Cast your mind back to the idea of an after-work drink in the early 20th century, and the picture that comes to mind is heavily focused around the local pub. Bitter, porter and stout were the drinks of choice, produced by one of hundreds of local breweries.
Fast forward a hundred years and the picture is very different. In those areas where the local boozer still exists, fighting off rising prices and increasing legislation, the taps are more likely to be a series of international lager brands than locally produced bitters.
The reasons for the change are manifold: evolving class boundaries and demographics; tastes moving from bitter to lager; and perhaps most of all, a shift among younger drinks from a pub- to a bar culture. In a world where everyone’s aspirational, young people are looking for opportunities to see and be seen, to show off the evidence of disposable income in their clothing and footwear, choice of drinks and self-branding – desires for which the bar comes into its own. While pubs have traditionally been used for conversation among pairs and groups, lubricated but not wholly driven by alcohol, the new breed of chain bars and pubs revolve around music, dancing and heavy drinking. Behaviour and expectations have shifted, with a concomitant effect on the local pub trade.
The arrival of lager at the forefront of British advertising budgets and trade sales saw it promoted as the drink of aspiration, with associations drawn between individual lager brands and social popularity, increased sex appeal, international culture and wealth. For evidence of this, see the link between lager and football – the sport of the masses meets the (would-be) drink of the masses.
In contrast, real ale became associated with heritage, tradition, nostalgia; its roots in local community – the drink with which generations of working class men ‘celebrated an honest day’s toil’. Such values have been of less interest to today’s young people than the high-income, high-gloss lifestyle promoted by lager brands.
But perhaps the balance is shifting back again. Last week, the publication of the new edition of the Good Beer Guide revealed that the UK now has more than 700 real ale breweries – more than any time since World War II. According to the British Beer and Pub Association, real ale saw its market share rise by 0.3% to 6.1% of the £17bn beer market in 2009. The increase might sound insignificant, but it’s the first of its kind for decades – in a market that’s seen an estimated four pubs close in the UK every day.
More obviously significant is the increase in younger and female drinkers. Research by Camra found that the proportion of women who’ve tried real ale doubled in 2009 from 16% to 32%, while 25-34 year old trialists increased from 38% to 50%.
Managing director of the Purity Brewing Company Paul Halsey attributes this rise to communications, in a recent statement to The Guardian: “The marketing is a lot better now, much cooler and cleaner, so people in their 20s and 30s have more of an interest in it”.
While we at The Value Engineers would never underestimate the power of marketing, I believe there’s a wider story behind the return of real ales.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a growing group of consumers wanting more sophisticated experiences, tastes and brands. Traditionally the province of the older, high-wealth consumer, this so-called ‘connoisseur culture’ now encompasses younger singles and couples with disposable income and an increasing aversion to mass-market consumption. It’s brought with it an increased interest in authenticity and heritage; a desire to connect with brands that have more to offer than a one-size-fits-all ‘glocational’ positioning.
It’s a desire of which real ale is strongly positioned to take advantage. Small-scale, ‘artisanal’ producers are thriving, aided by their local provenance and the strong narratives or personalities that underpin brewers and brands. From the Hog’s Back Brewery’s bottle conditioned ‘Wobble in a Bottle’ to Brew Dog founders Martin Dickie and James Watt, the UK’s real ale market is capitalising on its assets.
The recession has also had its impact – with something of a positive effect for once. Where lager brands and bars have suffered from consumers shifting their drinking in-home, real ale and craft beers have long been the drink of choice for those seeking quality rather than quantity. The result is that pubs catering to these ‘civilised drinking’ occasions have suffered less than their mass-market counterparts.
However one chooses to attribute the causes, it’s clear is that it’s increasingly the young professionals who are discovering the appeal of bitter, with its ties to place and the image of a gentler, friendlier time. They enjoy the passion and individuality of their local breweries and micro-brewers – and long may these continue. So the next time you’re in a pub stocking real ale, why not raise a glass to the sector that’s refusing to accept its traditional position as the footnote of the UK beer market?