Is craft beer in the UK (definition 2) hopelessly exclusive to those on a budget or are there ways in?
We got thinking about this in response to two Tweets, the first from Mark Dexter…
Lager vs Elitist Lager.
Because the tiny one is "Craft" it is more expensive despite being lower in alcohol.
Craft – Gordon Gekko's drink. pic.twitter.com/Roftkuxxy8
— Mark Dexter (@RealMarkDexter) June 25, 2017
…and the second from Tony Naylor who writes about food and drink for the Guardian and other publications:
You can't glibly talk about the social cohesion pubs foster & simultaneously charge £5 pint (and north…) for a basic session pale.
— Tony Naylor (@naylor_tony) June 25, 2017
Mark (former blogger, actor, doesn’t like 330ml bottles) went on to argue that those who suggested paying it was reasonable to ask more for a better product were essentially saying, ‘Screw poor people. Let them drink piss.’ (His words.)
This is something that nags at us somewhat. A few years ago we suggested that breweries might consider finding a way to offer an entry level beer at a reasonable price by, for example, being pragmatic about hops and shooting for a lower ABV.
This time, though, we thought about it slightly differently: even if breweries can fix this, why should they? What Mark is really complaining about is capitalism and social inequality — some people own big houses, others rent little ‘uns; some have Mercs, others secondhand Skodas, and so on. (See also @craftqueer’s Twitter thread on this subject.)
So, working with the system we’ve got, we asked ourselves: is there any way to get a genuine taste of the craft beer lifestyle on a slab-of-lager budget?
- We want to suggest beers that we actually enjoy drinking…
- …and that are representative of major trends in craft beer.
- Without overthinking it we want to rule out faux craft beers whose packaging promises more than the beer delivers, even if they are cheap.
- Carling Lager is currently £1.65 per litre at Tesco. There’s not much to compete with that. But a slab of 18 cans costs £13 so we’re going to see what you can get for that money.
- Bang for buck counts for something so we’ll include information on price per litre (PPL) and price per unit of alcohol (PUA).
- We’ve used supermarkets for the purposes of this exercise for the sake of universality. In fact, we’ve stuck to one supermarket (Tesco) because running back and forth between several takes time, which as we all know is money. But…
- Local indie stores often have competitive prices on comparable beers and we suspect most will give great personalised advice on how to spend £13 if you ask.
Hoppy, Fruity, Sour and Funky
We have to start with a flowery, tropical, in-your-face IPA and the one that springs to mind is BrewDog Punk. At 330ml it’s usually about the same price as Thornbridge Jaipur (£1.80-£2) but several supermarkets carry 660ml ‘bombers’ and at Tesco they’re £3 each — £4.55 PPL, 81p PUA. Punk is one of the core beers of the past decade’s craft beer moment with a fascinating history and, in our experience, tastes consistently great.
Budget remaining: £10
Sticking with BrewDog, their Elvis Juice is alsowidely available in supermarkets at £1.80-£2 per 330ml. Tesco sells it at £1.90. It’s a solid representation of a controversial evolution of the IPA style: rather than just evoking grapefruit through hops, it actually contains a slug of grapefruit juice. One bottle ought to be enough to get the gist and thus entitle you to wade into internet arguments dismissing or supporting the entire trend, depending on your findings. It’s strong — 6.5% ABV — so the bang for buck is decent: £5.76 PPL, 88p PUA.
Budget remaining: £8.
Another important trend, on the wane now, perhaps, has been using Belgian saison as the basis for Frankenstein-like style experiments. These aren’t quite so supermarket friendly but there is one great example available via Tesco at £2 per 330ml can (£6 PPL, 87p PUA): Stone Cali-Belgique, at 6.9% ABV. It’s billed as a Californian IPA made with Belgian yeast — neither one thing nor the other — and we love it. What’s the catch? The stuff in Tesco is actually brewed in Berlin, which may or may not matter to you.
Budget remaining: £6
Another controversial trend is for sour beers. Wouldn’t it be good if there was an accessible but convincing take on this available in supermarkets? Well, there is: the 6% ABV Thornbridge Tart, currently available at even our Tesco here in Penzance, at £2 for 330ml (£6.07 PPL, £1.01 PUA). It’s an otherwise clean beer and the sourness, as the name suggests, is relatively gentle — it won’t turn your teeth inside our or anything.
Budget remaining: £4
There has to be a strong, rich stout in here but, unfortunately, that’s an area where the supermarkets fall down. To get an idea of the style — and because we really do think it’s a great beer — we’re going to bend one of our own rules and suggest a craftified beer from Guinness, Antwerpen Stout at 8% ABV. Tesco sell it for £2.10 per 330ml — £6.37 PPL, 80p PUA. Honestly, pedigree aside, it’s the equal of a lot of the beers you see going for £5 per half pint in craft beer bars.
Budget remaining: £1.90
Finally, another trend of recent years has been session IPA, which has seen American and American-inspired brewers taming their big IPAs until they end up in about the same place as British brewers amping up their golden ales. As well as being trendy, these beers are also highly commercial: you can drink a few without getting slaughtered, and they seem relatively approachable to drinkers reared on English bitter. Accordingly, Tesco stocks a few at around the same price:
- Fourpure Session IPA — 4.3% ABV, £1.80 per 330ml can, £5.46 PPL, £1.28 PUA
- Oskar Blues Pinner — 4.9% ABV, £1.90 per 330ml can, £5.36 PPL, £1.09 PUA
- Stone Got To IPA — 4.7% ABV, £1.90 per 330ml can, £5.80 PPL, £1.18 PUA
All these beers are decent takes on the style — rather thin and abrasive for our tastes, in general — so it’s up to you whether you want to buy local-ish and save 10p with Fourpure (London), stay authentically American with Oskar Blues, or try something in between with Stone, actually brewed in Berlin.
Budget remaining: 0
So, there you go — six different styles, 2.3 litres of often pretty strong beer in total, for £13.
What’s missing? Well, there’s nothing really crazily creative there but, as Dave S has pointed out, that’s actually the cherry on top of craft beer rather than the core of its being.
And sweet, cloudy New England IPA has yet to make it to Tesco yet either as far as we can see. (But give it six months and it probably will, probably via BrewDog.)
EXTRAS: Establishing a Mood
For an additional one-off payment of about £4 you could add a couple of helpful accessories.
First, a guidebook. We don’t read or get excited about beginners’ guides ourselves these days but there’s no denying their value in the early stages of an obsession. The latest ones are glossy, beautiful hardbacks at more than a tenner a go but you can pick up used copies of slightly older books, with 90 per cent of the same info, for a quid or two in many charity shops, or £2.80, delivered, from Amazon. The author doesn’t get any royalties that way but if you’re really on a tight budget they probably won’t begrudge it.
Then, there’s glassware. You don’t need a super fancy, super delicate, specially designed vessel that resembles a sex toy, but psychologically it’s quite good to have your own Special Glass. It sets the mood, basically. The great news is that the best, coolest, most fun glasses are found in charity shops. Some of our favourites cost 50p.
Or Don’t Bother
Another thing we grappled with — we’re always grappling, us — was the essentially patronising nature of this exercise. But it’s better than head-in-the-sand ignoring the issue, we suppose, and at least it’s a somewhat positive response.
Ultimately, though, craft beer is only a hobby. No-one ever died from drinking slightly sub-optimal beer, and it all gets you tipsy in the end. Until such time as brewing is nationalised being fussy is always going to be a luxury, even if you stick to the ruthlessly discounted hard-ball end of the market.
For our part we rarely buy really expensive beer — not because we couldn’t afford to if we really wanted but because we’ve yet to be convinced that there are many £15 beers that are four times as enjoyable as a pint of Proper Job in the Yacht Inn, or seven times as much fun as a any of the beers listed above.
As ever, your thoughts are welcome — comment below. And if any retailers want to steal this idea and offer curated Budget Craft Beer Experience boxes, go for it.