Wednesday, 11 June 2014

I see no craft

To paraphrase Admiral Lord Nelson – but, in most pubs, he wouldn’t even if he put his telescope to his good eye. Over the past few weeks, the better weather and the fact I’ve had a bit more time on my hands have given me the opportunity to get out and about visiting a few new pubs and reacquainting myself with old favourites. But it’s very noticeable how, in the vast majority, there’s scarcely a sign of the much-vaunted craft beer revolution.

As I wrote here, craft beer is as much an attitude of mind as a list of specific products, and a single craft keg tap does not make a pub a craft beer venue. But, if you look at the characteristic signs – the presence on the bar of cask ales from “cutting edge” breweries, the craft keg fonts and the fridge full of weird stuff from the UK and America – they’re in general conspicuous by their absence. I’m not including, by the way, Blue Moon, “world lagers” such as Estrella Damm or keg ciders from independent producers such as Aspall, Thatcher’s and Weston’s.

A fair number follow the well-trodden “multi beer alehouse” path, but even here the main concession to changing times seems to be a higher proportion of golden ales. Obviously, over the years the product mix changes, and certainly some of the more successful micro-breweries are now getting their beers on the bars of plenty of non-specialist pubs, including those run by the major pub companies. But that’s nothing that wouldn’t come within the general orbit of “real ale” as understood twenty years ago.

In many towns there’s now a kind of dedicated craft beer outlet - Shrewsbury, for example, has the Salopian Bar. But in most of the rest of the pubs there will just be a selection of real ales, some micro, some nationally-distributed, and the usual range of kegs and lagers. I asked a couple of years back whether we would see a craft keg tap becoming a standard feature in Spoons but so far, as far as I can see, it hasn’t, despite their ill-judged dabbling with US craft cans.

I suggested here that the full-on craft beer experience is something that is unlikely to make a decisive breakout from niche to mainstream. It hasn’t shown much sign of doing so in the past few years and, frankly, I suspect it never will beyond perhaps the assimilation of a handful of high-profile products. Maybe that’s the entire point of it.

42 comments:

  1. You need to get yourself a pair of the glasses Roddy Piper wears in the John Carpenter film "They Live"

    Then you'd see craft everywhere.

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  2. Maybe all the customers I see in Sam's pubs are actually dead people.

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  3. Sam's is craft, it does its own wheatbeer for goodness sake. Thats about as craft as it gets.

    Bit of a no true scotsman fallacy here. Anything in the maninstream can no longer be considered craft, therefore there is no craft in the mainstream.

    Spoons were stupid going for cans, a font would have been 30 times as successful. You can't say they didn't try though.

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  4. I'm just taking the rough definition of craft beer as put forward by those who champion it most loudly.

    Is Sam's craft, or Batham's, or Donnington? By many yardsticks, yes, but the crafterati seem to demand that craft is new, innovative, cutting edge and totally awesome.

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  5. Like the illuminati, the secret society that controls the world. It is everywhere, its symbols adorn buildings, currency, brand logos. The streets walked on are designed in the patterns of its symbology. But it is invisible to those that do not see.

    Craft beer is everywhere.

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  6. I like B&B's new definition, (mainly because they seem to have nicked it off me).

    In the UK, used to describe a ‘movement’ arising from c.1997 onwards which rejected not only ‘mass-produced’ beer but also the trappings of established ‘real ale’ culture.

    ie, anything that deliberately differentiates itself from the typical pub offerings of the mid 90s (ie cooking lager, strongbow, guinness and john smiths on keg, and mediocre brown bitter on cask).

    So anything from a Uk brewery that is deliberately different, often consciously influenced by the US, the continent, or largely forgotten british traditions is craft. Wheat beer, saison, dark lager, IPAs with US hops, that kind of thing. Most breweries have now do something along these lines, and a hell of a lot of pubs are now selling them.

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  7. Sam's is nearly craft.

    It has

    (1) Most of their beers as keg only
    (2) A large range of bottles with atypical labels
    (3) Owners that are...um..."eccentric ".

    The only thing they're missing is bucketloads of New World hops. Which by definition damns them to " non-craft" status.

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  8. @py - but if Robinson's brew a pale golden ale using a few American hops, it doesn't make them (in the eyes of the crafterati) a craft brewery, nor a pub that sells it a craft beer bar.

    I even saw Marston's Pedigree New World Pale Ale the other day which tasted a bit of grapefruit. It was occupying the sole guest beer pump in a Banks's-branded pub.

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  9. Stanley Blenkinsop11 June 2014 at 20:21

    There are three simple reasons why the craft beer " revolution " hasn't taken off.

    1.Too expensive
    2.Too expensive
    3.Too expensive

    End of.

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  10. The inspiration for Marston's Old Empire was Goose Island IPA.

    And Donnington brewery is a great one to bring in. I'm sure no American craft beer fan would say it is anything but craft, yet I doubt British craft beer fans would agree. Anyone for a pint of craft boys bitter?

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  11. You should've been in Liverpool on Saturday for the Beer Expo at The Camp & Furnace. A craftier beer festival I've yet to see.

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  12. Who are these mysterious crafterati and why should we listen to their stupid hipster views?

    If its influenced by American beer and their distinctive, its an attempt at a craft beer, end of story.

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  13. We are the mysterious crafterati, py. Me and you

    We love paying £8 a pop for undrinkable cloudy sludge and therefore see the world through the eyes of craft, speaking the language of craft.

    Therefore we see the craft all around us.

    Mudgie with his £2 pints of cheap bitter is oblivious to the craft that surrounds him and remain so until he puts his hand in his pocket and stumps up a shocking wedge of notes for a dodgy bottle of pish in a trendy bar. Then he will join us in the crafterati.

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  14. I was in the Red Lion in Leytonstone last night and although they had about eight cask beers on and nearly as many craft keg, the former were well outselling the latter. However, they do have Camden Hells as a regular lager and sell it at the same price as Kronenbourg or Amstel - my impression is that many lager drinkers now see the Camden as a mainstream choice, so is it craft anymore? They have also sold Camden Ink as their regular stout for some time, although this was partly to discourage certain local Guinness drinkers.

    The other local pub with craft beers is the William IV which is the home of Brodie's brewery. Tonight, they had maybe six cask and eight keykeg beers on but I didn't see anyone trying the keykeg. Biggest sellers here are Fosters, Stella and Guinness - it shows that you can't graft a craft beer range onto a traditional East London boozer and expect people to be interested. They do sell more keg when they have a festival or if there is a local event on but I can only think of a couple of regulars who might finish the evening with one of the stronger offerings.m

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  15. Of course its still craft.

    The keg is still horribly overpriced, of course no-one drinks it. You'd have to be stupid.

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  16. "The keg is still horribly overpriced, of course no-one drinks it. You'd have to be stupid."

    You don't, but it certainly helps.

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  17. I think the type of places that are now stocking craft beer is an important point. I don't know anywhere else in enough depth but in Leeds 'craft' has generally been led by independent bars/pubs and chains, and these have been noticeably growing. There must have been at least 10 bars/pubs opened in the last few years in the centre of town with a specific focus on craft, and are marketed as such.

    The "multi-beer alehouse" type places (as typified by the Market Town Taverns chain) have always had a focus on microbreweries, and they seem to have incorporated 'craft' pretty seamlessly.

    More interestingly, bar operators have been focusing more on it. Arc Inspirations (student/young professional as their target audience) have rebranded some of their outlets as 'The Pit' (http://arcinspirations.com/pit-chapel-allerton/menu/drinks), with a definite focus on craft. North Bar have been opening small suburban branches.

    Yes, the average pub may not seem to have been affected so much. But even then, there is a lot more choice in cask beer these days. With most pubs seemingly having a choice of at least 3 or 4, which is a fairly big difference to 10 odd years ago. Is that not all part of the same movement towards a greater recognition of good beer?

    All of this has meant that in the last 6 or 7 years we have moved from having maybe one dedicated 'craft' outlet in the city centre (North Bar), to a wide variety in the centre and a reasonable choice in the suburbs. If that's what someone wants they have the choice now, which previously wasn't there. That's a fairly big change for the consumer interested in 'craft'.

    Who knows where it will end up. I certainly can't see it withering away. I'm not sure whether it will edge into traditional pubs, but the drinking 'scene' has already been changed.

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  18. Anyone who has ever drank a kestrel lager has drank craft beer.

    http://www.marketingweek.co.uk/sectors/food-and-drink/news/kestrel-ends-30-year-tv-absence-with-unique-craft-beer-plan/4010815.article

    check out the website
    http://www.kestrelbeer.com/

    the tramps necking kestrel super are discerning craft beer drinkers.

    Craft is here.

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  19. Went for a pint in Lincoln today, even Varsity now has a craft beer section with numbered taps. Craft is everywhere. Its was all about £4 a pint so not bad at all. I imagine it will do well.

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  20. Wow, student-focused pub in cathedral city has craft section. Did you go in any other pubs like the Strugglers or the Victoria?

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  21. Who's cherry picking now Mudgie? A vaguely rough bar in a small northern town is by no means a typical craft beer venue. Have been in strugglers previously, it certainly had plenty of craft cask which I sampled. Can't remember/didn't notice the keg options.

    As long as there is one pub in the UK that doesn't sell craft keg, I suppose that will mean it hasn't conquered the mainstream?

    Whenever I say "there's plenty of craft in Cambridge" you say that Cambridge is as exception. Yet I see the same things in Lincoln and Nottingham.

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  22. Lincoln may be a bit rough-edged compared with Cambridge, but it's hardly "a small northern town".

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  23. Its a smallish town (pop 120k) on the same latitude as Runcorn. There are plenty of rough bits downhill, especially to the south and east. Some of the streets of the high street of it reminded me of the setting of "The Wire".

    if tha talk t' locals roand thur, 't certainly sounds like t' north.

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  24. By most people's standards somewhere with a population of 120,000 would qualify as a large town.

    As I've suggested before, maybe you should try craft-hunting in Thetford (pop 21,588) and let us know your findings.

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  25. guys, you've done thetford before.

    http://pubcurmudgeon.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/obscure-beer-syndrome.html

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  26. Which is why I said I'd suggested it before. Alternatively he could try one of the four small market towns in the Fenland district of Cambridgeshire - March, Wisbech, Chatteris and Whittlesey.

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  27. How about an independent view of the crap holes of England?

    http://www.craptownsreturns.co.uk/category/north/

    A quick google of the crappiest places mentioned here alongside craft beer and it's clear many of the dumpiest parts of this land now have craft beer.

    I've long thought that beer enthusiasm, craft beer et al is a conceit of the middle classes. The expansion of the middle class is a big social change occuring over decades. There are more graduates knocking about now than 50 years ago. So you would see all manner of middle class things expanding in popularity. From tofu to organic crap to cous cous. The working class has got smaller, and with it a lower demand for working class things like dumpy pubs.

    But even in the rougher towns, there is now craft beer. That means it's mainstream.

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  28. Bury St Edmunds has a craft beer bottle shop. didn't go in any pubs.

    Norwich had several craft beer bars when I visited a few months ago.

    The only reason I can't tell you the same thing about Chatteris etc is because I have had no reason to visit. I'm certain that if i did it would be no different to everywhere else.

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  29. I think mudgie is right about craft beer not really making its way into small town England significantly. But about half of the population live in settlements of over 100,000 (depending on how you define them).
    So I think it's reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of the population now has access to 'craft' beer. If you take Wetherspoons as a provider then that increases massively.

    Those places which are more 'vibrant' (urgh hate that word but couldn't think of a better one) are naturally going to be towards the front of such phenomena, whether it trickles down or not is a matter for debate. From what I am seeing In Leeds with the way it is breaking out from the centre into the suburbs I think there's a good chance it will. I did come across a new place in Newark (pop. 25k), which is very much craft: Magic Rock and Thornbridge on keg.

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  30. The view from Bristol: we have a few craft bars in the city centre, a BrewDog and maybe four or five others. A local brewery, Arbor Ales, has a pub which does their cask beers and crafty stuff. In the suburbs: nothing. No craft. Not a sausage. This applies to the working class suburbs and the posh ones alike. If you asked for a craft beer you would get the standard Bristol response: "Whassaat?"

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  31. The Old Stillage? An Arbor pub not in the centre. The Loungers bars generally have some sort of 'craft' offering.

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  32. @Rob, I was thinking of the Three Tuns, not the Stillage, which I don't get into much. Fair play to you if they do have craft on although I wonder how much they shift in that area. However, I still maintain that craft is an alien concept to most Bristolians, especially when they they hear the price. "Oi ain't payin' thaat" would be the expected response.
    (Tried to post a similar response a minute ago but it didn't seem to go on. Apologies if we end up with two posts saying basically the same thing.)

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  33. Watching the football at a pub last night. Pub itself nothing special - your typical large modern affair with a bit of a focus on food. TVs everywhere for the sport.

    Had a couple of cask beers on and in OK nick (which I wouldn't have expected 10 years ago). In the fridge they had bottles of Sierra Nevada PA and cans of Pistonhead.

    It's never going to be a beer geek place, but it has still been affected by the rise of 'craft' beer.

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  34. That's what I'm saying, really, some beers associated with the "craft beer revolution" are going to trickle down to mainstream pubs in a rather haphazard way. But so far there's little evidence of it making any kind of dramatic change, especially in terms of the draught offering. Putting a few unusual bottles or cans in the fridge is a low-risk way of dipping your toe in the water.

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  35. I'm not quite sure what you are arguing against, if anything. Has anyone suggested that most pubs are suddenly going to start offering 10 craft kegs from the likes of Magic Rock? Just because a change isn't dramatic doesn't mean it hasn't happened.

    Putting some cans or bottles in the fridge may be relatively low risk, but it makes a difference. After a few pints of a 3.8% golden ale, a bottle of SNPA was very welcome. I doubt that this pub will end up with an interesting keg offering, but knowing they have something other than Carlsberg/Stella etc in the fridge makes me much happier going there.

    Just as a pub offering a single cask ale is a significant change from having a keg only offering previously, a few 'craft' bottles when before it was only mainstream lager is also relatively significant. It make look like tokenism, but so what. It means there are now 2 things in that pub I'd enjoy drinking.

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  36. Its clearly an ongoing process and will remain so for several years. Different pubs are embracing the concept in different way and at different rates. Some are widening the variety of their cask ales, some are swapping their Guinness and premium foreign lagers for something like Freedom or Meantime, and some are simply putting a handful of bottles in the fridge. Many have added a "craft beer" section to their bars, such as the Lion in New Basford. If you think New Basford is a middle class enclave you need your head examining.

    Some surprising places have really gone for it. I was genuinely amazed to see a thoroughly downmarket, working class, blaring music and football type place like the varsity in Lincoln suddenly embrace it so enthusiastically, replicating the chalk board + numbers taps straight out of the Euston Tap.

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  37. Curmudgeon is right in saying that adding a few different lesser-known ales to a pub's mix will work.

    My better half and I were recently in the US. Even in the Midwest, it is not unusual to find several pubs, bars and restaurants in one vicinity serving beer from a variety of microbreweries coast to coast.

    Good Chicago area ales from small breweries include those from Goose Island (312 and their IPA) and Two Brothers (Domaine DuPage [named for a suburban county]) are particularly good.

    It pains me to say it, but ... the US is rapidly catching up to the UK and bettering our British selection in many cases.

    Churchmouse

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  38. But they don't do cask. Or pubs. (Not properly anyway)

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  39. This blogpost by Pete Brown underlines the point that, just going in pubs at random, you might struggle to find anything worth drinking, let alone anything worthy of being called "craft".

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  40. Indeed, as Pete points out, its almost as if you can divide pubs into largely successful craft beer bars and deservedly failing non-craft beer bars.

    Bit of an oversimplification, but it does seem like some pubs just don't want to help themselves (maybe they actually don't).

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  41. Most pubs - indeed most successful pubs - fall in between the two, though.

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