While geeks and industry types have been bickering over how to define ‘craft beer’, and whether to use the term at all, an alternative seems to have come out of nowhere:
Gone are the days when going for a pint meant a musty ale or a tasteless lager. There are now over 800 breweries in the UK and the production of small scale craft ale is big business.
So said Michel Roux Jr. on last night’s edition of the BBC’s Food & Drink (iPlayer), but he’s not the only one. Here’s a line from a recent column by Pete Brown for London Loves Business:
Eight quid these days gets you quite an average bottle of wine. It could get you an amazing bottle of craft ale.
The other day, one of our non-beer-geek friends from London texted us to say: ‘There’s a new pub near us with loads of craft ales — you’ll love it!’
When satirical news website The Daily Mash ran a beer story last week, its headline was CRAFT ALE PUB HAS 998 VERY SIMILAR TYPES OF BEER.
But those are anecdotes and bits and pieces: what does our old friend Google Trends say? Here’s a graph showing UK searches for ‘craft ale’ (blue) along with ’boutique beer’ for comparison (red):
Both trail a looooong way behind ‘craft beer’, but there is a fairly obvious increase in their use during 2013.
We wouldn’t be surprised to see ‘craft ale’ really take off, despite the grumblings of beer geeks (‘This is actually bottom-fermented, so it’s not technically an ale…’) for some of the same reasons ‘real ale’ proved so appealing in the 1970s: it sounds more British than ‘craft beer’ and recognises tradition and nostalgia. It also bridges the gap between the dominant Campaign for Real Ale rhetoric and Brewdog’s cult-like chanting.
‘Can’t they just call it “beer”?’ some will say, wearily rolling their eyes. The fact is, people find categories helpful when making consumer choices, which is why Waterstones don’t just call them ‘books’ and bung them in a big skip, why there are ‘budget’ and ’boutique’ hotels, and how the ‘gourmet burger’ has come to exist.
But a lot has happened in the last year.
- We said a ‘craft beer bar’ in Truro would be a sign of ‘mainstreaming’: that hasn’t happened, but there is now a bottle and jug shop selling beers from Weird Beard, Brewdog and other pointedly ‘craft’ brewers.
- The same team opened a ‘craft beer micropub’ in Exeter (pop. 117,000) before Christmas — the last decent-sized, student-filled UK city to be without one?
- The Teign Cellars opened in Newton Abbot (pop. 24,000) in May, selling beers from breweries such as The Kernel and Magic Rock in sleepy Devon.
- The Hub, a posh burger and BBQ bar in St Ives, Cornwall, has amped up its ‘craft beer’ offer, serving beer from, e.g. the Wild Beer Company, from cask, keg and bottle, with (CRAFT KLAXON!) ⅓-pint measures available.
- Beyond the West Country, in Royal Tunbridge Wells (pop 55,000), Fuggles Beer Cafe appeared towards the end of last year.
Are bars and shops also opening outside major cities in parts of the country we know less well? We suspect so, and intelligence will be gratefully received.
Our guess is that, though ‘craft beer’ still doesn’t have an outpost in every town in the country, it might not be far off by the end of 2014.
Once, beer was more or less beer.
Then along came whatever you want to call it (premium/designer/craft beer), and discount supermarket beer, and two extremes were established: bang-for-buck vs. taste.*
In the middle, though, remained good, solid, standard beer — a trade-off between price and taste, affordable to most.
But, we belatedly realised last night, good, solid, standard beer in an ordinary pub has become a premium product, largely due to taxation.
By choosing to drink somewhere other than your own house, you are making a decision to ‘upgrade’ your experience, and paying (where we live) up to an extra £2 a pint for the privilege.
It’s a bit like choosing to eat a pizza in a restaurant rather than at home.
The pubs that seem best equipped to survive in this new arrangement are those which are able to offer something unique.
For example, our local Dock Inn, among its many other charms, has exclusive rights on the distribution of Blue Anchor Spingo in Penzance — a good, solid, standard beer, but a different one, generally served in tip-top condition.
* We’ve used ‘taste’ deliberately because it covers both ‘flavour’ and the feeling of exercising ‘discernment’.
Is it possible to untangle the experience of drinking a beer from the expectation of how it will taste?
Here’s what we think are the spectrum of reactions to the experience of tasting beer without reference to expectation:
- Instantly in top ten
But we very rarely taste beers blind, and so, as well as their objective ‘enjoyability’, we also find ourselves assessing to what extent a beer has met our expectations.
We expected Innis & Gunn Bourbon Stout to be disgusting but actually found it drinkable. We described it on Twitter, however, as ‘surprisingly enjoyable‘: the surprise added to the overall pleasure of the experience, even if the beer itself isn’t something we’d buy again. (Is that what’s going on here, too?)
On the flipside, there are breweries and beers surrounded by so much hype that they can only be a disappointment, even if the product itself is, objectively speaking, in the green zone on our scale. For example, if we’re promised a ‘metric fuck-ton’ of hops but only get a 0.65 fuck-tons, we might feel let down, even if that’s actually more than enough.
We’re always amused by gang warfare in the world of beer, which we observe from up on the fence, refusing to take colours.
This attempt to map the various groups ought to be some kind of Venn diagram, really, but when we tried, it looked a mess, so text will have to do.
1. Extremophiles — only drink the sourest, hoppiest, strongest, rarest beers. Find almost everything bland and boring. Need pain to feel… anything.
They are a small subset of…
2. ‘The Crafterati’ — constantly seek novelty and variety; will try anything once; are easily bored; and hard to please. May come across as wankers.
They are descended from and overlap with both…
3. The Bières Sans Frontières crowd – started on Düsseldorf Alt beer and Anchor steam in the 70s, but, by the 90s, championed sour Belgian beer and citrusy US IPA in the UK.
4. The real ale hop-heads – began to grumble about the blandness of regional/family brewery bitter in the 1980s; welcomed beers from Brendan Dobbin and Sean Franklin in the 90s. Not much time for sour or cloudy beer. Fussy.
Both evolved from…
5. Mainstream CAMRA — drink only real ale but abhor anything too ‘flowery’ or that in any way resembles lager (that is, not brown). Might go mad occasionally and drink mild or stout. Can seem rather dogmatic.
They have a lot in common with…
6. Bitter drinkers — not very interested in dispense or politics, know what they like. Drinking bitter is a statement of identity.
Doesn’t it seem inevitable that those in groups 1-4, to whom variety and intensity of flavour are most important, are bound to disagree more often about which breweries they like?