There’s been the odd brewery closure in the last year, most of which we’ve taken note of without regarding them as HARBINGERS OF DOOM. But maybe we’re being complacent.
Breweries come, and breweries go, but the overall number continues to climb. Now that we live in a country with 1,800 breweries it’s hilarious to read articles from the early 1980s in which people fret about how crowded the microbrewery market was becoming with something like 35 in operation UK-wide.
If a brewery closes every now and then, even if it’s a tragedy for those involved, it’s part of the healthy operation of the market.
But what if you do that thing that people hate and categorise breweries: is the ‘craft’ end of the market (def 2.) in more trouble than the brewing sector as a whole?
We ask because this Tweet from Craig Heap grabbed our attention:
We’d missed the news about Otley. If you’d asked us to name Welsh craft breweries without reference to other sources we’d probably have mentioned the three in that Tweet plus Tiny Rebel (still going strong), which makes this seem rather concerning.
If we could somehow come up with a list of the UK’s Most Definitely Craft Breweries, how many would there be? And what would the attrition rate look like compared to breweries overall? We’ve a sudden creeping feeling that, with closures at one end and takeovers at the other, it might be noticeably worse.
Or maybe we’re just not paying attention to all the old-school microbreweries that are also folding, quietly, in market towns and villages where the neon don’t shine?
The English Public House As It Is, a book by social observer Ernest Selley, was published in 1927. Re-reading it in search of a reference, we spotted a passage that hadn’t previously grabbed our attention.
In it, Selley reports on his visit to The Fellowship Inn, Bellingham, South London (pictured above when we visited in August), where he met someone who was unimpressed with the new style of ‘improved public house’:
Evidently this man is a member of what I once heard described as ‘The Flea and Sawdust School’; one of the type which prefers the stuffy ‘coziness’ of the dirty, ill-ventilated taproom to any of the ‘new fangled’ ideas.
Some ancestor of The Pub Curmudgeon, perhaps? (That’s not us having a go: we suspect he’ll quite like the comparison.)
It’s interesting to us that this lobby, which we associate with a certain wing within CAMRA today, was sufficiently well-developed by the mid-1920s for Selley to say he had ‘met several of these critics’, and for it to deserve a nickname. It was clearly, as they say, ‘a thing’.
Also of note, in the section that immediately follows, is an account of early beer snobbery: Selley records a meeting with a bloke who won’t drink at the local improved pub because ‘the beer is rotten’. Selley says he tried it and found it anything but ‘rotten’. In his view the man was prejudiced because he resented the posher, more expensive pub, even though Selley was sure he would have enjoyed the very same beer served at the more down-to-earth ‘Pig and Whistle’. We can’t say for sure what was really going on — Selley was prejudiced too in his own way, in favour of improved pubs — but this kind of debate about value, quality, and the qualities of a ‘proper pub’ is certainly still going on 90 years later.
If we’re in a bubble, then the bubble is getting bigger, or getting crowded, or leaking, or something.
There is a prevalent idea that beer geeks over-estimate the impact of what’s going on with beer at the moment because they’re — we’re — in a kind of echo-chamber. We’re inclined to agree with that up to a point, but then things like this do keep happening.
1. A friend from university who as far as we recall had no particular interest in beer back then, has started a brewery in Japan. A proper one, and apparently successful. He was in the UK recently taking part in a collaboration brew with a well-established British outfit. It’s all over Facebook and it weirds us out, in a quite delightful way. (Hakuba Brewing Co.)
2. Another old pal tells us that his best friend from secondary school has opened a specialist beer shop, where he was himself working the occasional shift until recently. (The Dronfield Beer Stop.)
BrewDog has just announced LIVE beer (their capitalisation) — a version of their session-strength Dead Pony Club packaged with live yeast and conditioned in the keg.
Of course they are obliged to present it as a great breakthrough, and deny that it’s anything like CAMRA approved real ale, for the sake of pride, just as CAMRA could only grudgingly approve of certain keg beers after much soul-searching. (See Chapter 14 of Brew Britannia for more on that.)
The thing is, quite apart from the fact we’ve been hearing gossip about this for months — tales of Martin Dickie and team earnestly studying cask ales with notebooks in hand in Scottish pubs, a false rumour of cask ale’s imminent reinstatement at certain BrewDog bars — it was inevitable BrewDog would do something with live yeast at some point.
Imagine how annoying it must be to know, in your heart of hearts, that beers with live yeast are interesting, are a part of tradition with a compelling story, are the beer equivalent of stinky cheese and sourdough bread, but that you’ve made it a point of principle not to do it in large part because your ‘brand values’ (modern, hip) are at odds with the Campaign for Real Ale’s (traditional, curmudgeonly), as well as for convenience. Not very ‘craft’.
Now CAMRA are finding a way to live with kegs (of a sort), and BrewDog are finding a way to live with real ale (of a sort), is it too soon to start dreaming of demobilisation and street parties? And might we see a BrewDog stand at the Great British Beer Festival in 2017?