In this post, we’re using ‘craft beer’ to refer to breweries who define themselves or some of their products using that term.
As people ponder the contrast between beer consumption and brewery numbers, two views are emerging at extremes of the spectrum of opinion:
1. Beer has begun its inevitable and long-awaited ascendancy — soon every pub will stock a vast range of interesting beer, there’s no reason the number of breweries should ever stop rising, and everyone will be drinking it. Just look at London. Soon, everywhere will be London! Endless London! Rejoice!
2. Beer is doomed — craft beer is a pathetic little bubble — an idea with no appeal to anyone but geeks. You can’t judge anything by what’s going on in that London. Look at downward overall beer consumption and pub numbers and repent, crafterati! Repent!
From our vantage point up here on the fence, we’ve seen some evidence that craft beer is an idea that is breaking out, if not, perhaps, ‘sweeping the country’, and has some distance left to run.
Our recent trip to Falmouth left us rather astounded as we realised that, in a town with a population of 20,000, there are at least four pubs/bars selling bottled and kegged craft beer (e.g. Five Degrees West, Beerwolf, The Front, Hand Bar) and apparently doing well at it. Self-consciously ‘craft’ local breweries like Rebel of Penryn and Harbour seem to be gaining a foothold in an increasing number of outlets, and the ‘craftier’ end of Sharp’s output is getting easier to find. There’s even a posh off-licence which stocks Mikkeller — one of the horsemen of the craftpocalypse?
Let’s move the goalposts, though, before someone else does: Falmouth is a university town, and full of middle class yachting types, so it doesn’t paint a true picture. What about the real world, Lord and Lady Fauntleroy?
Dammit. Banged to rights. In ‘working towns’ in Cornwall (definition on demand), we’ve seen less evidence of craft beer in the wild. Oddly, it is Molson-Coors-owned Sharp’s that are perhaps having the most impact: it’s a shock to walk in to a bog standard pub and find beers such as Stuart Howe’s Triple A — a cask ale fermented with Belgian yeast — or Hayle Bay Honey IPA, alongside Doom Bar, the ultimate sweetly bland ‘Cornish ale’. The grizzled fellers propping up the bar might find his experiments a bit ‘weird’, but these beers do seem to sell, perhaps because they’re strong.
Otherwise, though, it’s cafes, restaurants and gourmet burger joints where craft beer pops up most often, but, even then, it’s likely to be alongside bottles of execrable contract brewed but nicely branded ‘gift shop beer’, or skunked Corona-aping ‘Cornish lager': there’s not much indication that local restaurateurs are really engaged with beer in the same way they are with, say, beef, or bread.
If, in six month’s time, there is a craft beer bar in Truro (not a ‘pop up’), and a pub in Penzance which regularly stocks Harbour or Rebel, then we’ll feel comfortable saying that ‘craft beer’ has gone at least a little bit mainstream. Until then, it remains a noisy niche.