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.