The Gravity Station Beer Debate

The Welsh rain hammered down. You have to qualify it Welsh rain. No other rain gets inside your bones no matter what you’re wearing. My waxed cotton jacket was leaking at the seams like a German U-Boat after a British naval depth charge attack.

“You should buy Yerkshire,” Barry bellowed at me as he appeared at the crest of the hill above me.

“I did. It’s a Scardale,” I shouted back. The rain was really hammering down, making it hard to hear anything without yelling.

“Oh,” he turned back and walked around the other side of the ancient stone slab set on the hill’s peak. We regarded each other stoically as we pulled back our hoods. Only faint townlight and starlight illuminated Barry’s features. He looked like a gargoyle.

“Well, then. A year to the day since we first met, Barry. And now it’s come to this,” I reached into my jacket and pulled out a long, slender kitchen knife from my waxed pocket. The starlight struck its surface and it glimmered with the refracted light of countless rain drops.

“Aye.”

“So. Did you bring the sheep?”

“Nur. Couldn’t get one.”

“What do you mean you couldn’t get one?” I gestured with the knife at the black hillside. “There’s a fucking thousand of them down there! What do you mean you couldn’t get one?”

“Couldn’t get one,” he repeated. “I got this bag o’ giblets from butchers instead,” he reached behind the stone and held up a gleaming white plastic bag. It looked bloated and sick.

“Bag of fucking giblets?” I spat.

“Well, if you’re not happy we could always use ‘uman entrails,” he suggested ominously.

Even with the knife, I didn’t fancy my chances against Barry. He looked as much of the hillside as the ancient altar we were trying to auger with. “Fine. The giblets will do. Give them here,” I took hold of the bag and slit it down the middle. Purple bloody entrails spilled out and slopped over the smooth obsidian surface of the slate stone. For a long moment we stared at the mess.

“Well?” Barry asked.

“Don’t look at me. This was your idea.”

“Yer fuckin’ Welsh. You got the druid in yer.”

“Druid? I’m not Tom fucking Newman.”

“Oh,” Barry gave the bloody butcher’s bits a long heavy look, shrugged and stared off down the mountainside. “Pub then?”

“There’s got to be an easier way to read the future of craft beer,” I shouted as I followed him back down the dark path we had taken. And perhaps there was. “Hey. Let’s go to the Gravity Station Beer Debate this weekend.”

“Can’t. Need to be in York to put in a Chillotron 5000. Bloody good freezers, them.”

So, on Sunday 27 November I went to the inaugural launch of the Gravity Station Beer Debates on my own. It was held in the Gravity Station, Cardiff, and was filmed by the University of South Wales for live streaming. Since you can pick it up and see it for yourself on the Gravity Station’s Facebook page, I won’t discuss the blow-by-blow of the debate but instead give a more high level view.

The debate was chaired by Simon Evans and included, from right to left, Binki Rees (Cardiff publican), Adrian Tierney-Jones (beer writer and journalist), Bill Dobson (Brain’s Head Brewer), the chair, Chris Rowlands (Cardiff publican and vagabond brewer), Gazza Prescott (owner/head brewer of Hopcraft Brewery), and a keg. The keg was a tongue-in-cheek symbol of absent panellist Jen Merrick (Head Brewer of Beavertown Brewery), who could not make it.

It was a good first foray into a largely untested medium. Of course, there are plenty of YouTube shows and podcasts out there, and talk panels are as old as TV itself, but I’m not aware of anyone pushing for a regular UK beer panel show which includes leading beer figures. It’s certainly not something you’re likely to see outside of a beer festival and, y’know, you’re generally at a beer festival for boozier reasons.

Speaking of booze, it would have amused me more if the panellists were all ripped off their tits before they started the debate. They were soon plied with free booze and the heat turned up in the second half.

The debate took place over three hours, split roughly in half with a fifteen minute break. That itself was fine, but ideally for today’s “TL;DR” attention spans it would have benefitted from being broken down into three 1-hour segments, with the last ten minutes of each segment reserved for audience participation and followed by a 10 minute break to allow panellists and audience members to empty bladders and refill glasses. In the spirit of the YouTube age, there may be some mileage in trying to structure the talks into smaller segments that can be split up and re-packaged into chunks for the YouTube format.

Of course, when beer and talk is flowing this can be a hard thing to balance. The audience was very organically involved, and Sue Hayward almost ran away with her own show from her place in the audience. Also, the great thing about the live stream is that there is the future potential to take questions from the online viewers who are sat at home in their underpants watching the show.

It was a fun event to watch and after a positive start Sue hopes to take the show on the road in 2017. Touring the country, Sue plans to involve local and national publicans, brewers, writers and other beery types to participate in the event and help contribute to the overall beer scene discussion.

It’s a damn sight lot easier than slaughtering sheep to read their entrails, I can tell you. With many people trying to predict the future of beer in the UK, perhaps the closest we can come to any accurate guess is to do exactly as Sue did – sit a diverse range of beer people around a table and take a temperature reading.

And do you know what? If the first Gravity Station beer Debate is anything to go by, it’s a grim reading. The debate speaks for itself. There was not a lot of positivity for the current beer scene. It’s a lot we are already aware of – closing pubs, the little brewers struggling against the big boys (though with the ‘big boys’ no longer being seen as your SABInBev types, but other craft breweries), ‘hipsters’ chasing trends – but it’s always disheartening to hear it from the men and women who work at the coalface of beer, the publicans and brewers themselves. It’s not the confident scene it was a few years ago.

Ever the cautious optimist, me. I hope future Gravity Station Beer Debates will also highlight the good in British brewing. After the year we’ve had, we need 2017 to be a positive one. And if that fails, I will go back to the sheep guts. At least you can interpret whatever you want to see, and I really want to see a rosy future for British beer.

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2 thoughts on “The Gravity Station Beer Debate”

  1. It’s interesting, but not surprising, to hear that there the tone of the debate was overtly negative. It seems to have followed on from the “WTF is craft beer debate” at this years IndyManBeerCon – there was negativity there too.

    The issue I see here is the obvious sense of entitlement some people have within the beer industry. Entitlement to customers, to market share, to a stable, easy living. The beer industry just isn’t like that, at least not any more.

    I can understand the resentment towards breweries that have opened with significant capital behind them, but these brewers cannot be blamed for the shortcomings of others. The other thing this new wave of brewers have is a significantly more professional attitude, one that’s not identical but not dissimilar to the US. Even brewers that began with very little in terms of investment, such as Redchurch here in London, are now finding investors to help them expand, and treating the industry with a lot more care and respect.

    It’s been a bad year for Welsh beer – but not as a whole. Tiny Rebel are a shining example of success, and although they often come off as irreverent their quality and professionalism balances that – hence why they’re one of the fastest growing brewers in the country.

    So maybe beer in Wales needs to get off the defensive, off that back foot and engage the industry with a positive attitude that’s witnessed beer scenes in London, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle and more start thriving.

    1. There’s a category error in comparing Wales with Manchester, Bristol et al. They are well connected English cities; Wales has its own geography and markets to contend with. You’re not going to get the same beer scene in the Llyn Peninsula that you do in Leeds. But if you look at Cardiff, you will find an incredibly healthy beer scene. It’s those breweries on the rim that are perhaps feeling the pinch, and I imagine that to be true throughout England as well.

      There were also two publicans on the panel, incredibly successful ones, and they aired concerns which reflect the industry as a whole and not ones isolated to Wales or its perceived defensiveness. Indeed, the Gravity Station Beer Debate was exactly an attempt to engage with the industry, and I hope it makes further inroads throughout 2017.

      Thanks for the comment, Matt, I appreciate you reading and responding.

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