The cask ale we’ve enjoyed the most this year was probably Oakham Citra (4.2% ABV) at the Wellington in Birmingham, which we could still taste all the way back to Penzance. But the cask beers we’ve enjoyed most often have to be St Austell Proper Job, St Austell Tribute, Spingo Middle, Penzance Brewing Co. Potion 9 and — brace yourselves — Bass Pale Ale. Let’s warm up by making sense of that:
When high street wine retailer Oddbins sent us a press release announcing a 179% increase in sales of craft beer in their stores during the last year, we immediately wondered how they were defining the term.
For retailers, this isn’t a purely academic question: they just want to keep track of whether people are buying whatever the hell craft beer is, and whether they should invest more in it in 2014.
(Wouldn’t it be interesting if Oddbins became the first national chain of high street craft beer shops? As it is, they’ve decided to get into the brewing game with an own-brand ‘collaboration’ beer, pictured left.)
Anyway, here’s what we gleaned from a few email exchanges with Oddbins’ PR people and head office staff:
1. The opposite of ‘craft beer’ is ‘mainstream beers’, which list includes Hoegaarden, Spitfire, Bishop’s Finger, Hobgoblin, Stella Artois, Fosters, Peroni, Nastro Azzurro, Becks and Corona.
2. They believe ‘craft beer’ must be local, and so even some beers they consider non-mainstream are not included in their ‘craft beer’ category, e.g. Septem, Fix and (this is where the fault-line might lie) Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
3. Here’s their rather mission-statement-like definition in full: ‘… brewed by relatively small brewers and cider producers, local to our shops, who make beer or cider of outstanding quality with passion and integrity’. It won’t stand up to much challenge in a debating hall — ‘If a customer returns a bottle because of lack of passion, do you give refunds?’; ‘How much passion is there in your cash-in own-brand craft beer?’ — but it gives them something to work with.
4. These are some of the brewers whose beers they think are in the ‘craft’ category:
5 Points Alechemy Art Brew Beartown Beavertown Bristol Beer Factory Burnside By the Horns Celt Experience Cheddar Ales Compass Deeside East London Brewing Co Fallen First Chop Fyne Ales Innis & Gunn Joe’s Cider Kernel Knops Liverpool Organic London Fields Long Man Millwhites
Moncada Old Dairy Once upon a Tree Palmers Perrys Pressure Drop Quantum Red Willow Redchurch Rocky Head Shotover Speyside Stewarts Sunny Republic Tempest Tickety Brew Tryst Vale Brewery Wild Beer Windsor & Eton XT Brewing
Innis & Gunn might be the most controversial inclusion — few geeks have much time for what they (we) see as a range of novelty beers with nice labels. On the whole, though, it’s the kind of thing we’d expect to find if someone told us a shop up the road was selling ‘craft beer’.
There is some kind of discernible shape there in the fog.
In 1989, Roger Protz provided The Guardian with a round-up of the best beers available from the high street for drinking at home. Across all the major supermarkets of the time (including Gateway…) he found homebrew kits, Pilsner Urquell, Budvar, Tatra Pils (Poland), Tiger lager, Old Peculier, some nasty-sounding, very weak own-brand German lagers, plastic bottles and cans. Among the oddities were Thurn and Taxis Kristall Weizen in Tesco and Biere de Garde Jenlain at Sainsbury’s. There was no American beer and not much from the UK that wasn’t bitter, mild or very weak lager. There’s a sense that he was really hunting to find anything worth writing about.
In 1991, for the same paper, he wrote (with disclaimers about American beer) of the appearance of Anchor Steam and Brooklyn Lager, along with German and Belgian wheat beers, in specialist off-licences. Most branches of Tesco, he said, now had an interesting selection of imported beers including ‘Belgian monastic ales‘.
In 1993, Stuart Walton, writing for The Observer under the headline ‘Designer Beers’, declared that ‘waves of new beers from several sources have been hitting our shores unrelentingly’, and mentioned a few new arrivals, among them Timmerman’s Framboise and Schöfferhoffer wheat beer. (He was also excited about Corona and Kirin lagers.)
By 1994, Protz was able to report that an imported beer craze was in full swing, and his round-up included news that Sainsbury’s had launched, of all things, an own-brand gueuze, joining a Trappist beer and a bottle-conditioned English ale on their shelves. Safeway, meanwhile, were selling an attractively packaged box-set of ten British ales with a substantial booklet of tasting notes by Barrie Pepper. In the next ten years, as we remember fondly, the same supermarket would introduce an own-brand Kölsch ‘Cologne-style Lager’, Vienna lager, wheat beer and raspberry wheat beer, courtesy of Greenwich’s Meantime.
In a sense, that would seem to be a high-point of enthusiasm for beer on the part of supermarkets which have since stepped back a bit from the weirdness of gueuze and own-brand beer writing. A decent selection is now standard in most supermarkets, with occasional festivals and pushes.
Its worth noting, however, that the CO-OP, which Protz declared a write-off in 1989, now generally has as wide a selection of beer as Tesco had at that time when he declared them the best on the high street.
For those who are interested, in 1989, Budvar was 75p for 330ml; Urquell £1.25 for 660ml; Tatra Pils was £2.09 for a pack of four bottles of unspecificed size; and Old Peculier was £1.79 for three bottles.
In the Blitz-like spirit of fellowship that enveloped the Olympic park in Stratford during the Olympics, we found ourselves sharing a tiny table at Tap East with a lovely, chatty middle-aged couple. Conversation turned, naturally, to pubs, at which point they dropped this bombshell:
“We were in a pub in Greenwich the other day where they’d put the price of Foster’s up to £5.90 a pint for the tourists.”
Astounding, spiv-like behaviour, if it’s true, but good to hear that punters refused to play along:
“They had to drop it again when there were complaints and they had no customers for two days.”
From what we observed, the places in London which were quietest during the Olympics were grotty, money-grubbing tourist traps. Everywhere else seemed to be doing a reasonable trade for the (soggy) dog-days of August.