Climate Change and British Beer

The Guardian today features a story about the Cantillon brewery in Brussels which, owner Jean Van Roy says, is suffering as a result of climate change:

“Ideally it must cool at between minus 3C and 8C. But climate change has been notable in the last 20 years. My grandfather 50 years ago brewed from mid-October until May – but I’ve never done that in my life, and I am in my 15th season.”

This reminded us of an exchange we had with a senior figure at one of the larger British breweries last year who said that climate change was among their biggest long-term worries.

In particular, they suggested, cask ale still relies to a great extent on naturally cool pub cellars. (And, as a result, warm summers can already be a problem for cask ale quality.) If those summers last longer, and get hotter, traditional British beer will struggle. Cellar refrigeration is already common but might become absolutely necessary, even in pubs that haven’t needed it in the past.

That’s on top of concerns over how it might affect hop farming and malting barley; a nagging sense of guilt over the amount of water used in brewing; and about the amount of energy used to ship it, and its ingredients, very often under refrigeration.

We’d be interested to hear from others involved in brewing and the pub trade: is climate change on your ‘risk register’?

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.

Geeky bubble, overpriced beer

Sign advertising real ale in London, 2007.

People sometimes criticise ‘craft beer’ for being a bubble or niche; for being the preserve of a small group of geeks, obsessed with obscure, strong beers; paying outrageous prices for them in trendy, specialist outlets; and not interested in ‘normal’ drinking in their local. Now, why does that sound familiar?

…the Fox in Hermitage… [boasts] a battery of beer pumps that would keep a CAMRA-man boring away for hours… Three brews from Courages, Lowenbrau lager on draught, Worthington, Morlands and even John Smith’s Yorkshire bitter at 36p a pint. That’s just a sample and I’d not even heard of some of the bottled varieties… The pints in the White Horse — a less pretentious and more typical village pub — are from Morlands. Better kept in my opinion than at beerarama down the road, and only 29p for bitter in the public, as against 34p in the saloon in the Fox.

The Daily Express, 6 August 1978.

The Goose and Firkin found a ready market, predominantly young, affluent and mobile with most customers coming from outside the area. The Campaign for Real Ale called the pub ‘too crowded, too noisy and too expensive’. Prices were certainly aimed at the top end of the market, with beers such as Mind Bender and Knee Trembler made at much stronger levels than most national brands.

The Financial Times, 24 February, 1982.

Only 33 per cent of those questioned had heard of CAMRA… and 70 per cent said they would not go out of their way to find a pint of ‘real ale.’

NOP Market Research: The British Pub 1977, as reported in the FT, 29 July 1977.

The Campaign for Real Ale… achieved considerable publicity and was largely responsible for forcing the brewers to re-think their marketing strategies. However, of the 78 per cent of beer sales classified as draught, only about 14 per cent is accounted for by ‘real ale’. This share is likely to be maintained but it is not expected to expand greatly.

The Financial Times, 21 March 1979.

In the Shires Bar opposite Platform Six at London’s St Pancras Station, yesterday, groups of earnest young men sipped their pints with the assurance of wine tasters… There were nods of approval for the full bodied Sam Smith Old Brewery Bitter, and murmurs of delight at the nutty flavour of the Ruddles County beer… In one corner sat four young men sipping foaming pints. They were members of CAMRA… and prove their dedication by travelling three nights a week from Fulham in South West London — four miles away. One of them, 22-year-old accountant Michael Morris, said: ‘This place beats any of our local pubs.’

The Daily Express, 03 April 1978.

The real ale champs launched a bitter attack on greedy pub landlords yesterday — and ended up over a barrel themselves… The Campaign for Real Ale slammed pubs that cashed in on the craze then admitted that its own London pub charged at least 10p too much for an extra-strong brew.. the beer that caught CAMRA’s experts on the hop was the 70p-a-pint Theakston’s Old Peculier served up at the Nag’s Head in Hampstead… But landlord Steve Ellis was quick to scotch claims that he was profiteering… “We have to buy Old Peculier through an agency and it costs us a lot,” he said… [Roger] Protz said several pubs in Central London had been barred from the guide for cashing in on the real ale revival… One Whitehall pub charged 51p for a pint of Ruddles County and another in the West End sold Fuller’s London Pride for 44p. Both beers cost up to 9p less elsewhere, said Mr Protz.

The Daily Mirror, 18 April 1979.

How do you maintain a good beer culture?

En Español

La Ronda (the Spanish speaking version of the Session) takes on a weighty philosophical topic, with Jorge Mario of Columbia asking:

How do you construct, consolidate and maintain a good beer culture?

I’m going to define a good beer culture as one where there are lots of different breweries, and where there is a good range of beers available. In other words, there should be choice for the consumer. Spain has a great bar culture, but I would be being kind if I said there was a great beer culture there.

The question of creating a beer culture from scratch is a fascinating one, but I don’t feel I know enough to comment. (Perhaps some US bloggers could help?). But here’s a few suggestions for what you need to maintain a good beer culture.

Pride is good, but palate is better

It’s good to be proud of your brewing heritage. But it’s important to be proud for the right reasons — does it taste good? The Germans are very proud of their beer, but this usually translates to being proud of drinking your local beer, just because it’s local. When the big corporations take over local Germany breweries, they almost always keep the names and the brand identity.

Whereas I get the impression in Belgium that people are proud of the fact that Belgium produces such a weird and wonderful range of beer, and this must surely help maintain the hundreds of breweries that you find in this tiny country.

Get organised — grass-roots campaigning

You can’t really talk about the British beer scene without mentioning CAMRA. We have our little moans from time to time, but there’s no denying that CAMRA saved cask ale. In doing this, they have promoted a culture of supporting small breweries and offering choice to the consumer.

The focus of CAMRA on real ale can make for a “four-legs-good, two-legs-bad” mentality at times — all real ale must be good, and all “unreal” ale is bad. Then again, a narrow, well-defined focus makes for an effective campaign.

Support your local decent pub

This one is obvious really, but the easiest to put into action – if you have a good pub that is committed to offering a range of beers, support it! The UK would not be able to support the hundreds of breweries it does without all those pubs creating the demand, so get down to your local and start boozing!