Tuesday, July 24, 2012

That'll do.

No more opinions, nothing about the beer business (which I understand less the more I find out) and deffo no more taking offence at interweb dimwittery.

From now on, nothing but naked marketing messages.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Asymmetric warfare

Oh no, here's me responding to Boak&Bailey again. Their "Try Jumping on This Bandwagon" piece attracted some interesting comments.

 One commenter suggested that the looming entry of bigger producers (corporates) into a sector of the market that the smaller producers (indies) might have thought they had more-or-less to themselves ("craft", non-brown, non-crap-lager) wasn't anything to be worried about, since this was essentially the same as the competitive situation that applied in the brown beer sector. The conclusion drawn being that since the indies had been able to compete against the corporates in brown beer, they'd be perfectly able to hold off the corporates in the non-brown market.

This isn't a good description of what happened, or what might happen. Firstly, we start in different places. It's a simplification, but we might start off by saying that corporates had the "brown" market to themselves, and the "non-brown" market pretty much didn't exist. What happened then was that a quantity (let's call it n hl - so many hectolitres), of brown beer market (and hence, production) was lost by the established corporates to the indies who were starting at square one.

Meanwhile (again a simplification), indies were developing a (pretty much) completely new market for non-brown products in a way the corporates were slow to recognise. Now they have spotted it, and here they come. Maybe.

A moments reflection will reveal these apparently complementary cases to be strongly asymmetric. We know that the corporates enjoy economies of scale, marketing and distribution resources, as well as access to market, which the indies didn't (and still don't) have.

Consider one simple measure - the number of people employed by the two kinds of producer: Small brewers generate about one job per 500hl annual production compared to maybe one per 3,000hl in the industry overall. So, by the way of a thought-experiment, let's go back in time to a point when indies (small) won 100,000 hl of sales from corporates (big). That might have created 200 jobs in the indies at a cost of 33 jobs in the corporate workforce. A net gain of 167 jobs. That's a fair few micro-breweries completely staffed right there. More choice for the drinker. More jobs. Brilliant.

Turn it around though, and it's not so rosy. I can't see that the corporate toy breweries will be as efficient as the rest of their operations, but suppose (remembering they get to share a lot of the facilities of their parent operations) that they are only three times as "efficient" (labour-wise) as the real micros.  100,000 hl of sales won here (by the corporates, from the indies) will wipe out 200 jobs in  the indies (that's at least a couple of dozen micros wiped out) while creating only 67 jobs for the corporates.  A net loss of 133 jobs.  Less choice. Less jobs. Not good.

[supplemental] I suppose my main issue with the "it'll be alright" argument is that simply because the corporates didn't entirely succeed in  making use of their (anti-) competitive advantages then, it doesn't follow that they won't do so going forward.

[supplemental] A bigger brewery writes: "We are a regional brewery with a national reputation which means we can be innovative and individual like a craft brewer, have the passion and adaptability of a micro-brewery, but also have the large scale infrastructure to provide quantity and consistency." [my emph.]  See?

There's a whole lot of ways that these situations aren't symmetrical, which I won't bore you with.  I suppose the interesting questions are: Is it fair?  Is it desirable? Is it likely?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sounds like Teen Spirit. Eh? I said "What"?

Pete Brown recently raised the question of the acoustics of modern bars, while admitting the possibility that he's turning into a grumpy old get. Well, according to HardknottDave "the future of pubs, beer and nearly everything else is in the youngsters".   That's true in a sense.  For sure, the future  belongs to those people who are young now.  But they won't be enjoying it as young people.  They'll be older then.  Taking the UK: In 2007 , for the first time, there were more over-65s than under-16s,  The median age of the population is rising, the proportion aged between 16 and 64 is shrinking.  The under-20's, who made up about a third of the population when I was born, now make up less than a quarter. 

When we were young we were, no doubt, smarter than we are now.  Of course, we didn't know shit, but we made up for that lack of experience by being generally quicker.  Sadly, we weren't smart enough to use hearing protection when working in noisy environments. I'm a bit mutton in one ear due to rock 'n' roll related hearing damage, and of course there's the general age related deafness that comes on most of us as we get on a bit.

We (many of us) take hearing so much for granted, that we forget just what a neat trick it is.  Particularly when we're indoors, we're immersed in an incredibly complicated sound field,  with many moving sources of sound and a  varying mix of more or less reflective and dispersive surfaces.  If you think about it, the ability to "focus" on a conversation and extract information from the jumble of noise is remarkable.  You'll have heard of what's sometimes called the "cocktail party effect",  this kind of selective attention enables us to pick out those sounds that are important to us, be it a conversation or whatever, and dismiss or ignore the competing clatter.

Unfortunately,  age related hearing loss very often affects our ability to get speech, as we tend to lose the high frequency sensitivity that I gather is particularly important for distinguishing consonants.   At the same time,  what's termed spatial hearing loss  specifically undermines our ability to selectively attend to sounds by their origin in space.   So what you've got here is an age related double whammy, which will definitely knacker your ability to hear (and therefore make) conversation in noisy environments as you get older.

It's been said that young people positively enjoy acoustically "bright", "lively" environments.  And that a lack of ambience (in the technical sense of reverberation) will create a dead, dull, vibe-sapping feel to a room.   I don't know if the young do actively seek out acoustically challenging environments, but it does seem likely that before the onset of hearing decline, they will be more tolerant of background noise.  I'm sure there are young people who equate noise with excitement.  Good for them.   Of course, we shouldn't forget that some young people will have hearing issues which will cause similar problems to those experienced by us old gits.

What we're talking about here is a (largely) invisible handicap, which designers of indoor spaces should consider.  It's perfectly possible to construct and furnish a room with well defined acoustic properties.  It's not all or nothing of course.  I could cobble together a dead room, or a really nice bright one.  Bring loads of people into my lively room and it could get quite dull and oppressive.  If you've ever been into an anechoic chamber (or even a good vocal booth) you'll know how weird that sounds / feels.  I've seen people put sheets of hardboard on a (carpeted) floor for an acoustic musician who couldn't handle the sound of a relatively dead space with very little in the way of what are called early reflections.

Booth seating is a particularly boss solution to the kinds of acoustic problem we get in bars.  Soft furnishing is always good, of course.  As the lovely soft sound absorbent human bodies come in to a place, they tend to arrange themselves on the soft furniture, keeping the overall distribution of sound absorption about the same, be the room full or empty.  Booths offer acoustic "micro-climates" with tightly controlled reflections (limiting distracting clatter) while allowing the occupants to partake of the general ambience of the room.  It's not that hard to come up with other schemes that can create a variety of sounds and "feel" in quite small spaces. It's not all about the colours and the pictures on the wall.  Careful arrangements of absorbing, reflecting and diffracting surfaces allow the designer to shape the sound field in a way that can define distinct areas and give an overall acoustic that doesn't vary too much with occupancy.

Or you can just fit a place out the way you like, and tell all the people who don't like the acoustics to f*ck off.  But that doesn't sound like the best way to run a business to me.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Enough with the categories?

There's lots of fun to be had categorising things.  Boak and Bailey have a go here at dividing brewers into conformist and (of course) non-conformist. Elsewhere we're familiar with  another dimension on which brewers are characterised as more or less progressive / traditional. I say this is a different dimension since we can choose to ally ourselves (i.e. conform with) a progressive movement, with other progressive brewers. Progressiveness can be as shallow and conformist as any churning out of brown bitters.

Of course the whole idea of brewing progressive, extreme beer is a distinctly modernist sort of thing.

There are those who explicitly categorise themselves as contemporary1, progressive, even post-modernist.

What I've made here is a pretty much standard, if slightly wobbly,  partitioning of the field:  On the one hand, traditionalists turn out traditional products.  (Unless these products are from a foreign tradition,  in which case they're a sort of non-conformist alt-traditionalist). On the other hand, the avant-garde, the progressives (modernists) reject stultifying styles and (sigh) "push the envelope".  And on the third hand (?) there's the noisy post-modern stance bringing us concept beers and irony.

The problems with this kind of analysis are all too clear.  How do we categorise, for instance,  a UK based lambic blender?  As a producer of delicious beer, I'd hope.   But beyond that, how will they fit into a traditional / modernist / postmodern mapping. Not well, I'd suggest.  Are they non-conformist?  It's a traditional product, just not traditional around here. Or any of the brewers who use mixed fermentations - a touch of brett here, wild yeast in the fruit beers there.  An old tradition producing more-or-less non-standard beers.  How non-conformist is this?

I think that what we're seeing is a more of a metamodern2 aesthetic.
People are happy to look to the intent of traditional forms. Less concerned with pursuing an illusion of novelty.  Less afraid of finding value in a romantic tradition. We swing from mad beers to comfort beers, from the extreme to the classic.  And back again.  Our utopia isn't in some golden age, or in some futuristic bye-and-bye.  Neither are we living in some grim (all bets are off) relativistic post-modern dystopia.  For now we choose fun and beauty. Not so much because they're necessarily true, but because they're fun and beautiful. Which is true enough for me. We can enjoy beer for what it is, or what it tries to be.  Not so much for what we're told it is, or what it isn't. But because it's good.

 1This being now, all current brewers are contemporary.

 2See here for much, much more on the metamodern thang.