Beer in Norwich 2017: The drinkers

How savvy are we?

Man, I’ve been prevaricating. Prevaricating hard.

In my last post, I promised a look at Norwich’s drinkers as the third part of an end of year, foot on the ball round-up of the city’s beer scene.

But Christmas, work and laziness had me sidelined. I was also a little bit unsure of what to say on the matter; trying to sum up the attitudes and tastes of an amorphous blob of people isn’t the easiest thing to do, after all.

But I was shaken out of my siesta by two bits of news in the last couple of weeks.

The first was the closure of the city’s hip city centre fried chicken joint, Woolf and Bird, and the second was the announcement of the impending closure of The Reindeer, a fantastic gastropub where Duration Brewing launched their first beer.

After the initial surprise, the rubbish news prompted a couple of questions: what does this say about the tastes of people in my city? And, what does this mean for beer in Norwich?

I can’t answer those questions comprehensively without a survey or the powers of God, but I can have a semi-educated stab.

It would be easy to respond pessimistically after all that bad news; to jump to the conclusion that Norwich punters are thrifty plebs with little loyalty to independent food and drink vendors.

Both Woolf and Bird and The Reindeer were offering good quality fare, at decent prices, in comfortable settings. But neither were perfect, and there is no need to despair.

In my visits to Woolf and Bird I always enjoyed the food and service, but all their eggs were very much in the fried chicken basket, with little for anyone bird-averse. Perhaps the city wasn’t quite ready for something so niche in such a big space, and that was always a risk.

As for The Reindeer, their food was excellent and the bar was well stocked.

But its location wasn’t the most accessible, and it was also an odd fit for what isn’t an especially affluent area of the city.

St Andrews Brew House pub in Norwich
St Andrews Brew House in Norwich

So, maybe there’s more to their demise than tone deaf punters with no regard for the good life.

In fact, it may be the exact opposite.

When it comes to food and pubs, Norwich is blessed, as the celebs say. Competition is fierce, and there are plenty of options.

In my own case, there are lots of places I love, but only so much Andrew to go round.

That means even fantastic places like St Andrews Brew House and The Plasterers – both of which I love – get my custom a couple of times a months at most. While many others are more dedicated, there is a tendency among craft fans (food or drink) to favour variety and new experiences over loyalty. It’s one of the reasons craft pubs rely on freshening up their pump line-up so often.

What does this mean for Norwich?

Talking to a few pub owners and one or two craft-minded people in the city, it seems there is a core beer crowd out there.

But as The Reindeer’s situation suggests, pubs have little room for error, and extenuating circumstances can hit hard. Is there the critical mass to sustain more craft pubs? Can craft make inroads into the strong real ale market? Time will tell.

The good news is that bars like Brewdog will be sticking around, and places like The Plasterers and the ABV Store market stall are doing a great job of educating craft neophytes.

I also think the introduction of a single-venue festival – akin to Hop City or Craft Beer Calling – could make a massive difference by raising craft beer’s profile, and galvanising people who may not think there are many like-minded punters in the city.

That will take a lot of things to fall into place, not least a respected brewer or pub to spearhead it, but if it takes place, it will be as good an indicator as any of how much Norwich loves modern beer.

Beer in Norwich 2017: Pubs

A foot on the ball

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.

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Pubs

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.

Cloudwater at Wylam

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.