Friends and Family? Maybe, but customers too

I was struggling for breath, my threadbare Marks and Spencers suit stuck to me with sweat, as I stumbled down the ramp at Blackheath Station. I’d been at the Kentish Times Christmas party and had decided to stay for one more - and now I was cutting it fine to get the last train home. Too fine. As I emerged onto the platform, the train began to pull away.

The Cloudwater Brewery, pictured in 2017

The Cloudwater Brewery, pictured in 2017

Then something incredible and - thus far in my life - unique happened. The train stopped; the door buttons lit up. I pressed the nearest one and the door opened. The driver had halted the train to let me on. I strode triumphantly, if a little unsteadily, onboard. It was nothing less than a Christmas miracle and I felt a rush of euphoria that lasted until, ooh, at least London Bridge.

I imagine this was how the Cloudwater team felt on Saturday (possibly even more so). There’s no need to go into the details again (it’s here for those who don’t know about it) but for the situation as it was to be rectified with such - and I use this phrase advisedly - common sense is pretty unusual, particularly in Brexit Britain.

It would be a shame if the triumphant finale to Friends & Family completely overshadowed what went before, though, because it is quite interesting. When it looked like F&F was off, there were two schools of thought. On the one hand, there were people who felt understandably aggrieved at having coughed up £60, plus train fares, for an event that didn’t seem to be happening; On the other, there were people who felt the first group were being a bit neggy, and should just, you know, chill.

Cloudwater, 2017

Cloudwater, 2017

It’s obvious that many people feel craft beer is a community. There’s a sense of purpose inherent to it that means people can overlook, for example, the sale/partial sale of once totemic breweries like Camden Town and Beavertown to multinationals. Many people, too, earn their living in the beer world, which adds to that sense of common purpose. If something is putting bread on your table, it’s perfectly natural to feel protective about it.

The problem is that not everyone feels this way. For those whose interaction with beer is less intimate, for those who earn their crust elsewhere, this idea of community can be a problem. After all, who benefits from the notion that a commercial relationship is also a friendship? Breweries, definitely. Pub landlords, Bottle-shop owners, distributors, yup. Drinkers? Only in the most nebulous sense.

Social media, which provides a direct conduit from brewer to customer, has fuelled this idea of community. You’re virtually friends! It’s harder to be constructively critical on social media (which is why it specialises in the extremes of sycophancy and malicious rudeness). It’s a great place to build a brand: Duration, a brewery that is still some distance from actually existing in physical form, are a great example of how this is done. They were among the breweries at Friends & Family, too.

This is all very well, but this is a a commercial relationship and, like any commercial relationship, it’s fine for the customer to decide she isn’t happy with this or that aspect. She can baulk at paying £8 for a can of beer or, indeed, can suggest festivals with an asking price of £60 should be absolutely certain they’ve got their license sorted. That’s not an outrageous position to take.


Football is an interesting comparison. Football clubs are clearly communities of a sort, but they’re also commercial institutions. And look how football fans are exploited: Premier League tickets are often ludicrously expensive, you can’t drink within sight of the pitch, replica kits (even for kids) are somewhere north of £50 and facilities can be basic, to say the very least. It’s no wonder non-league clubs like Dulwich Hamlet, where you can get in for £12 and there are a number of bars selling good beer inside the ground, are thriving. These spectators have decided they prefer value to a lifetime of exploitation.

But while football fans don’t have many alternatives, good beer is everywhere these days. Back in 2003, when the world’s greatest train driver made my Xmas, I was happy to find anything tasty in then pre-craft London (with respect to Meantime). We’d spent the evening at Zerodegrees, where the beer is brewed onsite. They also make their own pizza, although one of my colleagues was not best pleased about having to wait an extra few minutes to get his. “It’d be easier if they used frozen,” he said, entirely unironically. Then as now, the customer is not always right - but if there’s money changing hands, he or she is always a customer.

Will Hawkes