If there’s been one topic that’s come up again and again over the past few months it’s hype. It may be just a natural phase in the development of our modern beer culture, or it may be a US storm in a UK teacup as we port American beer culture over to the UK and filter out the bits that work for us, and those that don’t. Like almost everyone else, I’ve got a lot to say on the subject. The following arose from a couple of questions posed to me by Matthew Curtis for a forthcoming Ferment Magazine piece.
Hype/stimulating FOMO appears to have been valuable to you as a brewery, what is its place in beer marketing?
The first time I drank a modern UK beer was 2010 at an after party for the World Barista Championship (held in London that year). There was a buzz amongst attendees, rumours of life changing deliciousness, and already a concern over how long such a beer could be available for. Coffee people know about small lot, direct sourced, small batch roasted beans, and then another layer of definition and uniqueness that comes from the decisions of the serving barista — they get the natural scarcity that comes from limited, seasonally grown produce that’s custom roasted and extracted. Kernel's IPA Citra was on every barista’s lips, and for damn good reasons too. It was just what we had all been waiting for. Back then I was a coffee fanatic, in the same way I'm now a beer fanatic — I think I have always loved excellent, inspiring, relationship changing sensory experiences.
Make something very good that people already want and ‘hype’ will occur. It's just how everything works. There's a fish and chip shop in South Shields called Colmans. The queue is often out the door such is their reputation for the freshest most succulent fish wrapped in crispy batter. It's always worth the wait, but oddly I don't hear the hype word (with it's negative connotations). Instead I hear how good their reputation is.
In the beer world, a world filled with deeply enthusiastic flavourphilic, monophobic individuals, the fear of missing a ticket to Copenhagen Beer Celebration (to those that have been thrilled from previous years experiences), or any other such high end beer event (IMBC, Zwanze Day, etc) is real. I myself make sure, as with online ticket purchases for popular sporting events, gigs, theatre performances, restaurant booking opportunities etc, that I'm online, logged into my account, hitting refresh on the ticket page for 30 seconds before they're due to go live. What better thing have I to do at the time CBC tickets are released than secure at least the chance of another inspiring, beer life affirming time, in a city that refreshes and delights with an appreciation of beauty and quality, that remains a source of inspiration for years and months after?
I believe a form of hype exists in almost every walk of life, when someone cares deeply about an experience. But it's maybe only in beer, and most definitely quite recently, that reputation, viewed as wholly positive in almost every other industry and field, becomes hype fuelled by a fear of missing out. Are ticking and rating cultures to blame? Are beer drinkers tired of being looked down upon by wine, cocktail, and spirit drinkers? Are beer enthusiasts so keen to show their dedication to excellent experiences that they get angry when they miss one of hundreds (maybe thousands) of the releases that happen each year in the UK? I'm really not sure, but it's doubtlessly multi factorial, and personal.
Life is a series of finite experiences. Where we find excellence, or even just the chance of excellence, we are by at least some fragment in our mind that watches the years pass, inclined to enjoy ourselves, and to spend our resources on things that make us feel good.
As a company, what gets us out of bed when our bodies ache and our minds are foggy, is our shared dedication to making the best we can each day at a time. Sometimes our best simply isn't good enough outside our four walls, but sometimes our best really is very good in the eyes of hundreds of beer enthusiasts and drinkers.
Faced with an inevitable degree of disappointment either way we do things, we chose to time the releases of our freshest, biggest, hoppiest beers to promote a culture of enjoying what is good today that won't be as good next week. For the hundreds that are delighted, there are but a handful that "are through with hoppy beer already" or "bored of the hype-train", or whatever the current phrase is for describing what surely must be the social media equivalent of reading the sports pages of your preferred news site only to then state how much you dislike sports, or how annoyed you are that you weren't there to watch the sporting yourself.
I've watched videos of musical performances I couldn't get tickets to that have made me so full of jealousy I share the video with an impassioned "Wish I could have been there! This looks like it was amazing!” How is it that we don’t all just feel like that with beer?
When many people are online at the same time talking about our beer it gives a chance for a genuine debate and for shared experiences to occur. Take a look at my language with regards to our beer and you'll see I strive for as factual a presentation as I can achieve, and take a look at our social media feeds and you'll find them about as marketing light as they get. We released an IPA not so long ago that had an errant adjective on the label and it rather upset me — we usually don't say our beer is extremely hoppy, because compared to something else it may just be average! That decision is yours, based on the context you are in.
After we work to be as fair as we can by getting our much demanded beer in the hands of many at the same time (precisely to curtail as much FOMO as possible), and we do this without the marketing run up that some of our peers lead with (often without a single word of discontent from our peers or consumers), it's disheartening that folk get stuck on hype rather than good beer. What we do (to the best of our ability) is brew beer that is as delicious as we can make. Hype is what other people do.
To return directly to the original question. Stimulating FOMO is and never was an objective, nor has it been valuable to us as a company as there’s enough folk who are so fed up of all the fuss that they almost seem to be put off drinking our beer! I believe any stimulating of FOMO would be a misleading, and a negative tactic. Our key objective is to develop an excellent reputation, and what little progress we have made in this regard has been extremely valuable indeed! I think we get a different view of this question if we consider putting it to a chef whose restaurant was so full you couldn't get a table. Or that bakery you like whose ovens simply couldn't make enough bread to satisfy everyone. It's a strange question to ask, unless there's a thought that buying the biggest brewhouse we could afford, and near doubling the fermentation capacity of craft brewing overnight in Manchester at the time, chasing after every opportunity to brew straight into an emptied FV, and just now expanding our production capacity to two and a half times our starting volume, all while trying to do the best job we’re capable of day by day, is somehow a cynical move to starve the marketplace of the capacity it demands. Which other brewery in the country has devoted 60% of their cellar tanks to a single release just to try to satisfy demand (and still gets accused of starving the market place to generate FOMO)? What of the breweries that start up a tenth the size of us? Or even a twentieth? It’s interesting, and a little absurd, to consider asking them if they started so small to become the masters of FOMO stimulation simply because they have shortest production runs in the country.
What are the advantages/disadvantages it brings?
Let's get back to basics, and abandon the h word, as it's a little negative and a poor substitute for reputation. A good reputation, served by good quality products often generates good publicity, glowing reviews, and an expectation of a quality standard being met time and again. We are thrilled that we have in many eyes, a good reputation, and we very much enjoy the growing expectation that we're a brewery focused on quality, and one that can largely be relied upon.
If I were to say there's a disadvantage to a good reputation it’d be quite foolish. That customers that part with their hard earned cash expect a standard, quality, and depth of experience is entirely appropriate and more than welcomed!
When disappointment arises for us here at the brewery it’s in part because we perceive a different treatment of home grown reputations to the treatment of breweries from other countries, regarding hype/FOMO/fuss. How long before we had a Pliny the Elder did we hear about it? How long did we all have to wait before we visited Cantillon Brewery in Brussels? How much do we want a friend to bring us a four pack of Heady, or Sip of Sunshine, or Dinner, or anything by The Rare Barrel, Sante Adairius, Fonta Flora, Forest & Maine, that we've heard good things about?
What is good reputation when it crosses a body of water to reach our shores becomes somewhat cynical hype within these shores. Maybe British folk should trust each other more (and not be so down on folk that are having an excellent time), as maybe all this excitement is just what happens when we go from beer that few got as excited about before, to making beers that stand up to some of the best in the world that reach the hands of so many. Yes there are marketing ploys that some make use of in the industry to attempt to pre-define the quality of your experience, but we all see through that with ease. I'm quite sure the US didn't develop their excellent, world leading position as the best country for bold hoppy beer by a bunch of folk getting tired of hearing about something else that could be delicious. How can it be that Cellarmaker, Other Half, Trillium, Treehouse, Alchemist, Lawsons, and more, that list several double IPAs side by side, year round, are in demand and looked up to here, when the UK scene blooms and matures into producing world class IPA and folk are tired of it already…?
To round up this post, I’ll repeat what I’ve said many times. I love that the honesty and openness we try to promote fosters such good discussion (whether online, at festivals, or at events) around your preferences, tastes, and experiences good and bad. I don’t ever want that to stop. But let’s turn the page, and find within the energy we have to seek out excellent, exciting beer, a drive to maintain positivity. Between those of us that strive to make excellent beer, all the knowledgeable and quality focused wholesalers, distributors, and retailers, and the thousands of enthusiastic drinkers out there we have one of the beer scenes in the world. If there’s one thing I fear right now it’s that we’ll miss out on some of the best years in modern British beer if all we do is gripe about the hype, when we could all take things a little easier and celebrate the cheer around some damn good beer.