OPINION

Jumping on the craft beer hipster-bashing bandwagon? Think again

By Luke Raven

- Last updated on GMT

Luke Raven: "we make a product that isn’t functional; it elicits happiness"
Luke Raven: "we make a product that isn’t functional; it elicits happiness"
Dear Daily Telegraph, we read your piece with interest this morning entitled “Craft beer is turning people into zombies” about Anthony Bourdain’s interview with Thrillist. 

As one of the owners of Ilkley Brewery, and an avid eater of food and drinker of drink, I would like to kick off with the fact that I agree with many of the sentiments in the full interview​ (and even some in the article), and rate Anthony’s cooking and broadcasting very highly. 

I think that by condensing some quotes you have pitted Anthony’s sentiments and principals against themselves. It was sneaky of you not to include his ‘admission’ that if someone brings a good craft beer, he’ll drink it and say how good it was. But then I guess that wouldn’t suit the slant of the piece, nor would a balanced discussion on a success story industry, fit the profile of joining the hipster-bashing bandwagon.

The veracity and speed-of-response on social media highlights how emotive beer is. Indeed that is one of the joys of being in the beer industry – we make a product that isn’t functional; it elicits happiness! Of course, taste is subjective, and so one’s amber nectar is another’s drain-pour, but isn’t variety the spice of life?

And as a journeyman himself, Anthony Bourdain of all people, I’d expect to champion the sense of journey and discovery that people can experience when it comes to imbibing! I suppose it was this emotiveness that spawned the article’s slant. Get those shares and likes. Get those brewery owners spitting out their morning coffee-infused milk stout and penning indignant responses to Mr Bourdain.

As I see it, the biggest issues when it comes to beer, and “craft beer” in particular, seem to be snobbery, commodity vs luxury, quality and, in this case, bar/pub/restaurant environment. Your article, and the response it’s had, encourages me to state a response of a kind, and also, to get off my chest a couple of things about this great industry and how it is perceived.

I don’t expect Anthony Bourdain, or anyone else for that matter, to pretend to be passionate about something they’re not. But in the full interview he states that it’s “interesting” to him to be surprised by wine – to try something that he knows is an unknown quantity, something that could sometimes “suck” and could also be good.

It is a frustration in the beer world that this inverted snobbery, that somehow this can’t be true of beer, is reinforced. Many of the people Bourdain criticises are merely being interested in their beer. Of course interest leads to passion, and passion can spill-over into something less positive. Judgement of other people, their tastes and their opinions is not cool.

But that cuts both ways. Writing off craft beer snobs as zombies is as judgemental as some of the comments from such snobs can be. They shouldn’t criticise anyone for what they’re drinking, and likewise shouldn’t be criticised for their choices.

There are absolutely times when I look in my fridge and don’t really want the specialist brews that populate it, pining instead for something cold and fizzy and easy or non-challenging. But there are times too when I search out the latest release, not because of an insatiable urge to have tried everything by the ‘must-have’ latest brewery (whether the malt was rolled betwixt Napoleon’s thighs or not), but because I believe that it’s important to try new things, even if I don’t like them.

And in a community where there is so much discourse and interest, it is a positive thing to be able to share my thoughts and see what others think too. I point to something my friend Warren McCoubrey from Living Ventures once said on the matter – be a beer geek, not a beer snob​.

Another hot topic that surrounds beer, is the price. In a recent and excellent blogpost, Magic Rock Brewery​ despairs that the same people who complain (as often as not directly to the person serving them) about a pint of real ale being £3.10 will happily shell out £4.90 for a 330ml bottle of Peroni in a mainstream Italian restaurant (even if they did feel aggrieved do you think for one second they’d berate their waitress though?). Stuart and Richard ask the question of Commodity Vs Luxury. I’ve read lots of comments to the Bourdain piece that express consumer despair about a “city-centre craft levy”.

Well, even looking past the overheads a bar/pub/restaurant has to cover in order to deliver your perfect eating or drinking experience (and hence the price differential from the loss-leading supermarkets), there is also the issue of supporting an independent company, namely the brewer. Mr Bourdain talks at length (in the full interview) about provenance and supporting independent producers. Rightly, he champions this wherever he can, as should we all.

Against the backdrop of recession, be it in memory or fear of the future, people are rightly concerned about what they pay. In my opinion this has driven quality, and goes a long way to explaining the rise to prominence of craft beer itself, as drinkers place more emphasis on quality and provenance. But as small producers, we don’t have the marketing budgets, the economies of scale in terms of production costs, or instant route-to-market enabling us to enter new products easily or without risk. The success of the industry is driven by a positive competitiveness, that is driven by friendship from within, despite the commercial pressure we each face from our neighbours.

I think it’s GREAT that there are so many GREAT breweries nearby – it’s good for beer, it’s good for drinkers and ultimately good for business, even if the competition for space is sometimes a challenge. But Brexit and the crash of sterling has increased our packaging and raw material costs by up to 20%. And for CRAFT beer you need to buy the best ingredients. Against a backdrop of the brewery boom, to cut corners when it comes to ingredients would lead to being easily found-out against the quality offering available.

So whilst the craft beer industry craves mainstream acceptance in terms of an increased market share (5%-7% of the beer market isn’t huge), this doesn’t necessarily mean that “mainstream” stereotypes should be applied: let’s face it, free-range eggs are part of normal everyday life, but they’re not the same price as mass-produced eggs.

We happily pay the extra because they’re better socially and arguably in terms of taste. So, beer that cost more to make, was made by high-welfare brewers (I’m proud to be a Living Wage Employer, and no I don’t expect the drinker to pick up the 10% increase in many of our worker’s salary as a result of a socially responsible choice the business made) should indeed cost more than something mass-produced. Hopefully it will taste better too. If you want another view on why good beer shouldn’t be taken for granted, check out Matt Curtis’ thoughts here​.

The final point to make, and perhaps which answers one of Mr Bourdain’s complaints about the atmosphere in bars, relates to what a bar (or indeed a beer for that matter) should or could be: “This is wrong. It is not what a bar should be” he says. The beauty of choice is that that there’s something for everyone, whether it’s food, beer, wine or different types of drinking establishment.

Bourdain talks of his future vision where all restaurants are like Singapore street vendors. Whilst this suggests a desire for eaters not to take things too seriously, it also points to enjoyment being a driving factor when it comes to ingesting or imbibing.

And so if people are enjoying analysing or discussing their beer – more power to their elbow! Continue the discourse. Will everyone agree? Hell no! Should they? Hell no! Taste is subjective, and is ever changing – my go-to beer from years ago no longer tastes the same as my palate evolves. I didn’t used to like olives either but my palate has evolved. I used to like dancing on tables until 6am in city centre bars, but my lifestyle has evolved. None of these evolutions are necessarily better or worse, it’s just different. 

Different strokes. Isn’t that great? Sometimes I want to eat or drink one thing, and other times something else. I do place high regard on what enters my body though, and encourage others to be discerning too. Anthony Bourdain was in fact an early influence on my own culinary interest, and reading his books (and yes, the FULL interview) it’s clear that he encourages enjoyment and discovery, along with not taking life too seriously.

So whatever you’re into at The Telegraph​, before you bash the Foster's drinker, the beer geek or the craft beer bar, ask yourself if, when it comes to beer (and of course other drinks), isn’t the important thing to drink for pleasure, not for effect? And when it comes to journalism, wouldn’t it be nice (if not terribly British) to champion a part of an industry that bucks a general decline? To champion difference, passion and hard-graft instead of denigrating or dismissing it as a fad?

Take wine - once out of reach for mere mortals, it wasn’t ‘normal’ to have a glass at home on a Tuesday night 15 years ago; it wasn’t in everyone’s shopping basket. These days some level of knowledge, from basic to Sommelier is accepted across the social spectrum. Why then this aversion to a category that has more variety than wine? Why the barrier to celebrating our national drink? Let’s consign beer stereotypes to history; the lager-lout, the sandal-socked-warm-beer-drinker and the tattooed-hipster. Let’s talk about drinking and eating well.

Sincerely,

Luke Raven

Director at Ilkley Brewery and beer evangelist

This piece originally appeared on Ilkley Brewery's blog.

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