Thursday 16 February 2012

Lost in the Post (Warning: Contains Mild Peril)

Like many of you fellow UK based craft beer fans out there I order the majority of my beer online. This concept baffles many of my friends, ‘why order online when you can just wander into a shop and pick up some beers on the way home’ they often ask me. I’ll tell you exactly why I do this; like many other craft beer enthusiasts/geeks/maniacs, call us what you will, I am constantly seeking out new flavours, new experiences and trying as hard as I can to discover the best that the brewing industry has to offer be it micro or macro brewed. The beer geek scene has wholly embraced Twitter and this makes it so easy to connect with fellow bloggers, drinkers and brewers themselves and rarely a week goes by when I don’t hear about another range of beers that I want to get my teeth into.

This happened just the other week when I discovered the fantastic Summer Wine Brewery who are based up in Yorkshire (yet another incredible Yorkshire micro brewery, where are they all coming from!?) and have a range of beers that speak to my personal palate. I couldn’t wait to place my first order from their super easy to use website and see if their beer lives up to the high praise I’ve witnessed. I received my beer a couple of days ago, it was kindly left on my doorstep by my local courier and ordinarily in most situations this would be fine but I happen to live in London and I’m very surprised that it was left there at all and that it wasn’t stolen.

If it had been stolen I would have been livid, mainly because I had been waiting almost two weeks for this case after the first one was damaged by the courier and didn’t report it back to the good folks at Summer Wine. When I chased it up the brewery couldn’t have been more brilliant in the way that they handled it and I got my replacement case exactly when they said it would arrive. The unfortunate thing is that out of the last six online beer orders I’ve placed FOUR of them have been lost or damaged and not been reported back to the supplier by the courier. I assume that my local depot is staffed solely by heavy handed yet light fingered folks, I hope that if they did steal my beer that they hated it, couldn’t understand the sucker punch of hops and went back to their can of *insert brand name here*. I’ve got nothing against mass produced beers by the way, they just aren’t for me anymore.

The breweries and suppliers are not to blame here, I work for a company that runs a mail order department and try as we might we cannot find one courier that is better than the others, yes there are some downright terrible ones like Yodel but there is very little to differentiate the rest of them, they are all a bit smashy. The only real solution is surely to stop ordering online and just make do with what I can buy locally or swing by a Central London craft beer bar to pick some bottles up there. As much as I do occasionally buy from Jacks, my nearest decent off license, I can’t get my fix of something like Odell IPA from them and the problem with heading to somewhere like The Euston Tap, CASK or the Mason & Taylor is that because they have premises to run that the prices are not as keen as the online dealers. For the record, I have actually bought some great beers from those aformentioned bars, sometimes it's worth paying extra for excellence.

So despite my moaning I will continue to order from places such as and Ales by Mail because the service is great and the selection is outstanding. The real solution is more long term, with more craft beer bars acquiring a license to sell alcohol for consumption off the premises the market will surely become more competitive and perhaps prices will improve as a little competition is introduced. However I think if we look to our friends across the pond in the USA we can perhaps see what the future holds for the craft beer industry in the UK but I fear we are still several years behind them.
American Liquor ‘Supermarkets’ are something to behold, they are epic shrines to the consumption of booze and the joy of drink. They are the size of a large Tesco extra and are not only crammed to the gills with a brilliant selection of both local, national and international beers but are also full of artisan wines and craft spirits as well as plenty of the big brands to keep business ticking over, there is literally something for every drinker. As well as being able to get a great selection from the ‘offy’ craft beer bars and brewery tap rooms in the US often sell ‘growlers’ four pint flasks which can be brought back and refilled for much less than it costs for a six pack.

The UK has nothing like this and with companies like Threshers disappearing and Oddbins falling into administration this would indicate that these companies are doing it wrong. In a typical liquor store in the states you’ll probably find at least 40 or 50 brands of beer including every brewing style you can probably think of with perhaps the most suprising thing being the selection of British brews available. The US loves the UK as it’s what inspired their incredible passion for beer and it’s surprisingly easy to find yourself something by Fullers or Sam Smiths to name just two… Even smaller breweries such as Brewdog are finding success internationally, their hop forward brews being a hit not just in the States but worldwide.

If one clever chain of off licenses decided to start treating beer with the same regard it treats wine and whiskey then surely they will see massive growth and success, companies like Oddbins or Nicolas would be ideal places for craft beer fans to get their fix. Sadly they seem to only stock brands such as Stella and Peroni and if you’re lucky maybe a mass produced ale or two, surely I’m not the only person thinking that the UK needs to wake up and smell the business opportunity?        

Incidentally I’ll be reviewing the Summer Wine mixed case in its entirety over the next couple of weeks!