Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Craft Beer: Evolution or Revolution?

I was originally going to do a rather light-hearted post on “why I don’t like craft beer”. However, in view of this post by Arthur Scargill saying Craft beer? The bubble has burst, and these from Beer Battered and Fuggled suggesting that, even for an enthusiast, innovation has become an end in itself, I felt I ought to take it a bit more seriously.

Who knows what is craft beer, and what isn’t? I’ve certainly enjoyed plenty of beer in the past few years that qualifies by one definition or another. But I have to say that introducing the concept into the British beer market has been counter-productive, provoking divisiveness and encouraging elitism. There you go, I’ve said it.

It’s easy to poke fun at the craft beer movement – the hipsters with their skinny jeans and ironic facial hair, the achingly trendy bars devoid of comfortable seating, the eye-watering prices, the insistence on child-sized measures, the conflation of strength and quality, the existential terror on entering a pub in a provincial market town, and the relentless pursuit of ever more bizarre ingredients. A pint of bitter in your local it isn’t. But the problem goes deeper than that.

I was recently involved in an Internet discussion about beers of the 1970s, in which someone said “well, we didn’t know any better then”. Obviously we didn’t have foreknowledge of 2015, but my recollection is that we had a huge range of excellent, distinctive beers, and plenty of busy, characterful pubs to drink them in. The belief that one generation has discovered something new and wonderful is very characteristic of youthful enthusiasm. It’s depressingly common to read comments like “twenty years ago it was virtually impossible to find any decent beer.”

Over time, the beer market has evolved, as I have described here. We have had golden ales, pale hop-forward beers and then beers using New World hops. I enjoy Summer Lightning and Wye Valley HPA, I regard Hawkshead and Dark Star as go-to breweries if I see them on the bar, and when it was first introduced I found Jaipur IPA a revelation. Despite the stereotype, I’m no stick-in-the-mud devotee of boring brown bitter, although I would argue that many beers in that category are seriously undervalued. But it has to be admitted that within those new styles there are many lacklustre golden ales, one-dimensional hop syrups and ridiculous grapefruit-flavoured so-called IPAs.

In the mid-1970s, there were only 44 brewing companies left in the whole of the USA, and the beer market was dominated by bland, light lager. So the conditions were ripe for the development of an “alternative beer” movement, initially referred to as microbreweries, but more recently morphing into craft breweries. They were able to draw on a wide range of brewing traditions from all around the world, including a substantial influence from British real ale, to produce a huge variety of interesting, characterful beers, and even developing their own entirely new styles. Their most distinctive contribution to the beer world has been the strong, highly-hopped American IPA which, despite the name, is really unlike any other IPA that has gone before. The craft beer sector in the US has gone from strength to strength and now accounts for 11% of the beer market by volume and a staggering 22% by value.

Not surprisingly, beer enthusiasts looked at this and thought there was a golden opportunity to extend that buzz over to this side of the pond. However, there was a little problem. Britain already had a thriving craft beer scene, comprising both the established independent breweries that CAMRA had originally been created to champion, and hundreds of micro breweries that had sprung up since then in a similar way to the US. Yes, some of it could be conservative and stick-in-the-mud, but there was a huge amount of innovation and variety in beer styles.

Yet it was this “real ale scene” that the new evangelists of craft chose to tilt against. The international mega-brewers were so far over the horizon that they weren’t worth bothering with. The first sign of this was in the “pale and hoppy” movement around the turn of the millennium, which came up with the phrase “boring brown beer”, but at least this was generally real ale and something that fell within the broad category of “bitter”.

Then it intensified with the more recent wave of explicitly US-themed craft beer, which really goes back no more than seven or eight years. If the US had mega-strong triple IPAs, then so should we. If the US universally used 355ml bottles, then we should use 330s. If the US put craft beer in cans, then why not? If the US used all kinds of weird and wonderful flavours, then we should stop being so conservative. If the US sold draught craft beer on keg, then so should we rather than that warm, flat, twiggy stuff. And if US craft brewers had check shirts and fancy beards, then surely that will make British beer taste better too.

The real tipping point was when BrewDog stopped producing cask beer entirely and deliberately portrayed themselves as standing up against everything CAMRA represented. It was them and us, it was new vs old, it was crafties vs beardies (even though the crafties were more likely to have facial hair). Now, over the years I’ve often been critical of CAMRA, not least over its dogmatic refusal to recognise merit in any beers that are not cask- or bottle-conditioned. But it’s a broad church, and has come to encompass the vast bulk of British beer enthusiasm and knowledge. By rejecting that, the craft beer movement is being unnecessarily antagonistic and dismissive of history and tradition. Of course that’s a bit simplistic, and there are many beer lovers who happily straddle both horses, but it remains a very common viewpoint, such as here.

I’ve been drinking legally in pubs for not far off forty years, and have had enough time to work out what I like and what I don’t. This is not to say I’m resistant to trying new things, but if offered something well outside my comfort zone like a 7.3% greengage and liquorice stout, I will know that, even if it’s palatable, it’s not something I would want to drink regularly, or probably ever again. I really enjoy many of the classic Belgian strong ales, but again they are just an occasional treat amongst a diet of more sessionable brews.

As I said above, I’m no single-minded devotee of boring brown bitter, and indeed my ideal pub session beer might well be something pale and hoppy (although not grapefruity) like the old Yates & Jackson Bitter or Marble Manchester Bitter. But I would have no problem spending an evening in good company on well-kept Holts or Lees Bitter or Sam Smiths OBB, whereas many crafties would be climbing the walls. I enjoy the odd drop of Punk IPA and similar hop-bombs, but I see them as something akin to peaty Islay malt whiskies, good to have occasionally but a bit extreme for everyday supping.

A lot of excellent beer has been produced under the banner of “craft” But I could say that, to a large extent, “craft” represents to me beers with weird flavours, at offputting strengths, in measures I find too small, and prices too steep, sold in bars where I don’t feel comfortable to people I have little in common with. Surely championing the cause of good beer should involve making better beer more widely available in a form many people will find appealing, not deliberately cutting yourself off from the experience of the vast majority of beer drinkers. To be frank, that vast majority don’t want to chop and change beers within the pub. Have you ever seen a lager drinker go into Spoons and go round the pumps from Carlsberg to Heineken? No, me neither.

Very few are ever going to see a good night out as drinking your way through six beers of wildly different styles at strengths up to 10%. But maybe that’s the way the craft evangelists want it.

30 comments:

  1. I like (most of) this - could make a good article elsewhere but might need a bit of trimming....

    By the way the 330ml bottle is, I am told, an export thing. Overseas markets, either the USA or Europe, don't usually want beer in 500ml bottles it seems. I do know that a surprising amount of UK "craft" beer goes to Europe and in many of those export markets a 330ml bottle is required. That's why, for example, Buxton Brewery switched to 330ml.

    Just mention measures in "craft" bars - in my experience you can buy in whatever legal measure you want (the Scottish Brewery does impose measure size but they are pretty much an exception I think).

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  2. God created craft beer to help us identify the wankers.

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  3. I think the "Export" thing is a bit of an excuse, especially for larger breweries. In the supermarket there's a clear divide between the 330ml craft bottles and the 500ml BBB PBAs, and I suspect a lot of buyers only look at one and not the other.

    And quite a number of craft(ish) breweries such as Hawkshead, Purity and Williams Bros do put their beer in 500ml bottles.

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  4. Breweries such as Hawkshead, Adnams, Thwaites not only put their "Craft" in 330s and PBAs in 500s, but they sharply differentiate the design on both. Harvistoun haven't, but have just gone 330 with Bitter & Twisted, Schiehallion etc. I once told Stringers to put their IPA in a 330 as it would sell better, even at the same price as the 500

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  5. Virtually all the Scottish breweries would self identify as craft; and virtually all bottle in 500ml, bar four I think (plus 1 if Harvieston are doing it now, minus 1 if we disqualify Belhaven as fake).

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  6. No, the "export thing" is quite true. Just because some breweries stick with 500ml bottles is neither here nor there (and I'm not sure how much Purity, for example, export). And it is possible that some of the larger breweries put their beer into both sizes for different markets. If you are serious about exporting then 330mls are the way to go and if you are serious about that (60% of Buxton beer goes abroad now) then you might not consider it worth having two bottle sizes for two markets.

    And as I said , you are way off beam about measure size - unless you go to a bar run by the Scottish Brewery you can usually get draught craft beer in any measure you want. Just wondering whether you've actually been to many of these places....?

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  7. @Matthew - yes, they're aiming for two largely separate markets.

    I think it's the PBAs that do the serious volume, though. The other day I saw a bloke at Morrisons loading eight bottles of Lees Moonraker into his car boot ;-)

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  8. @John - I believe the Hanging Bat in Edinburgh only serves thirds and two-thirds. One of its reviews on TripAdvisor says:

    "If you like being served in non-standard beer glasses, in non-traditional measures by a guy wearing shorts and a backward baseball cap, this may be your sort of place."

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  9. St Peters brewery exports almost half the beer volume it makes, to over 30 countries worldwide in 500ml bottles, and seems to be pretty successful at it.

    I was told 330ml bottles are used just because they are easier to stack and display in beer fridges.whether thats the real reason or not I dont know it certainly sounds plausible.

    I do always find those reviews of GBBF by the full on craft beer types quite amusing in one way,especially as they moan about all those "dreary people" wandering around during the trade session that they somehow blagged a pass too, err so wouldnt they therefore be including themselves in that description.

    but also depressing that they moan constantly that the CAMRA world isnt inclusive enough for them, but refuse to find any reason in the Craft world to be inclusive of CAMRA.

    at the moment Im more annoyed by brewers who keep changing beer recipes to chase the next super hop craft big thing, and its leading to situations where breweries are making 40+ types of beer per year the vast majority of which will never see the light of day again, creating no stability for pubs trying to sell the beer for them, or for people to find and recognise a regular beer that they like, choice isnt a bad thing, new things arent a bad thing but as you say people in Wetherspoons dont go looking for variations on Carlsberg every week, why do craft ale brewers feel the need to compete in that manner ?

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  10. Yes, I'd forgotten about the Hanging Bat, and I'm sure there will be others around the country but "one swallow doesn't make a spring" and I don't think you can extrapolate that and use it as a sure fire marker of a "craft" outlet. Speaking in a local context, as I was, apart from the outlet run by the Scottish Brewery, measure isn't an issue - I have seen pints of a saison being drunk in Port Street Beer House.

    So, no general insistence on "child sized measures" then - and it's worth making the point that the minimum measure will be a one-third pint which is of course also available at those redoubts of craft beer - your local CAMRA beer festivals. Oh, and since when was two-thirds a child sized measure? I seem to recall you being quite keen on that option when it was introduced a while back.

    Anyway, this knockabout fun apart - this, suitably adapted and shortened, will still make a good piece for a certain local CAMRA magazine

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  11. Just pondering (in B&B mode there...) you reference to IPA and the new American versions "being unlike any IPA that had gone before". I'm not so sure. We do know that the 19th century IPAs were in the 5.5% to 7% region and hopped to buggery so there are some similarities there. I wonder also how many of them took inspiration from something closer to home - Ballantine's IPA ( http://hoptripper.com/the-return-of-ballantine-ipa/- the bit at the bottom that looks at the history of the original is quite interesting) which does seem to have been a pretty iconic beer in the States.

    Obviously the American brewers have taken thy style and played around with it enormously but I don't think those beers are perhaps quite as rootless as you imply.

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  12. Whether or not you like "craft beer", very much depends on what you beers and beer styles you include within it.

    Of course, its possible you may decide you don't like it first, and then define what it means to fit that premise... which is what seems to be happening here....


    There are bits of "craft" I don't like. The silly, exploitative prices. The unhelpfully high strengths, the occasional strange and offputting ingredients, the insistence on food matching. The décor of the bars and the fashion sense of the bar staff is irrelevant to me.

    But there are lots of things I do like. Beer quality and choice certainly seems to have improved dramatically in your average pub over the past 5 years. New craft beer bars have opened up in the cities I go out in that I happen to quite like. They haven't replaced normal pubs, they've replaced crappy triples-for-singles vodka bars.

    I also like a lot of the newish styles. I like a nice juicy grapefruity ale. I like a hoppy porter/black IPA/whatever you want to call it. I don't even mind a well-made Saison, as long as it hasn't got weird ingredients stuck in it.

    All this is stuff I couldn't get 5 years ago. and you can still get plenty of decent bitters. It hasn't supplanted them, it has simply augmented them.


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  13. I think at the moment there's a great deal of filling-in of the middle ground between full-on craftwank and "it was good enough for your father, and your father's father" traditionalism. And this is a Good Thing.

    Personally I don't think that every village pub in rural Worcestershire should ditch the handpumps and start selling thimblefulls of Double IPA - in fact, I'm not sure that anyone thinks that. On the other hand, I'm kind of glad that increasing numbers of them will sell me a pint of the sort of sessionable hoppy golden ale that the Americans have recently decided to call Session IPA and claim to have invented. But then, I'm also glad that when I do want to ponce around with thimblefulls of Double IPA there are places where I can get them, and will happily sing the praises of those places even though I don't think they're the ideal model for every pub anywhere ever. Your attitude seems a bit like expecting Death Metal fans to mostly blog about Kings of Leon because most people are never going to want to listen to Meshuggah or Opeth...

    The general "craft vs CAMRA" thing is also increasingly "a bit more complicated than that", too. Again, probably for the better.

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  14. Dave S - completely agree with that.

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  15. No problem generally with measures in 'craft' bars. There are a couple that seem to equate 'craft' with Brewdog and slavishly follow their restrictive practices but the vast majority do not.

    However, you would be on stronger ground with craft beer festivals. The majority of them, in my experience, do have restrictive measures. Something that the crafteratti seems to feel sets themselves apart from the 'boring' CAMRA type festivals.

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  16. Yes indeed - Tyson is certainly right there - usually 1/2 or 1/3 only. Unless of course you go to this: http://londonbeercarnival.com/. Tickets £50 a pop but then unlimited measures of 9 cl of beer.

    OK Borefts (which I visit every year) is just 10cl measures but at least there there's no admission charge and you can pay as you go.

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  17. @py - as I said in the post, there are plenty of "craft beers" (however defined) that I like. My complaint is that the champions of craft beer are so often dismissive of everything that went before and set themselves apart from normal drinkers far more than CAMRA ever did.

    The "children's measures" thing stems from this rant by Mark Dexter. Yes, most crafty bars will still sell you a pint, but the proportion of pints drunk will be a lot less than in, say, the Armoury.

    And Tyson has mentioned an acquaintance of his who says that nowadays he only drinks thirds.

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  18. I think if you stood at the bar of Port Street Beer House, for example (an unlikely prospect, I know) you'd be surprised by just how many pints are served. The fact that Tyson has an acquaintance who only drinks thirds doesn't point to anything apart from one individual's drinking preferences.

    Don't get me wrong a lot of what you say here is valid but I think part of the problem is that you are commenting on much of the craft beer scene from the outside without actually really having experienced much (any?) of it first hand. I think unless you actually dive in and visit a couple of these places to see what they are really like - and do so with an open mind - you will be open to criticism. Try Font in Chorlton and Port Street Beer House and then report back.

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  19. "the champions of craft beer"

    Who are you talking about, exactly? Must be some trendy blogs I don't read.

    There is a large element of knocking down strawmen about this article. I think most craft beer enthusiasts would talk about promoting quality, variety, tradition, and making beer more accessible and relevant to everyone. Which is exactly what you seem to want yourself.

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  20. "My complaint is that the champions of craft beer are so often dismissive of everything that went before and set themselves apart from normal drinkers far more than CAMRA ever did."

    Who are you thinking of, here? People I know or pay attention to who drink craft beer have a pretty varied range of positions, from the odd one who still uses the phrase "boring brown beer" without irony to the ones who won't shut up about how much they love a proper session on Harveys Best.

    (And literally seconds after I wrote that, twitter pops up with Matt "Champion of Craft Beer" Curtis retweeting the following:
    https://lookatbrew.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/feature-sussex-beer-now-part-2-cask-is-king/

    Sample: "served fresh it’s hard to beat the profile of a cheery cask bitter. There’s something quite special about sitting in the corner, the beer garden, or at the bar of your favourite pub with a pint of the local best. For me drinking a fresh pint packed with bold, yet not brash, aromas and flavours of toffee, bread dough, citrus, honey, toasted nut etc, and sat in a quiet spot perhaps overlooking the bright, chalky Downs, is a gentle and affable connection with the place I call home.")

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  21. I like craft for drinking at home. At the pub I will happily drink 'boring brown bitter', but a lot of PBAs are crap, so I drink 'craft' instead. It has made sitting at home while my wife watches crap on the telly a lot more enjoyable. You can do all your check ins to untappd and see what other people think, go on twitter and talk about it etc etc all from the comfort of your living room. Whereas in the pub the beer is generally secondary to why I'm there.

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  22. We seem to be into "site your sauces" here. I can assure you that all of the negative opinions I've quoted have been aired on blogs, Facebook and Twitter, often multiple times. It's a blog, not an academic exercise, otherwise I would carefully record all the links.

    I'm not going to trek out to places I don't normally go to, just to experience bars I'm unlikely to find to my taste. As I said, I've lived long enough to know what I like and what I don't, and I'm not going to waste my time and money on the latter. If there was a crafty bar in Stockport I'm sure I'd give it a try. Having said that, I tried once to visit the award-winning Spinning Top only to find it closed.

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  23. “It has made sitting at home while my wife watches crap on the telly a lot more enjoyable.” I like that comment, Rob; especially as it reminds me of my own situation. Don’t want to get into trouble here by making sweeping generalisations about the sexes, but…………….???

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  24. Well Mudgie you're obviously getting a bit tetchy now people are trying to pin you down a bit so I'll call it a day. Not sure what the poor old Spinning Top has done to warrant a name check here though - it certainly makes no claims to be any sort of craft emporium.

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  25. Thanks Paul. In the interests of equality she thinks what I watch is crap too.

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  26. DaveS, surely hardcore Death Metal fans would now eschew the current progressive death stylings of Meshuggah and especially Opeth? The musical equivalent of reducing the hop bill. Although I recently experienced an extreme metal/craft/single beer pub crossover seeing Meta-stasis at Audio in Glasgow, where the only tap was Williams Brothers Draught.

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  27. Just got round to this now. Not much to add other than a really enjoyable read and I agree with a lot, if not all, of what you say.

    Primarily this 'us against them' thing. It's bollocks. And it's another reason why establishing an official 'craft beer' definition is futile. We already had a 'craft' movement here before the recent boom and they have just as much right to claim the phrase as Brewdog or Beavertown, if not more. Although I'd rather everyone just scrap it completely.

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  28. I agree with a lot of this - and I do think BD getting out of cask was a turning-point, which defined what 'craft' meant from then on (sadly).

    I think the 'craft' scene is changing, though. For a while I've been going to the Font in Chorlton, in preference to any of the three similar but smaller bars in the same half-mile of road; the beer isn't any different or any better at the Font, but they do have a much wider choice. Recently, though, I've noticed that this choice is becoming something of an illusion, with the Font's eight pumps offering six or seven pale/golden ales - you'll often see a wider range of different beers on the Marble Beerhouse's six pumps.

    Are 'craft' bars starting to differentiate, into those that consistently offer a variety of different & unusual beers (e.g. Dulcimer) and those that mainly offer PAs and IPAs, with a couple of weirdies on the side? Are boring golden ales the new boring brown bitter?

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  29. PS Just had a swift pint in Chorlton Font - they had a Buxton beer on, so it would have seemed rude not to. Style-wise the choice was even worse than I thought: eight pumps, eight pale ales. Four were under 4% and the strongest was 5.2%.

    As for mine - Moor Top (3.8%) - the only way it could have tasted more like grapefruit would have been if it was a grapefruit. Nice enough... in its way.

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  30. Four beers under 4% would suit me fine. Choice of pale ale or nowt less so. And I certainly don't want something that tastes of grapefruit...

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