Category Archives: Generalisations about beer culture

The Post Craft World

Illustration: beer on a table.

It is inevitable that, by the time a trend goes ‘mainstream’, those who first championed it will be moving on. And so it is with ‘craft beer’.

2014 is set to be the year of craft beer, with the term ‘craft ales‘ leaking into everyday usage, while Wetherspoon’s, big regional brewers and supermarkets have gone into overdrive slapping the words onto every receptive surface.

So of course the cognoscenti, after some years of grumbling, have begun to reject the phrase outright.

We think it’s partly that they’re just bored of hearing it. They’re certainly bored of the debate about what it means, even as they’re drawn to join in.

It is also, however, gaining some distinctly negative connotations: we recently noticed a former noted craftophile describing a dodgy pint as ‘a bit too craft’ the other day.

Apart from BrewDog, we haven’t spoken to many brewers to whom we would apply the term who like or use it themselves.

In fact, these brewers from New Zealand have suggested an alternative…

Post craft

The elements of ‘craft beer’ people seem to be reacting against are sloppiness, inconsistency and sometimes downright dirtiness. The appetite for novelty doesn’t seem to be diminishing just yet, but there is perhaps now less appetite for bankrolling other people’s playtime: people are beginning to demand cleanness and consistency, and to reward those breweries which deliver it.

Or, to put it another way, people are realising that undisciplined, amateurish, enthusiastic ‘punk’ music is far more fun to listen to than ‘punk’ beers are to drink.

And after that?

The abandonment of ‘craft beer’ by the geeks won’t mean the sudden resurgence of ‘real ale’. Not yet, anyway: we can well imagine, in a few years time, a cutting-edge revivalist movement founded on brown bitter brewed in dodgy old barns, with crystal malt, Fuggles and Goldings.

Everything becomes cool again given time.

The Pub Curmudgeon and Pete Brown have also both considered the ‘craft beer’ trend (or fad) in recent posts.

Beer glasses held aloft.

These Craft Ales We’ve Heard About

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):

Graph: UK searches for 'craft ale' and 'boutique beer'.

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.

Revisiting the Spread of Craft Beer

craft_invasion

In February 2013, we reflected on just how far ‘craft beer’ had spread beyond the trendy bits of major cities. Our conclusion then was that it was a ‘noisy niche’ rather than mainstream.

But a lot has happened in the last year.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

The Ordinary Pub is a Premium Product

A knackered old pub sign.

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’.

The Enjoyability of Beer Vs. Expectation

Vintage Rhenania Beer Advertisement.

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
  • Delightful
  • Enjoyable
  • Drinkable
  • “Meh”
  • Unpleasant
  • Un-drinkable
  • Disgusting

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.