How far has the idea of craft beer spread?

Beer bottle: Harbour Porter No 6

In this post, we’re using ‘craft beer’ to refer to breweries who define themselves or some of their products using that term.

As people ponder the contrast between beer consumption and brewery numbers, two views are emerging at extremes of the spectrum of opinion:

1. Beer has begun its inevitable and long-awaited ascendancy — soon every pub will stock a vast range of interesting beer, there’s no reason the number of breweries should ever stop rising, and everyone will be drinking it. Just look at London. Soon, everywhere will be London! Endless London! Rejoice!

2. Beer is doomed — craft beer is a pathetic little bubble — an idea with no appeal to anyone but geeks. You can’t judge anything by what’s going on in that London. Look at downward overall beer consumption and pub numbers and repent, crafterati! Repent!

From our vantage point up here on the fence, we’ve seen some evidence that craft beer is an idea that is breaking out, if not, perhaps, ‘sweeping the country’, and has some distance left to run.

Our recent trip to Falmouth left us rather astounded as we realised that, in a town with a population of 20,000, there are at least four pubs/bars selling bottled and kegged craft beer (e.g. Five Degrees West, Beerwolf, The Front, Hand Bar) and apparently doing well at it. Self-consciously ‘craft’ local breweries like Rebel of Penryn and Harbour seem to be gaining a foothold in an increasing number of outlets, and the ‘craftier’ end of Sharp’s output is getting easier to find. There’s even a posh off-licence which stocks Mikkeller — one of the horsemen of the craftpocalypse?

Let’s move the goalposts, though, before someone else does: Falmouth is a university town, and full of middle class yachting types, so it doesn’t paint a true picture. What about the real world, Lord and Lady Fauntleroy?

Dammit. Banged to rights. In ‘working towns’ in Cornwall (definition on demand), we’ve seen less evidence of craft beer in the wild. Oddly, it is Molson-Coors-owned Sharp’s that are perhaps having the most impact: it’s a shock to walk in to a bog standard pub and find beers such as Stuart Howe’s Triple A — a cask ale fermented with Belgian yeast — or Hayle Bay Honey IPA, alongside Doom Bar, the ultimate sweetly bland ‘Cornish ale’. The grizzled fellers propping up the bar might find his experiments a bit ‘weird’, but these beers do seem to sell, perhaps because they’re strong.

Otherwise, though, it’s cafes, restaurants and gourmet burger joints where craft beer pops up most often, but, even then, it’s likely to be alongside bottles of execrable contract brewed but nicely branded ‘gift shop beer’, or skunked Corona-aping ‘Cornish lager’: there’s not much indication that local restaurateurs are really engaged with beer in the same way they are with, say, beef, or bread.

If, in six month’s time, there is a craft beer bar in Truro (not a ‘pop up’), and a pub in Penzance which regularly stocks Harbour or Rebel, then we’ll feel comfortable saying that ‘craft beer’ has gone at least a little bit mainstream. Until then, it remains a noisy niche.

Bad beer or an acquired taste?

Shepherd Neame India Pale Ale

We’ve had an interesting and rather educational experience with Shepherd Neame in the last few weeks which all started with this review of their Christmas Ale. We thought there was something wrong with it — something beyond a matter of house style or ‘characterful’ yeast. SN’s ever-patient in-house marketing man, John Humphreys, was disappointed we hadn’t liked it and asked if he could send us a few more beers to try, which is how we ended up with samples of the new India Pale Ale (6.1%), newly brown-bottled 1698 (6.5%) and Double Stout (5.2%).

Unfortunately, whatever it was that we found ‘wrong’ in the Christmas Ale was also present in both the IPA and 1698: neither of us could stand to drink them and they ended up down the sink after about half a bottle of each. At this point, we contacted John to break the bad news and let him know that we thought there was a production issue.

This troubled him and he decided to investigate. In a very civilised exchange, we shared the batch numbers of the bottles in question, along with more detailed notes on the ‘off’ flavours (‘bad breath’); he initiated the quality assurance (QA) process at their end; and kept us informed of progress. The conclusion, after bottles from those very batches had been retrieved from the QA ‘archive’ and tasted by brewers and QA managers, was that there were no detectable faults, and that the beers in question were excellent.

It’s possible that something went wrong on the long journey down to Penzance, though it seems unlikely. Far more likely, as John has suggested, is that Shepherd Neame beers have an intrinsic character we not only dislike but read as ‘off’.

Beers we do like, such as those from Harvey’s, have flavours that might be considered off — we’ve occasionally referred jokingly to Sussex Best as ‘the English Orval’ — and other bloggers and writers have certainly enjoyed these particular SN beers.

We can’t change our minds — we still found them undrinkable — but maybe we need to think a bit harder before calling ‘wrong’ in future, and perhaps also get our hands on something that can help us understand off-flavours in a more scientific manner.

The value of silly beer

Willy Wonka who, sadly, never made beer.
Who’s for Everlasting Beer?

There are some who argue that high-concept beers are, at best, pointless and, at worst, damaging to The Culture of Beer. For our part, though we rarely drink them and certainly don’t make much of an effort to seek them out, we sometimes find the ideas behind them funny, and feel, ultimately, that they have their place.

Within a given brewery’s range, silly beers can play the same role as the concept car, or those catwalk clothes that prompt people to say: “You’d never actually wear it out in a million years, would you?” They make a statement about values; they speak to the skill and imagination of the brewer; and they create buzz. Often, they’re impossible to find in the real world and prohibitively expensive when they do turn up, but that doesn’t really matter — it’s all about the halo effect. “I heard something about this brewery! Their head brewer is a genius!” says the consumer, and then chooses that brand of perfectly nice bitter or lager over another.

For drinkers, the benefit of such beers is negligible, though perhaps ingredients or techniques from the CRAZY!!! beer might help the brewer level up, and thus influence for the better something more mainstream they brew down the line. If you’re the kind of drinker afflicted with the need to ponder your pint, however, then WACKY!!! beers provide much needed input: the opportunity to be outraged; to question what beer is; and to articulate what exactly it is you do want.

Is thinking and talking about beer a good thing? If it helps to prevent a slow sleepwalk into monopoly and across-the-board blandness, then the answer is probably yes.

We were prompted to think about this by Elizabeth David who, in her book Italian Food, mentions the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti and his proto-Heston Blumenthal ‘futurist food’ manifesto.

The accidental science of beer

Beer is alive I tell you! Alive!
Beer is alive I tell you! Alive!

Our post on Friday prompted some needling from Alan at A Good Beer Blog: brewing great beer isn’t hard — it’s a ‘simple, traditional skill’. Then today, as promised, Ed chipped in with a typically sharp post querying how we ended up in what seems a topsy-turvy world where stainless steel automation is ‘craft’ and beer brewed using traditional methods isn’t. (It is to us, but our attempts to reclaim the word to include cask ale seem to have failed.)

With all that in our minds, it was odd that, from beyond the grave, Michael Jackson should chip in from the pages of an issue of The Times from 1980, reminding us that brewing’s status — art, craft, science, or something else? — has been confused for a long time, and is far from settled:

For all the painstaking research that has been done on the subject, brewing remains less of an exact science that it is an art. “Only recently have we begun to understand what a remarkable art it really is”, Professor Anthony Rose, a microbiologist wrote in the Scientific American some years ago. “The brewmaster, by trial and error, has been manipulating some of the subtlest processes of life.”

(Rose’s article, ‘Beer’, appeared in the June 1959 edition of the magazine, and lives behind a paywall here.)

Do brewers with degrees, labs and reference libraries, who understand why they do what they’re doing, make better beer than those who just knew it worked?

Try Jumping on This Bandwagon

As bigger British brewers move menacingly into ‘craft beer’ territory with pilot plants and US-inspired IPAs, is the increasing interest by smaller brewers in arcane and time-consuming brewing methods from Belgium and elsewhere an attempt to shore up the defences?

We know that some smaller brewers perceive what the bigger boys are doing as an attempt to ‘crush the rebellion’, scoffing at the idea that they’re being supportive or ‘joining in the fun’.

What the big boys aren’t yet equipped or prepared to do, it seems to us, is use many multiple yeast strains in the same brewery; mess around with wild yeast; indulge in complex Belgian-style brewing processes; or brew niche styles like saison with any serious intent.

That’s where craft brewers, branding and ‘values’ aside, can still make their mark. It’s also an opportunity to steal a slice of the speciality import market by offering an appealingly local alternative.

The risks? That the beer geeks don’t come with. Those Belgian beers are hard to match, let alone beat, and they’re still bizarrely cheap. Orval, admired as it is, is not universally enjoyed (we don’t really get it). Styles like lambic, a long-term investment and difficult to get right, are also a chin-stroking, thought-provoking hard sell, even to those inclined to take an interest.

This is the same process through which professional writers, if they want to keep earning at it, need to push themselves into territory where we amateurs aren’t ready or able to follow.