From Trump to Weinstein, and Brexit to Grenfell, 2017 has picked up the rhythm of 2016’s death march, and added a funk bassline.
But while it has been a long, long year in the wider world, the UK beer universe is crackling with positivity.
Sales are booming, as are the number of breweries, with more than 300 launched in the last year.
But where does Norwich sit in this flourishing scene?
Known as a city of pubs, in a county bursting with brewing’s raw materials, is it punching its weight in craft beer terms? What challenges does it face? And what are the opportunities?
This is the first in a short series of thoughts on the city’s pubs, breweries and drinkers.
And – full disclosure – I’m not a landlord or brewer. If you are, let me know what you think.
I’ve already written about where I drink in Norwich, but what I’m more interested in here is the breadth and depth of the city’s pub offering, and if there is anything missing.
In the last couple of years, I’ve visited and drunk in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, York and elsewhere, and the first thing to say is that Norwich is a brilliant city for pubs.
It has breadth and variety, as well as quality for a city of its size.
As well as the boozers I’ve previously mentioned, there’s the historic Adam and Eve, the spit and sawdust charm of The Kings Head, and the slick, hipsterish Gonzo’s. Then there’s The Cottage, The Sir Garnet, and The Murderers, before you even get to the places which line the Wensum and come to life on summer days.
Not all are craft beer havens, but most look after their ales well, and have dipped their toe in craft waters.
The issues our pubs have when looking to broaden their offer appear to be a lack of knowledge (and subsequently confidence), as well as the influence of the local prestige breweries.
For example, the recent news about Redwell Brewery’s takeover prompted analysis of its shortcomings, with Matthew Curtis of Good Beer Hunting commenting on its inability to transcend its Norwich roots.
“Ultimately, the brand failed to both break out of its East Anglian homeland and to put its hometown on the modern beer map” – Matthew Curtis, Good Beer Hunting, on Redwell’s takeover
It’s something likely felt by the city’s pubs, who have backed Redwell’s core beer (most of all the brilliant Tap House), but never seen it kick on in terms of innovation.
Equally, the likes of Adnams and Greene King – big brewers for the area – are known for safe, relatively bland real ales, but have turned out mediocre ‘craft’ ranges. It’s no shock that landlords who have then stocked this beer – only to see it fall flat – will start to see ‘craft’ as a four-letter word. Not to mention that those same breweries (mainly Greene King) own a good number of the city’s pubs, restricting the beer their tenants can sell.
And perhaps it is the stranglehold of the real ale barons – Camra loves Norwich – that has held some pubs back.
But that will surely be temporary. The success of pubs like St Andrew’s Brew House and The Plasterers can’t be ignored, and landlords will ultimately go where the money is.
More generally, pubs will likely follow the polarising trend of supermarkets.
In a society of haves and have nots, the likes of Wetherspoons are Lidl and Aldi, scooping up those looking for a cheap drink. Meanwhile, those with Waitrose tastes will be more and more picky about where they spend their money, with craft brewers and bars set to benefit. When you are paying £5+ a pint, that’s inevitable.
For Norwich, that means landlords being bold and picking a lane. Go craft, and do it properly or carry on in mediocrity, go out of business, and make way for the new generation.
Another option would be to go cheap, and take on Wetherspoons. Good luck with that.
What’s most important is that the next craft beer spot in Norwich can not be half-arsed. Beer drinkers are looking for new, bold flavours and experiences, and more of the same won’t do.
Next: The breweries
For more on Norwich pubs, Nathaniel Southwood (@natedawg27) is visiting them all. Even the bad ones.