Without over-thinking it, when confronted with six bottles of beer, we started with three that look a bit ‘craft’.
The six samples in question were sent to us to promote Sainsbury’s ‘Great British Beer Hunt’, in which breweries around the country compete to find favour with supermarket customers and secure a permanent listing in stores up and down the country.
‘Marketing term’ or otherwise, the three beers pictured above — Hilden Barney’s Brew, Williams Bros Gonny No Brew That! and Hardknott Infra Red — either use the word ‘craft’ on the labels or, we think, are dressed in ‘craft beer’ clothing. (Quirky design, distressed text, hyperbolic claims of extreme hoppiness, and so on.)
Some brief tasting notes
Barney’s Brew (5% ABV) is billed as a wheat beer with spices. It is crystal clear and amber-yellow and certainly powerfully flavoured: we were reminded of the syrup from a jar of preserved ginger, overlaid with an intense scented candle, mulled wine, shampoo-like aroma. It was also seemed a little musty. What we didn’t detect, really, was malt and hops, leaving us feeling that we were drinking a kind of fruit wine rather than beer. Despite that, one of us rather liked it.
Gonny No Brew That! (3.8%) sets itself up for a fall: ‘Hops, hops and more hops!’ claims the label. After an initial moment of disappointment — it isn’t especially aromatic or bitter after all that fuss — we enjoyed its straight-up tastiness. There is a pleasant perfume and an alluring hint of aniseed lurking on the edges, but otherwise, we found it a very sound example of a nineteen-nineties-style ‘golden ale’, or perhaps a souped-up Kölsch. Like Sharp’s Chalky’s Bite, but at half the strength, in fact.
Infra Red (6.2%) is described on the label as an ‘Oxymoronic IPA as hoppy as a bucketful of frogs’. First impressions weren’t all that good: the huge, Chimay-like head brought with it a whiff of something slightly stale and mousey. Thankfully, that passed after a second or two, being replaced by a green grassiness familiar to us from home brewing, no doubt the result of heavy dry-hopping. And that’s what we were reminded of most strongly — very good home brew, made with generous additions of good ingredients, but perhaps somewhat raw.
And some thoughts about craft beer
What we concluded from this pondering on our own gut reactions and prejudices is that we expect a product which presents itself as ‘craft beer’ to be unusual, intense and (in Michael Jackson speak) distinctive. The Williams Bros beer was the best of the three in absolute terms, but also suffered from the biggest disconnect between presentation and reality.
Brewers need to be careful that, in jumping on a ‘craft beer’ bandwagon, they don’t end up like exploitation movie moguls, luring in punters with promises of titillation upon which the product doesn’t deliver.
While perhaps not many brewers would be happy to have their beer described as being like home brew, we’re also coming to the conclusion that it seems quite appropriate for a self-proclaimed ‘craft beer’ to exist in that territory.
Bonus disclosure: quite apart from the fact that Sainsbury’s sent us these and three other beers for nowt, we should also mention that we have been in correspondence with Dave Bailey of Hardknott while researching our book.