Confidence in beer knowledge pays dividends - Jeff Evans

Today more than ever, successful beer retailing relies on good product knowledge. This rather simplistic, but fundamental, analysis lodged itself in my mind during this year’s International Beer Challenge judging.

As chairman of the judges, I have privileged access to them during their deliberations and, once again, I found the expertise and passion around the table seriously impressive. Whether it was forensically dissecting the technical faults in a beer or colourfully conveying the flavour attributes in a way that brings the beer to life for an outside observer, they had it all. But this hasn’t always been the case.

When I first took on the role 19 years ago, we drew in the same cross-section of figures from across the beer industry to be our judges – primarily a mixture of brewers (current and retired) and retailers. However, looking back, it is striking how disappointing the debate was in the early days. Take the brewers, for example. No one could accuse any of them of not understanding beer, but many suffered from an inability to speak about it in terms that non-brewers might understand. Perhaps more significantly, they were only just getting to grips with the idea of talking expressively about beer, learning to boldly describe flavours and the character of the drink. These brewers were fine at picking up faults, but when it came to talking evocatively about the product they had worked around their whole lives, they were strangely more reserved.

There was a similar timidity among retailers. This may have stemmed from a lack of confidence when sharing a table with a brewer or, more likely, from a simple absence of knowledge of the product, and that was perhaps understandable given that the brewing industry was only just getting its collective head around the idea of beer education at that time.

Decades after the wine industry wisely grasped the concept that customers could be enthused to buy more wine simply by educating them about it, the penny finally began to drop, thanks largely to the efforts of new, smaller breweries keen to demonstrate their passion for the drink. The simple concept of providing detailed tasting notes on bottle labels and information for use on off-licence shelves was gradually adopted, and it has had a lasting impact. Breweries began to reach out in other ways, too, partnering with retailers to take the game to consumers more directly through in-store tastings and meet-the-brewer events.

At last, we’ve arrived at a situation where the customer understands the product better than ever and is keen to experiment, and there is no going back. Education is now central to the future of beer retail. Good shops employ or train knowledgeable staff who can converse freely with increasingly beer-literate consumers. The same retailers spark the imagination with well-attended events and they are not shy about advertising the fact that they are specialists who know the detail and put in the hours to make a visit to their shop inspirational. That engagement must continue, especially if shops want to compete with online suppliers, some of which tap into the same principle by including a magazine with every case to explain the background to the beers and, hopefully, solicit further orders.

As trade rebuilds, to ignore the lessons of the last two decades would clearly be foolish and there is no excuse to do so. Supported by bodies such as the Beer Academy and Camra, as well as experienced beer writers and beer sommeliers, brewing has become more outward-facing and knowledge, today, is widely available. Having the confidence to use it brings rewards.

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