Here is something of a cautionary tale to begin the New Year with. It is a story of one man’s search for enlightenment and meaning and purpose in a world which often seems to be designed to bewilder and confuse and perplex.
Actually, it’s really just a story about the time just before Christmas when I went to a shop to buy some beer but, in all honesty, would you have read this far if I declared that at the outset?
I thought not.
So there I am, in the Imported/Craft /Out-Of-Date Beer section of a very large national liquor retailer sorting out my Christmas supply of ‘Go To’ beers – not my specials for which I always rely on my friendly neighbourhood not-so-local specialist beer retailer. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.
At the other end of the aisle was positioned a hand truck stacked with cases of beer to be shifted onto the shelves. In charge of this operation was a fairly senior employee and assisting in this onerous task was one of his subordinates. Having safely and efficiently dispatched the imported selection to its place he set to unpacking cartons of Victoria Pale Lager.
The conversation that follows is as close to actual as I remember it. I feel no need to embellish the exchange in order to achieve effect or humour.
JNR: “You tried that new stuff?”
SNR: “Victoria Pale Lager? Yeah, we had a staff tasting last week – on your day off, was it?”
JNR: “Yeah, must’a been. Any good?”
SNR: “Yeah. Not bad. It’s probably a bit too much for some of our customers, though.”
JNR: “Bit fancy, is it?”
SNR: “Well, yeah, it’s sort of like Little Creatures or something.”
JNR: “Oh – OK.”
SNR: “You know, it’s funny, I overheard a couple of customers talking about in the shop the other day. One of ‘em said, ‘It’s a bit different to normal VB, isn’t it!’ and I thought to myself, ‘well, of course it is! For a start, it’s a LAGER!! Completely different to normal VB! Huh!!”
JNR: “Yeah – it’s funny how some people think, innit?”
Let me leave a short space here so that you may take in the supreme majesty of this cultural tableau and fully appreciate its profound message ….
It took much of my inner strength to remain a static observer and to resist the temptation to invite myself into the conversation. But, as I stood there with a grin that you couldn’t knock from my mug with a sack of malt, I came to realise that I was not being blessed by Beer Karma to be at that particular spot in that exact shop at that precise moment to bear witness to this epiphany and that this was, in all probability, a drama being played out in many like stores by many like players around this wide brown land.
And here’s the thing. We reckon we are fairly knowledgeable and enlightened, if you will, about this whole beer scene-thing. We have at our disposal the tools with which to learn and, in turn, to educate. We have beer appreciation clubs and we have tastings and we have new beer launches and new brewery openings. We have websites and magazines and Twitter and Facebook groups and we even just meet up at sympathetic venues to drink good beer and chat about it like we never did ten or fifteen years ago.
We also possibly believe that we are but one in a crowd of many millions who think the same way and are riding joyously this wave of ‘craft beer’ together. But it is times like the one I have just shared with you that make me stop and take stock. I realise that we still have a long way to go before we can even get people – ‘normal’ people, who don’t work in the retail arena – to understand the difference between ale and lager.
Stop for a moment and consider this; picture an employee at the other end of the same shop where they keep all those fancy drinks made by squeezing grapes into tall bottles. Now imagine this employee describing to a customer the difference between a Riesling and a Chardonnay – “Well, of course it tastes different! It’s not a red!!”
How long do you reckon he’d keep his job?
I mean no disrespect to the two blokes described above but I do despair just a little when I think that these are the guys we are relying on to inform and educate people who know EVEN LESS about beer than they do when they come in to the shop looking for something ‘special’. We can’t expect them to know everything from specific gravity to SRM scales but surely management somewhere along the way should be ensuring that beer is at least treated with the same retail respect as is afforded wine?
Maybe these blokes need more training or maybe they should all be given a copy of The Critics Choice when they begin their training. Maybe beer marketers need to be more clear and concise with their naming and branding – although, to be fair, there’s not too much wriggle room with a name like Victoria PALE LAGER, is there? – so that common folk can begin to learn more a bout the beer they drink.
Or maybe I should have just said something.