Local Beer For Local People

As explored by BottleShop founder and MD Andrew Morgan

I was discussing the nature of ‘local’ with a bar owner recently. They’re proudly working with local producers for their beer, cheese and meats but when asked what the actual benefit is to their customers they didn’t have a clear answer – which has prompted me to write on the subject.

One of the main issues with ‘local’ is that it’s likely everyone else nearby is also doing it and buying from the same people which isn’t providing anything new for consumers - the same local breweries, same local crisp guys, same local cheese/charcuterie producers. Travel from one artisan place to another in the same town and you’ll inevitably see the same products. So, what are the benefits of ‘local’ to us as consumers given everything’s local to somebody?

It’s nice to travel and see what other people are drinking and, for many years, this was essential given the way breweries owned their own estate. In London you had Fuller’s around Chiswick, Young’s around Wandsworth and Truman’s in East London. If you wanted to drink something different, you had to get on your bike and travel to it. These days, you’ll often only see limited distribution due to the size of a brewery where they have no choice but to only serve their local market.

One thing local does offer is an easier life when it comes to deliveries, given most breweries self-distribute, include delivery in the price and order in small quantities. If you want beer from further afield then you have to purchase a pallet from the UK/Europe and a container (10/20 pallets) from America. These are huge barriers to many bars who simply either cannot accommodate or can’t pour a pallet’s worth of beer from one brewery. The convenience of drip-fed local beer cannot be under-estimated as a significant convenience to a local boozer.

The BottleShop has always tried to transcend this powerful local magnet by looking further afield. Every mile added onto the journey of a case or keg is a mile that has to be justified and the only factor that matters when it comes to this is quality. Two of the main issues with quality is that it’s both subjective and relative. If I go into a village boozer, there’s no point moaning about what’s being poured – you get on with making the best decision possible. I’ve had many pints that have been ‘relatively’ good in the context of where I’ve consumed them. However, if I’d have been able to click my heels and travel to a BottleShop bar then, in the context of what I know would be pouring, it would have been a relative disappointment. For me, this is a fundamental issue with local – that it has no meaningful need to deliver quality. Whereas, something that has travelled hundreds of miles has to be wonderful and better than what’s available locally.

This paradigm is the key. Imports should be better than domestic/local otherwise what’s the point? However, the existence of imports proves that the local market isn’t delivering on the choice or quality required. This is an issue in the UK but you’ll see areas of Germany, France and Italy gorging on their local supply. Why drink anything other than the local German Helles or Amarone wine from down the road when in Italy? Live near a Brie de Meaux producer in France and a local baguette bakery? Why look further afield?

You might find a local brewery who is genuinely lovely and all the beer we import is local to somebody. Jester King in Texas, Modern Times in San Diego, Buxton in Buxton … and we bring the best of everyone else’s local to our customers so you don’t have to travel. But, once it’s left the safe confines of its locality, it’s no longer local – it’s now #WorldClass. We’re not looking to destroy the idea of local but definitely want people to reappraise what local really means. It’s not necessarily about quality, it’s a geographical definition and little-else.

As a closing story, I had the local conversation with a rather determined CAMRA member in our Margate bar who challenged me for not pouring more local beer. We agreed that Westerham was OK given it was in Kent but when I mentioned that beer brewed in Calais was technically closer (by a fair few miles) he said I was being ridiculous. But how do we define local if it isn’t in miles? Does it matter that coffee beans were flown thousands of miles before being ‘locally’ roasted? Once locally roasted and the bag sealed does it really matter about the last few miles as to whether the beans are more local than those down the road?

Next time you go into somewhere selling local goods – just think for a second as to whether this is a conscious choice to promote quality or someone looking for an easy life.

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