So what makes a beer ‘mainstream’ or ‘niche’? And is that the same as it being ‘difficult’ or ‘accessible’?
This is a question I’ve been discussing a lot recently as craft beer continues to evolve beyond the beer-geek ghetto. As always, it reminds me of a useful music analogy.
When I was a teenager I was into indie music. At the time, bands like The Smiths were considered niche. Nobody who didn’t read NME had even heard of the Bodines, the Mighty Lemon Drops or the House of Love.
I was considered a musical snob for liking this kind of music because it wasn’t in the charts and never got any radio play. It wasn’t mainstream. Fine — part of the reason I listened to it was to be different.
But when my Wham-loving friends refused to even listen to my tunes, it did get a little frustrating. The thing about these bands was that they
were heavily influenced by ’60s guitar pop groups. They had catchy melodies and choruses with close vocal harmonies. The guitar riffs were friendly rather than threatening.
If you were going to compare them to anyone famous, it would be the Beatles, Byrds and Beach Boys, who received regular mainstream radio play and could hardly be called a difficult listen.
‘Niche’ doesn’t always mean ‘difficult’. Morrissey is now a national treasure, to the extent that some old ‘friends’ who once beat me up for liking The Smiths now genuinely believe they loved them too.
If we assume that mainstream standard lager represents Simply Red, Take That or One Direction in this analogy then yes, there are some craft-beer equivalents to Sonic Youth, Björk or Einstürzende Neubauten. But other beers are more like U2 or Oasis — once considered ‘alternative’ and obscure, without changing their sound too much they eventually became the biggest bands in the world.
Large brewers, wholesalers and retailers have seen the momentum around craft beer and want a piece of the action. But when we get down to it, they are nervous about the idea of flavour.
After decades of a mainstream that is bland and characterless — sorry, ‘delicate flavoured and refreshing’ — they believe a mass audience is going to need breaking in gently to the idea that their beer might taste of something.
Of course this idea falls down as soon as you consider the curries and Mexican dishes these people are eating more of, the trend towards more bitter, dark chocolate and the colossal success of coffee shops selling ‘real coffee’ far more flavourful than Nescafé. None of this is niche.
But there is an unshakeable idea that if we’re going to introduce this more mainstream audience to the flavours that are getting craft-beer geeks so hot under the collar, we need to do it gently. We need to ease the lager-drinking man into golden ale without him noticing. Then, when he’s happy there, we can try him on something that has a bit more hop. Once he’s toughened up a bit, we might try him on an American-style IPA.
It’s a longer journey with women, of course: we need to get them into beer to start with. So maybe seduce them with an extra-bland lager that won’t scare them off, in a smaller glass of course, perhaps from a bottle with some pretty flowers on it.
I can see how someone who doesn’t actually understand beer or flavour might find this logical. But it has no basis in reality.
When I give someone an IPA for the first time, around two in 10 will screw up their noses, finding it too bitter, or too floral. The majority gape in amazement, snatch the bottle from you and demand to know where they can buy more. This might be a different flavour, but it is not an inaccessible, different flavour. And the beer that I have the greatest success with in trying to convert women?
Imperial Russian Stout.
It sounds counter-intuitive. But many women already know what lager is like and have rejected it.
They have no idea that beer can be complex, rich, full of vinous fruit with strong hints of chocolate and coffee. For some, it’s all their favourite flavours in one glass.
The craft-beer cognoscenti are now moving into sour beers, bold experiments with barrel ageing and weird and frightening wild yeast strains. That’s because they know intuitively that the mainstays of the craft-beer movement — IPA, pale ale, stout and porter — have huge mainstream potential, and they need to go weird if they want to stay different.
Sam Calagione, of America’s Dogfish Head brewery once pointed out that, until very recently, the most popular beer brands on the planet were a stout and an IPA (namely, Guinness and Bass).
We are not scared of flavour in beer, we have simply grown unaccustomed to it. And that’s changing quicker than you can say: “I preferred their earlier stuff.”