I was contacted by a masters student at Leeds University who is researching "growth and new product development in the British bottled ale industry". Obviously, it's a fascinating and complex subject, and a well-timed request given my recent role as judge in both rounds of OLN's prestigious 2008 International Beer Challenge.
On the subject of growth in the bottled ale market, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where this has come from. On paper, people are poorer than ever - but the market keeps growing, defying industry trends. Asked why this is, I struggle for an answer. Perhaps the supermarkets have done a good job of making a limited range of bottled ales available relatively cheaply, and this has pricked people's interest. Or maybe, people have found that a modest increase in price can lead to a more interesting beer .
I firmly believe the bottled beer market is at an all-time high in terms of range, quality and innovation. In fact, innovation was a key topic at the IBC: some over-enthusiastic brewers have innovated their way to the point of undrinkability, whereas others wouldn't know what to do if innovation personified woke them up one morning and offered them a sack of research and development funds.
Another fact that emerged as I marshalled my thoughts about the state of the market is that there is no such thing as a typical bottled ale drinker.
It might be true that most of our customers tend to be male and aged 25-45, but the blend of people is becoming diverse, indicating a healthy curiosity about one of our great national products.
There seems to be a view that bottled ales don't appeal to younger drinkers and never will - but how can this be, given the diversity of styles and flavours
Surely this is like saying a certain group of people don't like sandwiches as a generic category .
Back to the masters student, whose
final question was about scope for growth through online sales. This is a topic close to my heart, as I helped re-launch our mail-order service a few years ago, and have seen it struggle in an increasingly crowded sector. The so-called "clicks and mortar" approach, whereby mail order is another revenue stream to your existing shop, is tricky, as the volume of stock necessary to maintain a viable online offering is huge.
We are fortunate to have Beer Paradise as a sibling company, and so have a warehouse of some 500 beers to offer online, but not everyone is that lucky. It's hard to know if the dozen or so new online beer shops represent real growth, or just the pie being sliced ever more thinly.
It's always nice being asked specific questions, as it gives you a chance to reflect on specific issues. The answers given, combined with the standard of entries at the IBC, lead me to believe that the bottled ale sector is more vibrant now than it ever has been.
An influx of ideas from all over the world has been assimilated by British brewers and is in the process of changing the sector for good. Say farewell, then, to ordinary brown bitter, and hello to the new generation of classic global ales, each with their own regional twist, soon to appear on a shelf near you .