Beer is having a hard time. Sales fall in pubs 10% each year. Modern retailers call it a sunset industry. Wine, soft drinks and coffee increasingly dominate. Health professionals and the media hate it. Politicians love to tax it, not drink it. No wonder brewers are having a crisis of confidence. They can't even find the self-belief to support a national museum any more.
That's beer in Britain. But take a trip to Amsterdam, and a whole different picture emerges. What's the leading visitor attraction in this vibrant, culture-rich city? The Heineken Experience, a four-storey beer cathedral no less, which since it re-opened in November last year has had the pulling power of a Tutenkahmen show.
For 15 euros, visitors wander around stylish rooms that would grace any contemporary art museum and learn about beer and Heineken. There's no hard sell, just amusing and informative attractions, many of them interactive, lots to do with things that turn young people on like football, rugby and music, all of which Heineken has developed strong links with over the years. They can be pictured holding the UEFA Champions League Cup, enjoy sporting highlights, chill out in music rooms and even personalise their own bottle with name and date to take away with them.
For all the modish touches, brewing and beer is still at the heart of the museum. Copper vats - "where the magic happens" says the voiceover — dominate several of the areas, shire horses are stabled there (each named after a board director), and in probably the most entertaining attraction, "Brew U", visitors are shown what it's like to be brewed and bottled, while standing in a giant mash tun and being shaken about and even sprinkled with a gentle mizzle as the process is explained. Ingenious, and the shrieks of laughter from the visitors show how much fun they're having - akin to Alton Towers and certainly not the reaction of most visitors to our brewery museums, for all their estimable qualities.
It's expensive — but that investment indicates confidence in beer, and confidence is always attractive. Heineken's bosses exude that confidence too. No sense of a sunset industry here. Instead, all the talk is of winning new youthful drinkers and building for the future.
How badly we need that sense of pride and inner belief in beer in this country. Such a proud heritage, so many passionate brewers, but such a nervous future. We brew wonderful beers, yet for many consumers they are just another commodity tossed in the trolley, drunk in pub or home without relish or excitement.
How we do beer better is too complex to do justice to here. But treat yourself to a trip to the Amsterdam beer cathedral. And with a sense of despair yet also hope, realise that it can be done so much better than we're doing now.