Law no. 15/2016: did the smoking ban impact the growth of the craft beer market?

Picture this: it’s Saturday night, and you and your mates are hitting the town to grab some drinks at your local bar. You heard that they got the newest NEIPA from your favourite craft brewery on tap, and you can’t wait to try it. The bar staff hands you a freshly poured pint and you dunk into it nose first. You’re hit by a bouquet of aroma hops that is so lush you need a moment to take it all in: pineapple, mango, ripe grapefruit and… is that coconut? You take a sip. Thick, moreish fruit puree, chewy oats, hardly a hint of hop bitterness, and just enough alcohol to remind you you’re drinking a beer. You smack your lips. That’s the good stuff.

Now imagine doing this again in a bar filled with cigarette smoke.

Several years ago, Romanian bars were filled with an entirely different breed of haze. Indoors smoking was the norm, and having it any other way bordered on wishful thinking. It didn’t matter if you were a smoker or not, going out was always equally gruesome: the air was so thick it was almost unbreathable, your clothes stank to hell and back, and you woke up the next day with a hoarse cough. One of the people who vividly remembers is Flaviu Odorhean, Beer Academy certified beer sommelier, who has been playing the bartending field for over a decade:

I remember 2009, when I walked into a bar and started learning about cocktails, I was so excited! I used to watch YouTube videos, constantly looking up recipes on the internet and specialised books. We had this big blackboard on the wall where we would write down our creations in order to promote them that night. And when we served our bar guests a cocktail, the standard routine was replacing their ashtray, and serving them their drink along with a clean one. I wanted the person in front of me to understand everything that was going on inside the glass, without anything disturbing the smell. Thinking back on it now, I find it hilarious, maybe even ridiculous, because the smoke in the bar was so thick it made your eyes sting, let alone impair the aromas. It was the same in the restaurant. There was no concept of a non-smoking establishment; smoking was an integral part of the hospitality industry, the sine qua non behind the its sheer existence.’

Another person who doesn’t remember these times fondly is Răzvan Costache, blogger at Universitatea de Bere:

‘I always hated sitting around in smoke, I found it inhuman, and in some bars and clubs, doing so was sheer death. […] I already had a kid back then, and it was very difficult to find a restaurant where I could go grab something to eat with the family. Come to think about the HoReCa industry before 2016, it was honestly like being in the Middle Ages.’

It was during those days of yore that one of the first craft beer bars in the country opened in Bucharest. On March the 4th 2011, Bogdan Tănăsescu opened the doors to La 100 de Beri pub, boasting a menu of 104 beers, an eclectic mix of craft and ‘supermarket’ German beers. And, keeping in line with the ‘trends’, it was a smoking joint.

‘Back in 2011, what we now call craft beer (firstly, North-American style, and secondly, the new breed of Western European breweries) was just starting to spread around Europe. Our customers’ tastes began to change and we tried to keep up with them. It was really a back-and-forth kind of relationship, and everyone had their own objectivities. Smokers were the first to realize that they had a problem when it comes to tasting beer. Their reactions were different: some smoked less or waited for the taste of cigarettes to pass […], others remarked on the fact that the beers tasted different depending on what they were smoking. Non-smokers tried to protect their beers from the smoke, by placing beer mats on top of their glasses. And some simply didn’t care.’ (Bogdan Tănăsescu)

Even back in the days when having a non-smoking establishment was considered a recipe for bankruptcy, there were some who were brave enough to take a plunge. One of the first restaurants and craft beer bars in Romania with a non-smoking policy was Off The Wall, opened on June 27 2014 in Cluj-Napoca. The fact that the owners were Canadian played a significant part in this decision:

[…] A smoking ban for restaurants and bars had already been in place in Canada for many years by the time we arrived in Cluj. So when we subsequently checked out a variety of restaurants here for market research purposes, we noticed and strongly disliked the smell and haze of cigarette smoke (even my business partner, Tayler, who is a smoker). Smoke-free restaurants had become as normal to us as smoke-free airplanes, and so to us there was no question of allowing it inside our restaurant. We were also very aware of the damaging effects of second-hand smoke, and we did not want to subject our servers to that. Further, we felt that the presence of smoke in the air would negatively impact the food experience of our customers. Since we were a fresh food restaurant, that factor was not to be overlooked. We realized that we would likely lose some potential customers by not allowing smoking, but on the other hand this created a market niche for us to attract people who disliked smoke in restaurants as much as we do.(Oliver Ryffel)

Things took a turn in March 2016, when, following a particularly unfortunate event, Romanian authorities decided that an indoor smoking ban was in order (the event wasn’t caused by smoking, but it was definitely a trigger for the smoking ban). On March 17, law no. 15/2016 went into effect, which meant that all bars and restaurants had to restrict smoking to designated outdoor premises only. Naturally, the decision caused quite a bit of upheaval among consumers, and for the first couple of months, establishments had to contend with a significant drop in clientele. One of our earliest memories from those days is a cafe where the vast majority of customers were smokers (having a smoke and a coffee is almost a cultural trait in this neck of the woods), which, after days of absolutely no traffic, posted a note on their door that said: ‘Come in, we’re open, but all our staff are out the back having a cigarette’. There was a general feeling of rejection and discontent. Smokers were proudly declaring that they’re never setting foot in a bar and just drinking at home from now on. Bar owners were asking: ‘Where are all those non-smokers who were always moaning about the smoke bothering them? Why aren’t they coming out?’.

But not all businesses were affected the same way, and those who already operated non-smoking premises were better suited to weather out the storm.

It was interesting to see other restaurant owners fretting that their businesses would tank as smokers would stay away, but we had seen this all before, when Canada went smoke-free. […] Some people asked us if we were worried about losing one of our market niches, since people who wanted to avoid smoke could now go anywhere. But being smoke-free was never central to our identity. As Canadians, it was simply ‘normal’ for us. Our identity was far more based around fresh food made from scratch, cozy atmosphere, prompt and friendly service, and the aforementioned craft beers. In fact, out of the years we were open, 2016 was by far our strongest.’ (Oliver Ryffel)

As weeks and months went by, customers came to terms with these changes, and started flocking back to their usual watering holes. They were greeted by a cleaner air (the walls and furniture would still smell of smoke for a while yet), they didn’t go home reeking of cigarettes, and above all, they remembered how to use their noses.

‘I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the HoReCa industry started flourishing [after the smoking ban]. Of course, there’s a cumulation of factors that led to this but I’m firmly convinced that the lack of smoke in pubs had its contribution. If, up until then, expensive foods were a fad and they were associated with opulence, we’re now staring to understand that those products offer something more. It was a time when we saw a flourish of local producers, those who make something ‘naturally’, following all the steps required to make such a product. The phrase “Nobody can make a difference” began losing ground. It’s the people that start making a difference!’ (Flaviu Odorhean)

Răzvan Costache concurs:

‘This law is one of the best to have happened in Romania in the past 10-20 years. It’s like we suddenly started bathing.'[…] We basically stopped being Neanderthals.’

Perhaps coincidentally, the months that followed also saw the debut of what are now considered heavyweights in the Romanian craft beer industry. Even before March 2016, bars were stocking beers from Zăganu, Nemțeana, or the prodigies at Ground Zero. But the real craft beer revolution came into full swing in 2016, with the emergence of brewers like Bereta, or Hop Hooligans. Of course, one can’t assume that it was just the smoking ban that launched this change. The legislative changes that went into effect in 2016, resulting in the beer excises being lowered by 15%, played an equally important part. But with the number of craft breweries (not counting brewpubs) jumping from 9 between 2009 and 2015, to 14 in 2016, one can’t help but wonder whether a correlation does indeed exist.

What the smoking ban did achieve was raising awareness not just about the negative effects of smoking, but also about the importance of a healthier lifestyle. Post-2016 also saw an increase in bio, vegan, gourmet and farm-to-table restaurants, promoting locally sourced ingredients and small producers. The fact that consumers had access to information pertaining healthy living was another key factor, as was the fact that those who travelled abroad were exposed to different mentalities and lifestyles. Another factor was the economic growth that increased the spending power of the average buyer. People could afford to spend more money, and even make amends with the fact that a product might not be to their liking – it’s how they discovered new things, which they could afford to buy, and therefore raise the demand for them. It was all there to begin with, but it was the smoking ban that brought it all out and gave it a coherent shape.

‘I think once conventional wisdom was turned on its head (as in, the smoking ban did not create the feared damage to the hospitality industry), it perhaps made people more open to scrutinizing other perceived truisms a bit more closely. In that sense, the smoking ban may have indeed acted as a catalyst. It probably helps that there is a link between higher quality and healthier. After all, cleaner air is not just healthier, it is also simply more pleasant to experience, compared with stinky, hazy air. The same is true for other things, such as freshly roasted coffee compared to cheap instant coffee made from powder.’ (Oliver Ryffel)

‘Another aspect worth taking into account is the global trend towards healthier products. Smoking is a habit that goes against this trend that pushes people to become more aware of what they actually consume, from food to drinks. And even though both smoking and drinking are vices, smoking doesn’t have any positive sides, whereas beer has been proven to have many qualities, and when people hear about a product without improvers and enhancers, as is the case of craft beer, they associate it with something healthy. And this definitely led to the increase of craft beer consumption.’ (Flaviu Odorhean)

Of course, not everyone is on the same page. Bogdan Tănăsescu, for one, believes that craft breweries would have been just as successful regardless, and that the emergence of craft beer bars is not at all related to the smoking ban. And in a way, he’s not wrong. The human brain is designed to tune out information that you don’t need to survive on a day-to-day basis. This is the reason why you can’t ‘see’ your nose, and why olfactory fatigue sets in fairly quickly. Smokers become used to the smell of cigarettes, and develop ways to detect scents around it. As I’m writing this, I’m having a cigarette, while also drinking a porter. Even with the smoke, I can detect roasty notes, a hint of coffee, the bitterness of the dark malts. Yet I am also acutely aware that my partner, who is a non-smoker, can probably pick up the fruity esters from the yeast, or the subtle bite of the bittering hops. Smoking doesn’t ruin my experience of the beer, but at the same time, it does put a damper on it.

You can argue that the smoking ban didn’t result in an increase of Romanian craft breweries, but you can’t deny that it lend a hand in the emergence of flavour-forward beers. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the use of hops. Aroma compounds are very volatile, to the point where a lot of modern craft breweries have foregone adding aroma hops even at the end of the boil, and just use them in the whirlpool and dry-hopping. Out of the 130 IPAs, NEIPAs, DIPAs and pale ales released in Romania last year, 23 were double dry-hopped (and that’s just the ones that had DDH on the label; the real number is, in fact, bigger than that). It goes to show that brewers have a growing penchant for aroma hops, and with new cultivars emerging from the US every year, this trend is only likely to grow. New hops are expensive, and it wouldn’t make much sense for brewers to invest in them if their full flavour couldn’t reveal itself to customers in a smoky establishment.

Admittedly, cigarette smoke doesn’t render hop flavour completely nonexistent. But while you can still smell Citra and Centennial in a smoky bar, the subtle aromas of Loral and even Saaz might escape you. The beer itself is also prone to change as it sits in the glass, revealing different flavours between the first sip and the one you take 10-20 minutes later, as it warms up. And it’s the same with any beer style. A quick look at the top ranking Romanian beers on Untappd shows that the styles drinkers prefer are complex ones: barrel aged beers, DDH NEIPAs, pastry stouts, IPAs showcasing new hops. They’re the kind of beers that you need to take your time with, and smoking would only render them into a cacophony of smell and taste. Another thing to bear in mind is that Romania’s core craft breweries follow western trends, and the countries they closely follow all have smoking bans in place (indoor smoking was banned in the US in 1997, with the UK following in 2007).

You can see a similar correlation between the smoking ban and the focus on quality and aroma if you take a look at specialty coffee. In fact, this segment of the market was ahead of the game compared with regular bars and cafes, with Origo cafe adopting a non-smoking policy as early as 2013. We discussed this topic with Liviu Frățilă, founder of the Espressoman community, and one of the most passionate advocates and promoters of specialty coffee in Romania:

‘When your market differentiator is flavour, when you claim coffee excellence […], you’re only going to shoot yourself in the foot if you allow smoking on your premises. Of course, mutual respect must take precedent, even when vices are concerned, but smoking acts as an olfactory anesthetic, so allowing it in specialty cafes would have cancelled out the entire point of opening one […]. The third wave of coffee took coffee out of the context of a mere socializing habit and took it into a realm of exploration, of exciting the senses.This makes smoking and specialty coffee incompatible, from whichever angle you look at it, so you can say that almost all truly specialty cafe shops prohibited smoking inside and even on their terraces, even before the smoking ban came into effect.’ 

In fact, the aroma compounds in specialty coffee are even more subtle than in craft beer, and, as Liviu explains, it is far more difficult to pick up peach notes in an espresso than in a NEIPA, for example. HoReCa being forced to open up towards non-smokers also led to an influx of customers with ‘unpolluted’ senses, who could better appreciate such a product. And let’s not forget about the pricing factor:

‘As a [bar], when you charge 20-30 RON for a beer, you have to prove that it’s worth the money, through both the selection of beers in your portfolio, as well as creating an ambiance that won’t attenuate the senses, and instead highlight the qualities of those beers.’ (Liviu Frățilă)

But let’s take craft beer and specialty coffee out of the equation briefly, and consider a product you’re more likely to order when you’re out: food.

‘As a country, we lack a culinary culture [in restaurants]. As a country, we lack a competent cooking school. I personally find this a very relevant indicator that makes me consider the level of professionalism of restaurants in [Romania]. Of course, there are restaurants where they cook brilliantly, but unfortunately they are the exceptions. On a national level, the restaurants operate at a very low level. We don’t have a single Michelin star restaurant in the country. The lack of culinary education reflects this, the fact that “We (the consumers) like it this way!”. My opinion is that this education of ours also suffered due to indoor smoking. Making very good food usually also requires a higher production cost. For example, if someone chooses to enjoy a premium product in your restaurant, they in turn agree to pay a higher price. If, when that product is served and there are 2-3 people smoking at the table nearby, then that person can no longer fully enjoy that product. In this case, that extra expense is no longer justified because that extra quality becomes irrelevant. It’s a vicious circle.” (Flaviu Odorhean)

Across the board, the smoking ban had tremendous benefits, especially in establishments that place a focus on quality. And you can see this relationship between craft beer and quality establishments reflected in the places that stock it. Apart from bars, restaurants and specialised shops, you’re now likely to find craft beer listed in places that might not have stocked it otherwise, such as bio and vegan bistros, specialty coffee houses, artisanal pastry shops and bakeries, and shops that sell natural products from local farmers (such as cheese, jams and cured meats).

Craft is associated with quality, and this is also reflected in the price. It’s about marketing and understanding your target audience: if customers can afford to pay extra for your products, then it makes sense to sell them in establishments that match your price range, as opposed to dive bars, for example. The smoking ban led to a change in perceptions and adopting a healthier lifestyle, and craft beer became a market presence mostly with the help of the hospitality industry. Without bars and restaurants having to switch gears to accommodate this change, it’s unlikely that craft beers would have had a market as diverse as it does today, and would have failed to reach the same number of customers.

Yet there are some who believe that the assumption that the smoking ban led to the growth of the craft beer market in Romania borders on extrapolated fallacy:

‘This whole thing with “the smoking ban and the progress of humanity” is just another urban myth. The effects of such a change in attitude can only be seen and quantified in decades, especially as their proportion and application are a bit wavering. In an anthropological approach, this would be part of what we call “consumer habits”.’ (Bogdan Tănăsescu)

The truth is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find an immediate corollary between the smoking ban and the growth of the craft beer segment. The initial growth was triggered by a cocktail of factors ranging from legislative changes, economic development and a shift in consumer mentalities. But any upward curve we might have seen in craft beer consumption post-2016 has been thwarted by the recent developments brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the full effects of which have yet to reveal themselves.

Perhaps this is a topic worth revisiting in a decade’s time or so, but for now, we’ll have to content ourselves with a retrospective look. Countries that have had a smoking ban in place for longer, such as the UK, have indeed seen a drop in sales that they have yet to recover from. But what they gained instead was far more valuable: a more diverse customer base (women and families with children, as opposed to a male dominated environment), healthier staff, better customer service, and more focus on the convivial aspect of going to the pub, with more people eating out as opposed to just drinking.

The smoking ban may not have been that one factor that led to the emergence of more Romanian craft breweries, but it was certainly a catalyst for growth. And it wasn’t just the beer and hospitality industries that grew, but more importantly the customers themselves.

Cover photo credit: Diego Indriago via pexels.com

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