Reaching the milestone of our second birthday is a moment to celebrate and we certainly did. It is also a good time to look back over the last two years and reflect on all that has gone on. With that in mind I thought I would share with you what has surprised us, confused us and delighted us and what has changed over the last two years of selling beer.
Coming from New Zealand where we don’t have an Ale and Lager divide it took me by surprise, and still does to this day, the number of drinkers who solely identify themselves as either an Ale or Lager drinker. To me it just seems amazing that you would entirely forgo drinking one or the other. The reasons seem to vary from a drinker having had a bad experience on pongy ale to a hardcore ale drinker decrying all lager as chemical fizz. It just seems such a shame to not enjoy the best examples of both.
The other big divide that took me by surprise is that between keg (carbonated, fizzy, call it what you will) and cask beer (soft, natural carbonation). It is not something that I had really thought about before opening but at a guess I would say 30% of our cask ale drinkers won’t drink keg beer not because of the taste but because of the higher carbonation levels.
One of the big changes we have seen is the meteoric growth in canned beer. We always had a canned section but in the last 4 months we have had to relay the shop to triple the can display. From an initial suspicion about can beer to a growing acceptance and now a preference for can over bottle with many customers this is one section of the beer market which we think will just keep growing to the extent that bottle sales styles such as IPA are slower since so many of the IPA’s that people desire today are in can format not bottles. Last month we sold a canned beer which we had previously sold in bottles. When in bottle format it was steady, if a little slow to sell. Canned version? Sold out in a couple of weeks.
The massive increase in can sales is partly fuelled by the increasingly important emphasis that breweries have put onto label design which seems to translate much better onto cans than it does on bottles. While some breweries have always had a keen eye on design (Beavertown at one end of the spectrum and the pared back style of Kernel at the other) it is now almost a pre-requisite to have label artwork which attracts the eye. No longer is it just good enough to slap on a basic label and rely on the contents of the can or bottle, customers want the total package and if a brewery can’t be bothered to package their beer attractively then customers are more likely to choose another beer.
Drinkers taste in draught beer has changed as well, when we first opened malty, brown beers featured much more heavily than they do now. Currently light and hoppy pale ales are the favourite. Strength is a big factor with draught beer as well. That 6.5% IPA on keg is going to be a pretty slow seller early in the week but hit Thursday and Friday with the weekend in sight and it takes off.
To watch customers discover new styles and tastes has been one of the most rewarding parts of the last two years. Whether it is a brown bitter drinker who now prefers session IPA from a can or the committed lager drinker who with one sip became a fan of sour pales it is delightful seeing the results when people try something new and find they really enjoy it.
At the craft end of the beer world styles fall in and out of favour rapidly and breweries have a job staying ahead of the game. Black IPA’s have really fallen out of favour after being on the hot list around the time we opened. Fruit driven beers just keep on growing in popularity, from passionfruit and orange Pales through to the big mango and pineapple IPA’s the thirst for these beers is endless at the moment. Likewise for the big, hazy, dank IPA’s which hide their strength behind a soft mouthfeel and overwhelming hop aromas. Sours have really made an impact in the last 6 months with many breweries adding one or more to their repertoire to meet the demand that now exists.
That’s looking back but how about our predictions for the future? Sour beers will keep on trending as they become more mainstream, look for the supermarkets to start pushing them and their suitability with a wide range of foods. There will be more UK breweries dabbling in Belgian style beers and wild fermentation as well. The number of breweries opening in the UK will stabilise and then fall as breweries find it increasingly hard to find enough outlets to sustain their business. To counter this more breweries will open tap rooms and try and sell direct to the customer to cut out the wholesaler and protect their margins. Judging by the number of breweries who feature barrel ageing projects on their social media feeds expect a lot of barrel aged beers on the market next year as these long-term experiments reach maturity. And for Hop Stop? Watch this space!