How far has the idea of craft beer spread?

Beer bottle: Harbour Porter No 6

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.

6 thoughts on “How far has the idea of craft beer spread?”

  1. This is the true test isn’t it? Until there is a credible, dedicated ‘craft beer’ outlet in every major town and city, we won’t know for sure how well ‘craft beer’ is doing. If the London trend dips (which I suspect it will when hipsters find a new thing), will people see that as a sign it’s all over and not want to open one somewhere else?

    I think most people are ‘on the fence’ on this. I only ever feel like number 1 could be true when I’ve had about six pints, and number 2 is far too cynical to take seriously.

  2. When my mum has heard of it is the point at which I would say it has broken out of its bubble and hit the mainstream. or at least there is awareness in the mainstream. Still waiting.

  3. Outside of the self-styled craft beer bars (of which we still have none in Cambridge), there’s three things happening at once, to different degrees.

    1. Cask Ale ranges have definitely got wider and more interesting over the past few years, even in “normal” pubs. I think both customers and landlords have simply realised that there is better stuff out there than the big regional brands and that advertising a wide range of ales will bring in the customers. Mild seems to be making a bit of a comeback around our way.

    Ironically, cask ale is leading the craft beer push. Does that even make sense?

    2. Decent “craft” British lagers and keg porters/stouts are very slowly displacing generic german lagers and Guinness on tap. This is still quite a small phenomenon, but I do see stuff like Freedom and Moravka in more and more pubs. These are styles we’re used to seeing on keg, so its not so much of a shock to “normal” drinkers.

    3. You occasionally, occasionally, see a keg IPA like Punk or Jaipur on tap in a pub, normally sitting between Hoegaarden, Fruli and Leffe. Those are the brands its competing with. Whenever I’ve had one, they’ve been no more expensive than the premium lagers.

    Pubs with all three of the above are what you might call the “pseudo craft beer bars” that are slowly appearing. There are still very few places that do more than 2 UK craft keg beers outside of London.

  4. Neither 1, nor 2 is true. Craft (however defined) is a welcome addition by providing choice and attracting new drinkers, however weird or geeky they may be and it is spreading mainly by complementing offers in established pubs.

    pY0 is on the money.

  5. Agree with py0’s first point.

    Drawing comparisons with the food industry, it’s taken the advent of affordable, international travel to widen the culinary horizons of the UK. Even then, depending on your location, it has taken a while to easily get exotic ingredients that whilst common now, 30 years ago most people hadn’t heard of. And that’s with the TV chef evangelism and column inches food gets.

    I think the beer offer will become more varied but it will take a change of mindset from the pubcos, the same way the big supermarkets have varied their offer, for it to reach all parts of the UK.

    As for lack of beer choice in the ‘real world’, Swindon with a population of just over 200k, the largest town or city without its own university, is almost a craft beer desert. There are two pubs that occasionally have beer from some of the newer Bristol brewers, one of these has Freedom lager on keg and has a couple of US craft beers in bottle. No keg ale as far as I’m aware and I can’t see it happening any time soon.

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