The past couple of months have seen a flurry of articles in the media that suggest the “craft beer” phenomenon has finally escaped from the bubble and gained wider attention. As Pete Brown writes here, the beer market will never be the same as it was.
But he also makes the point that it’s important to distinguish between a fad and a revolution. A fad is a cultural phenomenon that enjoys a brief moment in the sun, and may even for a short time seem unstoppable, but eventually disappears scarcely leaving a trace. You don’t see many people now drinking beer from the bottle with a slice of lime in the neck. A revolution, on the other hand, permanently changes the landscape. Lager was a revolution in the British beer market; so, like it or not, was nitrokeg “smooth”. For a while, though, it can be hard to tell which is which.
There’s currently a ferment of innovation and experimentation in British beer. When mainstream supermarkets create “craft beer” sections and Spoons start selling American craft beer in cans, it’s obvious something’s up. Some of these new developments will fall by the wayside, some will endure while never enjoying more than a niche appeal, but some will be taken up by the mainstream so in a few years they will seem normal. It could even be, as I suggested in the comments, that a constant search for something new will become the new mainstream.
It’s interesting to reflect on what trends in the beer market over the past few decades have gone from niche to mainstream appeal. The original, now-derided, wave of keg ales certainly did, and so did standard lager. In the early years of CAMRA, actively seeking out unusual or well-regarded beers became commonplace in a way it never was before. Even bog-standard pubs saw it as worthwhile to proclaim that they sold “real ale”. More recently, a widespread expectation has developed that the general run of pubs, and not just specialist alehouses, will offer rotating guest beers.
It’s now commonplace to find “world lagers” like Budweiser Budvar, Peroni, Estrella Damm and Brahma on tap but, oddly, despite the country arguably being the home of lager brewing, German lagers have never gained mass-market popularity. And, while not everyone’s cup of tea, so-called fruit ciders have become pretty mainstream in the past few years.
The current craft beer scene encompasses a number of disparate trends, and it’s hard to discern what is really going to catch on, and what isn’t. Probably the most obvious is the rise of intensely hoppy beers using new world hops, which has been reflected in the introduction of more mainstream beers like Adnams’ Ghost Ship and even Old Golden Hen. But the sheer intensity of flavour of many beers in the American IPA style may prove to be a limiting factor. The heavily peated Islay malt whiskies are widely respected, but they don’t tend to be the regular choice of even well-heeled whisky drinkers.
And the widely-reported market trends of a move to weaker beers, and to a sweeter flavour profile, may end up inhibiting the break-out of craft beer and keeping many of its strands within a limited niche.
Ghost Drinker writes here about how one of his locals has now been rebranded as a “craft ale house” but you do have to wonder whether that will end up sharing the fate of Whitbread’s Tut’n’Shive alehouse concept of twenty-odd years ago.