Last week a whole bunch of beer blogs were talking about why local beer is, or isn’t, ‘better’. I thought I’d chime in, albeit a few days late.
Local beer, made by independent local breweries and maybe even using local ingredients, is not necessarily better. Some of the best beer in the world comes from Belgium, Germany, the USA and countries less easily associated with brewing. There’s some bloody brilliant stuff coming out of Norway and Japan, for example. Both ‘beer’ and ‘better’ have pretty broad definitions and it would be reductionist to claim that one element makes all beer better. Similarly, organic beer is not always better, nor is beer made by unionised workers. Furthermore, the ingredients are rarely grown in the same locality, and most beer travels reasonably well. A tomato from your garden will be immeasurably better than one flown in from Spain, but beer makes it all the way across the Atlantic without any ill effects.
Local beer is more valuable though. Local independent businesses, be they breweries, bars or shops (hi!) keep jobs and money in the local economy. If we extrapolate US statistics then for every £100 spent at a local business £68 stays in our community, as opposed to only £43 if the same money is spent at a national business. Every time you buy a beer that’s been made in your town you are helping someone in your community keep their job, which in turn means they can put their money back into other local businesses, including yours. According to articles that never state their damn sources, independent businesses are also more likely to pay higher wages and donate more to charity, which means lots of money going to good places.
Local breweries are also in a great position to keep traditions alive. While it’s exciting to see how beers like IPAs have been transformed by American brewers, most British beer geeks get a great deal of pride knowing that we invented it. Just like every Yorkshire person I know is proud of parkin and Yorkshire pudding. I’m proud of our rhubarb too, but that seems to be more of a quirk than characteristic. Lots of local breweries have a long heritage, for example the family that owns Black Sheep has been brewing near Masham for six generations and still uses the Yorkshire Square fermenting system that dates back 200 years. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it? I’d hate to see that become nothing more than a museum exhibit.
Not all of our local breweries are traditional of course, that would be boring. I’ve mentioned Magic Rock before and I’ll link to a few more at the end of the post, but there are loads of Yorkshire breweries pushing the boundaries and making exciting beer. Without our support they will fail, no matter how good the beer is. Breweries can’t afford to take risks unless they know someone will buy the end product, and unless they know they have a loyal local customer base they can rely on to support them. We get the beer we pay for, after all.
That’s not to say that anyone should buy bad or overpriced beer just because it comes from down the road. One of the great things about local business is accountability. Give a new local brewery the benefit of the doubt, keep buying something you like (sounds obvious but how many of us only drink whatever is new?) and if a brewery lets you down, tell them. Local breweries depend on their local customers so they will listen to what you have to say and be happy to engage in real conversation. You are far less likely to get a generic “thank you for your interest” email from someone who might drink in the same pub you do.
At the shop we get asked for local beers more often than we get asked for organic, vegetarian and cheap beers put together so it’s clearly important to a lot of people.
None of this means that local beers are better, or that anyone should drink them exclusively. It just means that they have added value beyond how they taste. I’m as bad as the next person for buying my groceries at the supermarket and my books on Amazon, and before working for an independent off-license I rarely thought about how I bought my booze either. Every time an independent bookshop closes down we all decry the evils of mass consumerism, Waterstones and the internet, conveniently forgetting that we never actually bought anything in the shop we apparently loved so much. We shouldn’t let the same thing happen to our breweries.
Some of my favourite more-or-less local breweries: