Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Don’t call me stupid


“What’s the matter, lagerboy?” goes the Hobgoblin advert, “Afraid you might taste something?” Well, actually he probably is, possibly something along the lines of vinegar or yeast.

It has long been an article of faith amongst many in CAMRA that people only drink keg beers and lagers because they have been taken in by advertising and promotion into believing that these products are desirable, and they need to be educated into seeing the light and switching to the proper stuff. But surely that view is very disrespectful of the judgment of most beer drinkers, and if you’re trying to change someone’s mind you’re off to a bad start if you call them stupid.

Most people who drink beer are not really particularly interested in the subject, and tend to drink the same brew or a limited range rather than constantly experimenting. To them, it makes sense to choose something familiar and consistent from what they perceive as a reputable source. They want it to be refreshing, to lubricate their socialising with friends and to have something of an alcoholic effect on them, and if it meets those needs reliably then they’re happy to buy it. They may well see it as desirable to avoid extremes of flavour that would have the beer buffs’ tastebuds tingling.

It has been said that all the advertising in the world will only sell a bad product once, and if people are repeat purchasers of kegs and lagers then obviously they must satisfy their requirements – which will not be the same as the requirements of a beer enthusiast.

For example, I have no interest whatsoever in breakfast cereals. There are hundreds of different varieties on the market, but I eat the same one pretty much every day of the year. With the same type of milk and the same type of sugar on it. But I don’t think that makes me a fool.

There are some people who give the impression of trying to live their entire lives on the bleeding edge of experiment and unconventionality. And they are often some of the most crashing, self-obsessed bores you can hope to meet. Life really is too short for that kind of approach – you have to decide what matters to you and take the rest as it comes.

It also cannot be denied that there is a strong and genuine demand for beers served colder than the natural cellar temperature that is appropriate for cask. If people really didn’t want cold beer, they wouldn’t buy it. They only didn’t buy it in the past because the refrigeration facilities weren’t available. And of course far too much cask beer still ends up being served well above cellar coolness anyway.

I have written before about the “quality lottery” involved in drinking cask beer. For some people, the peaks are well worth enduring the occasional troughs, and they take the view they end up better off all round. But for others, indeed the majority, keeping their stake in their hand and keeping out of the troughs seems a better bet.

It is maybe less true now, but in the past many car enthusiasts would praise the driving qualities of Alfa Romeos. The only problem was, they were likely to leave you stranded by the roadside rather too often, so it wasn’t surprising people chose to buy Toyotas instead which at least could be relied upon to get them from A to B, even if in a somewhat dull and predictable manner.

For most drinkers, beer is just a commodity, and within their terms of reference they are making a rational and sensible choice by picking well-known keg and lager brands. In no way are they deluded dupes. That is what suits them according to their criteria.

Surely in this era of pub closures and anti-drink hysteria it’s a good thing that people are drinking beer at all. And if you want to encourage them to take more of an interest in the subject rather than just accepting the default choice, the way to do it is to communicate your own enthusiasm rather than telling them they’re stupid.

11 comments:

  1. Those real ale drinkers who look down on other drinkers' choices are just being smug and complacent. The cry by some real ale drinkers for a ban on alcohol advertising because it will create a level playing field for cask beers (as someone wrote in What's Brewing recently) comes from exactly the same simplistic mindset that non-real ale drinkers just need educating.

    I once worked next to a real ale sterotype at a beer festival when a group of young women came in and asked for lager. He just said, "This is a beer festival," looking at them as though they'd stepped in something. So I served them. But he was wrong, both in treating them as inferior beings for asking for lager, and in his statement (lager is beer, after all).

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  2. Damn. That's one of the best and most refreshing things I've read about beer and drinking culture in a long time. Thanks.
    It's amazing how someone writing about his reality on another continent can be so deadly accurate about what's going on somewhere else. The piece fits Toronto's small but growing craft beer scene so very well.
    And there's a good car analogy: bonus!

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  3. Great post, very well said.

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  4. Good piece. 'Tis true what you say that mocking people will never get them on side and you are not the first to make the observation that this particular advert is never going to win over the lager drinkers. You describe the reasons for that very well.

    However the advert is not really aimed at the lager drinker at all. I think the brewers know they have a faithful following in cask ale. All they are doing here is strengthening their market share of that cask ale market.

    To use your car analogy, I can think of many times I've seen adverts for cars that ridicule the quiet average man for his reliable family car. These adverts are designed to capture the adventurous into that specific product and not to capture the stable family man into buying an unreliable sports car.

    It's about capturing the minds of the adventurous.

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  5. super post. you hit the nail on the head. stick that one in opening times, it's a good 'un.

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  6. Dave, I'm not knocking the ad - in fact it's one of the most memorable cask beer ads of recent times. It's just that its message was a convenient peg on which to hang my argument. Lagerboy actually is afraid he might taste something. Something off.

    Unadventurous doesn't equate to stupid and in many contexts is a sensible choice.

    Some years ago I had a work colleague who seemed to regard me as something of an expert on beer. We were away on a course and popped in a pub in Outer London near to our hotel. I ordered a pint of Courage Best and he followed suit. Although crystal clear, it was the most dull, tired, flat, insipid, lifeless beer imaginable – all that Northerners think is bad about "Southern beer". I think he stuck to smooth or lager after that.

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  7. Martin, Cambridge9 December 2009 at 13:21

    At risk of boring repetition, a great article PC.

    I get better conversation from my mate who sticks to Fosters than many of the beer bores in real ale emporia. Aslo, the bloke trying the rasberry Porter is often the one least likely to try the adventurous food option (see howw many reports from CAMRA crawls wax lyrical about pie and chips !).

    Quality is the key. Just about my best pint was a Courage Best on the last day of the Millenium Experience - good cellarmanship and rapid turnover are unbeatable.

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  8. I believe you're all making the mistake of thinking that the "Lagerboy" ads are designed to make converts. They're not: like a lot of advertising, they're designed to make the people who already buy the product feel good about themselves, and they're actually aimed at existing Hobgoblin drinkers. Yes, they're patronising, no they're not actually meant to win over lager drinkers.

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  9. Z, as said above, I'm not knocking the ad, and I'm well aware it's not an attempt to convert lager drinkers.

    It's just that its message is a convenient peg on which to hang the argument that keg and lager drinkers aren't necessarily fools and dupes, and in their terms may well be making a wholly rational purchase decision.

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  10. I have that T-shirt. I've worn it while drinking lager too, which could get me hung, drawn and quartered in some places.

    I know people who only drink beer, never lager, but they aren't only drinking real ales. I know one who only drinks Miller's from the can. Another only drinks Millers but prefers it from the bottle. One who only drinks Becks, bottled, but has to have it in a glass. Very fussy people but that's what they like, and I see no reason to try to change their ways.

    I'll try anything once, and have regretted it. Rhubarb beer is one I won't buy again and I wished I hadn't bought two. Banana beer was a good one, and even asking for a 'Piddle in the Hole' is worth doing just to see if you can keep a straight face. I haven't managed it yet. Good beer though.

    Soon the weather will let me visit pubs again, if there are any left after three months sub-zero. Beer only tastes right in a pub. Lager too.

    Maybe there's something addictive they coat the glasses with?

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