A guy walks up to me and asks ‘What’s Punk?’. So I kick over a garbage can and say ‘That’s punk!’. So he kicks over the garbage can and says ‘That’s Punk?’, and I say ‘No that’s trendy! – Billie Joe Armstrong
A clumsy comparison, you’re already thinking, but bear with me. Whatever ‘craft’ beer is, it is generally agreed that whilst it’s hard to define, you know it when you see it. The same applies to modern ‘craft’ beer bars and pubs. They can be very traditional looking, like the Southampton Arms. They can be bare-brick-and-granite hipster magnets like BrewDog Camden. Whatever the decor or the theme might be, you know it when you see it. Admittedly, this is normally because there are 40 taps crammed onto the bar, but the point stands.
There’s an increasing number high-end beer venues in the UK, especially in London. They stand apart from well-established real ale havens that have ten or more ales on, even though they might share the same patrons. They are identifiably ‘a thing’ as popular vernacular would term it (‘Oh, is this a thing now?’ ‘Yes, definitely a thing’). So we have not only a boom in specialist beer, but also in specialist beer outlets.
As Boak and Bailey recently blogged, there are a number of signs when a boom is about to peak, and ultimately, decline. The most damning and certain sign is when the niche thing in question is adopted whole-heartedly, and replicated perfectly, by larger, wealthier, mainstream competitors. Have we already reached that point with craft beer? Definitely. It’s been happening in the USA for years, as the recent ‘Craft vs Crafty’ debate has proven. Even in the UK, bigger brewers are starting to place value in ale brands that only a few years ago were seen as dead weight. So what about the outlets – the places where we all drink and experience this wonderful beer?
I recently found myself with half an hour to kill in Waterloo station, and happened across the promising-sounding Beer House, which also has branches in Charing Cross and Paddington. After descending a couple of flights of stairs, I found myself in a well-appointed, pubby sort of bar that was quite large but still definitely part of a train station. The wood panelling, leather-cushioned benches, chalkboard beer menus and random spray of manufactured ‘vintage’ art all said ‘modern pub’. The beer selection was spread across several chilled T-bar fonts and four different handpulls. The chilled fonts had a couple of token mainstream lagers, but most were beers like Erdinger Dunkelweisse, BrewDog 5am Saint, and Flying Dog Doggie Style. The food menu boasted deals on classic Americana; hot dogs, burgers etc. alongside pubbier fare. Prices were Train Station x London + Craft, but this was to be expected.
Given all of that, it still had all the necessary ingredients to make a pub that I would like. So what perturbed me about this place? It was the way they were put together: a case of the Uncanny Valley, where advanced robotics creates something disturbing because it is close-to-but-not-quite human, applied to a pub. Here was a venue owned and operated by SSP, Compass, or one of the other catering companies that run the franchises in train stations, but created to mimic our modern idea of a high-end beer venue. There was a palpable synthetic quality to everything, not helped by the fact it was in a generic, train station unit. The deliberate way in which ‘fun’ was injected into the chalkboard writing, the barmaid’s look of confusion when I asked for one of the heavily-advertised paddles of tasting thirds, the fact that the staff were clearly from one of those Pumpkin Cafes; these all created little glitches in the Matrix until I found myself questioning everything about it. It’s hard to explain myself without sounding like a weird pedant, but that’s what it was like. That sudden certainty that everything has been deliberately chosen to replicate something you like, that if you punch a hole in the wall you might see a lab of men in white coats ticking boxes of clipboards.
Is this the future? Should I have a problem with it? There wasn’t anything in particular about that place that I disliked, but I worry about the long-term consequences. We are used to paying higher prices for beer that costs more to make, by people that have higher overheads and smaller workforces. If more mainstream chains of craft beer bars spring up, will smaller chains of outlets get priced out of the game? Will brewers that cannot provide the quantities (that born-again bigger brewers of ‘craft beer’ can) face decline and eventual closure? Am I making too much of this? I certainly hope so.