The Hot Topic in My Beer Community

The title of this post implies that there is indeed such a thing as a beer community, which is an idea that has been debated recently within the online beer community. (Yes, I know - that was deliberate.) Martyn Cornell argued that There is No Such Thing as the 'Craft Beer Community', while Boak and Bailey countered with The Community is Real, Even if You Don't Go to the MeetingsPeople within that community will be well aware that this discussion largely stemmed from the fallout from Beavertown's decision to sell a minority stake to Heineken. So much has been written about both these issues already that I almost didn't write this piece. In the end I decided I would, as I felt that I could offer a Suffolk perspective that might even resonate with other parts of the country.

I don't entirely disagree with Martyn's blog - I don't think that there is one single 'craft beer community' - but I do think that there are many, overlapping beer communities. I have heard of some rather unpleasant behaviour from some parts of those communities, but I haven't witnessed it directly. I obviously don't mix in those communities. In the short time since I started writing this blog, and getting involved with beer twitter, I have received advice and support, and had conversations, both serious and silly, all with people I have never met in real life. In my mind that is a sign of community, which I am just starting to enter into.

But, there is another, entirely separate beer community which I am part of; that is a community of beer drinkers and beer industry professionals in Suffolk and Norfolk. For that beer community the Beavertown / Heineken is issue isn't an issue at all. Many local real ale drinkers have never heard of Beavertown, much less drunk it, and that isn't likely to change any time soon. There are around 15 pubs in a 5 mile radius of where I live, 8 of those are free houses, 6 are Adnams pubs, and 1 is owned by Greene King. Of course there are some Heineken owned beers that find their way into some of those pubs, but I doubt that Beavertown is likely to join them. Mark Johnson at Beer Compurgation makes some good points about the reasons that my local pubs could probably stock Beavertown already if they wanted to.

The issue that dominates conversation in this beer community is the state of Woodforde's Wherry, and of the Woodforde's brewery in general. Woodforde's was founded in the village of Drayton in Norfolk in 1981, and moved to its current home in Woodbastwick in 1989. It has had a good reputation locally for quite some time, and Wherry, its best-selling beer, was Champion Beer of Britain in 1996. Having just one tied pub, Woodforde's has always relied on sales to the free trade, it has long been successful at a regional scale and has even developed some national distribution. However, Wherry's reputation has taken rather a knock in recent years.

In 2016 the previous majority shareholders decided to retire from the business and sold to a small consortium of individuals, all with a background in the drinks industry. This consortium promised to take Woodforde's to 'the next stage of growth'*. Shortly after the change of ownership there was a change of head brewers with Bruce Ash being replaced by Belinda Jennings, formerly of Adnams. At about the same time, regular Wherry drinkers started to suggest that the beer was not quite right.

Now, I have never been much of a Wherry drinker myself, so I don't have a particular interest in the issue. However, it is something that comes up in conversation repeatedly. One of my local free houses used to keep Wherry on permanently as it had been the biggest seller for some time. The landlord decided to stop stocking it though because so many of his regular customers stopped drinking it altogether. For two years now the rumour mill has been active, and it is still going strong. I could report the substance of those rumours, but I choose not to; some of them may have some substance to them, but some I am sure are unfounded.

As it happens, I was in a pub just last week that was serving Wherry so I decided to give it a try. It was very much as I remember it, perfectly decent, slightly floral, solid pint of bitter. That chimes with what I have heard from various people recently suggesting that the Wherry is back to its previous standards. 

If there were many other pubs which took the same decision as my local, to stop buying Wherry, or to buy less of it, then Woodforde's will probably have had a difficult time recently. On the other hand, they have recently re-branded all of their beers, and have announced a sponsorship deal with Norwich City FC. Neither of these actions suggest a company that is struggling.

In summing up Beavertown, is a non-issue for real ale fans in large parts of Suffolk, miles away from a craft beer outlet . On the other hand Wherry, which won't have touched the consciousness of the beer Twitterati, makes a real difference to the drinking choices of many people that I see on a regular basis. I imagine that there are probably similar local issues in other parts of the country, that many of us are blissfully unaware of.

Up until a few weeks ago I had no opinions at all about Heineken; I wasn't a fan but I was happy to drink some of their beers if that was all that was available. Reading Tough Calls and a Bigger Picture from Cloudwater's blog leads me to feel that there are plenty of reasons for an ethical consumer to avoid Heineken. Now that my eyes are open this is certainly the stance that I will be taking.

* Article from the Eastern Daily Press


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