’s hard for me. If I wasn’t writing about beer and just enjoying it I would be a lot more militant about it than I currently am. If it was just a personal decision, I’d think, ‘right, once you’re bought by a big major company, you’re dead to me now’. Because those things do matter.
But because I’m in the industry and because I know people, I do this on a case-by-case basis. Take for instance Alastair Hook, the owner of Meantime. He put 20 years of blood, sweat and tears into building that brewery, and there’s no more passionate craft brewer on the face of the planet. For me, no one has the right to tell someone who’s built up their business over 20 years that they can’t sell it. You can say you won’t drink the beers any more but really, the beers haven’t changed and they won’t change.
Majors are mostly buying craft breweries because they are doing something the majors can’t. They don’t want to interfere with the brewhouse but will buy more fermentation vessels to increase capacity and give help in sales and marketing to sell beers to more people. When that happens, I have no problem with it.
However, I tend to agree with what I’ve heard from others in the industry: when you change the management and bring in someone who is not a craft beer person, it is far more likely to go to shit. I think that’s where the dividing line is.
What are your thoughts on gimmicky beers?
I’ll try not to sit on the fence on this one because I take them on a case-by-case basis. There was one recently that was brewed from the vaginal yeast of a model and it was pathetic and was completely sexist. It was someone clearly taking the piss; seeing craft beer and thinking they’re going to get rich off it. Gimmick beers in that vein are not good.
On the other hand, you get a breweries like Brewdog who increasingly make whacky beers. They have been able to succeed because they have an experimental attitude and accept that not every experiment will work.
What trends do you think we’ll see in beer styles in the near future? Are we seeing a trend away from American style hoppy beers?
It’s a cycle, I think, and different people are at different stages. Certainly, the big hoppy beers are the ones you fall in love with first and change your relationship with beer. I think the less hoppy pale ales will very soon be the mainstream – next to the big lager fonts in every pub. However, once you get bored of the big hops, you want more balance and variety. Recently we’ve seen lots of sours and saisons being brewed, but I think, personally, malty beers are due a comeback.
This might be because we also have the global hop shortage to worry about. There simply isn’t enough hops for everyone that wants to make really hoppy beers. In the US, craft brewing accounts for 10% of beer brewed but uses 45% of all the hops grown. If craft becomes 20% it will use 90% of all the hops grown. There just isn’t enough hops. I heard the other day that $1 trillion (USD) of the global beer market value has moved from big brewers to craft beers and that's the reason for the shortage.
I was in the Czech Republic recently and Saaz hops has sold out until 2021. So, the way I see it is, if you’re a brewer, you’re going to have to start thinking about brewing things like brown ales.
You’ve got a book coming out this year (alongside two others) called The Pub: A Cultural Institution, can you tell us about that?
It’s this idea that pub reviews tend to focus on things like what beers are there and how much the fish and chips costs. But people choose pubs on atmosphere, and this makes it hard to review pubs in a meaningful way – but I’ve attempted it, nonetheless. It’s 50 longer profiles on pubs, that are by no means by my favourite, but are all worth exploring. Sitting in the pub and waiting for the pub to speak to me, weaving the stories about the pubs – some are about amazing landlords, history. It’s not a narrative, it’s picture-led.
We would like to thank Pete for taking time to talk to us. His latest book The Pub: A Cultural Institution can be pre-ordered from Amazon and information on his two upcoming books – The Apple Orchard and What Are You Drinking? – can be found on his blog.