Beer is every man’s drink (and woman’s too). It’s romanticised, fetishized, demonized and worshiped the world over. It’s that well-earned cold and crisp reward at the end of a long hard day. It’s often the first sip of booze at tame high school parties. It’s a first job, pulling pints of generic lager for thirsty sport fans and it’s what those fans raise high in celebration when their team scores or commiserate with for each loss. Beer has been woven into all our lives and yet in the past 15 years its face has changed to become an almost unrecognisable stranger.
Of course the term craft beer is old news - it barely means anything anymore, and there certainly isn’t a clear definition of ‘craft’. Yet the world of beer isn’t quite ready to let go of the division, even if it is increasingly blurred, between big beer and craft beer. But then how do you understand a clean lager from a craft brewer or a small-batch porter from the likes of Guinness? This is no longer the world of blind brand loyalty and an order of ‘the usual’. Beer is a big strange world stumbling out of its craft birth and with London now at saturation levels of small brewers, what happens next?
The Rarer The Better
It would be all too easy to point to a top ten list of beers in the world, as according to Beer Advocate or Rate Beer and say, there you have it – this is the current zeitgeist. But, just as in wine you have snobs and in cocktails you have enthusiasts, in beer you have geeks. It all boils down to the same thing though – bucket loads of passion, a healthy dose of knowledge and a desire to drink against the masses. It’s this small group of hardcore beer enthusiasts who create the top lists – containing beers many people will never have heard of, or ever get the opportunity to try.
Not because we don’t know the secret passwords to beer bars stocking premium brews or because our taste buds aren’t considered worthy, but simply because the beers are incredibly rare. These are brews made in tiny batches, which you often have to buy at the brewery, be it in Massachusetts, California or Vleteren, Belgium. And those weren’t off the cuff places either, one of the top beers in the past five years has been a double IPA called Russian River Pliny the Younger which was only available on tap in California during a week or two in February. Another, Westvleteren 12 is a trappist quadruple you can only get in Belgium.
Surely these super rare hoppy ales, imperial stouts and fruited sour ales aren’t the way we’re all consuming beer nowadays? And if you are flying half way around the world to try something it’s probably natural you think it tastes pretty incredible.
“Things like Rate Beer and Beer Advocate are detached from reality in this way,” says Ben McFarland, of the Thinking Drinkers, current British Guild of Beer Writers' Beer Writer of the Year and author of Good Beer Guide West Coast USA and World's Best Beers: 1000 Unmissable Brews from Portland to Prague. “If I said to a mate have you tried any of the top 20 from Rate Beer they might have stumbled across one at best. The amount of passion and the fact people want to know more is great, but it can become a vortex where the beer geeks are just talking to each other. If you spend time with consumers and show them brews which are popular in the craft world they can’t get into it, but something like a British saison, which is similar to a lager and not too big a flavour jump – they really enjoy that progression. How much do we drink these rare beers?”
It really is like watching beers become rock stars. Tom Hutchings, founder of London-based brewery Brew By Numbers opens my eyes to this when he recounts a story of watching people queuing for the launch of Beavertown’s Tropigamma IPA at a music festival as if it was a new record. And as US-based beer author Aaron Goldfarb recently wrote “The greatness of rare beer became self-fulfilling. Drive all the way across the country to Munster, Indiana, or queue up for hours in Vermont to land some Heady Topper, and how could the resulting beer not be stellar?”
But the major problem with pointing to these top tens and declaring the case for beer closed is that the small breweries enjoying a heyday from rarity will be tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers. The beer geeks move on fast and when they do they leave behind a trail of brewers who barely had ten minutes in the sun. Grow too large and they just won’t love you anymore.
“The problem with the beer geeks is they always love the new kid on the block and hate them five minutes later when they’ve moved on to the next thing. For consumers it doesn’t matter if it’s Goose Island, Brew By Numbers or BrewDog, they just see flavourful beer,” says Daniel Rowntree, founder of Craft Beer Rising.
Which neatly brings us on to flavour, brews and what it matters if they come from big beer.
Big Beer Is Great Beer
There’s no question that big beer can make great beer, after all we’re talking about companies with state of the art brewing equipment and master brewers who are some of the best in the business. In fact even the brews we might all think of as generic and flavourless are themselves brewing feats.
“Take Budwieser,” says Ben, “it’s among the most boring beers out there but it’s also an amazing brewing feat to create something that consistently bland. Brewing that type of beer is like running around the beach with no clothes on, every flaw stands out. Look at Sierra Nevada – it started in a bike shed and yes it’s grown but the beer is still great. They made money and invested in equipment – it’s a flawless beer. Same goes for Meantime. Craft brewers should aim for that consistency.”
Ever since craft and local beer became the trend to beat, big companies have been trying to produce smaller-batch, more flavoursome beer to appeal to the younger, craft market. The only issue then, if we accept big beer is well-brewed, is accepting that some of the more experimental beers they produce are great beers, and not undermined because they come from a big name.
“I don’t know if the beer community is ready to accept it,” says Jasper Cuppaidge, founder and CEO of Camden Town Brewery, after a thoughtful pause. “Big companies do make great beer, no one sets out to make bad beer either and I’ve been into some very big breweries and I’ve seen more atmosphere, passion and desire to deliver great beer than in some smaller ones. But it’s whether the story they’re telling aligns with the market and sometimes it doesn’t. We’re talking to a younger audience I think, and that’s the difference. But their beers are great, that’s how companies get to be big.”
So what’s in a story? As Ben McFarland points out, if you’re buying beer purely on taste the concept of craft or big beer wouldn’t really matter. But no one buys anything purely on taste, we buy clothing, furniture and beer as part of a wider story based on what we like to think of ourselves. The start-up stories of craft beer are powerful tools which, despite the passion and atmosphere Jasper speaks of, big beer can’t create for its new projects.
Either these companies decide that’s ok and invest in craft arms and development and research breweries, creating a halo effect for their more mainstream stuff like the Guinness’s Brewer’s Project, but do this knowing they won’t have that sought after tale of beginning in a bike shed or they buy a small craft company and run with its stories.
“If it was a tech company bought by apple then there’d be high fives all round but people in the beer world immediately feel like it will be destroyed. Meantime started up 16 years ago making all the beers that the craft movement is now known for – it kicked the door open and let everyone in. I don’t begrudge them their success at all. It’s a business and as long as the beers aren’t mucked about with then the fact they sold their business is great,” says Ben.
“I’m quite impressed by a lot of the big breweries making good beer,” says Durham Atkinson, brewer and owner of the Hops & Glory. “Fuller’s Frontier is great beer and there are other similar examples from craft arms such as Adnam’s Jack Brand and Hop House 13 and the West Indies Porter from Guinness. Younger drinkers want these funkier more interesting beers. But one thing that’s important is just because a beer is local doesn’t mean it’s better. The best saison is Belgian and that’s not going to change. It’s also not necessarily cheaper – making beer in the capital is expensive.”
Where Now For Craft
It boomed, hundreds of businesses were born, beer was pushed to the limits of what it could be. So now what?
“I think people need to get to grips with the fact that London is at saturation – if you launch now then I will have heard it all before and you’re five years too late to the party. BrewDog and Camden have managed to pull off successful craft breweries but it doesn’t mean every little brewer’s destiny is that. I’m not saying it won’t happen- some will grow and others will get bought out in the near future. But the dream of starting off in London as craft and thinking you’ll expand is not realistic,” says Durham.
And it’s already happening, smaller brands are dying off. “Brewing gets to the point where it stops being a hobby and starts being a business, it’s natural to want progression and as we go forward the bad beers get shaken out,” says Daniel.
For those already out there making good beer, it can still be difficult to stand out. Brew By Numbers Tom Hutchings knows this well. “You either have to be the best or make something different. For us, when we started we didn’t focus on the typical core range but made a citrus saison, which is now something we’re starting to see a bit more of rather than just IPAs.”
The trick for craft now, it seems, is to reach beyond the tiny community of beer enthusiasts and showcase their brews to the wider public, something that is increasingly easier for London-based brewers with weekend stints at taprooms becoming a part of city life.
But the real truth in appealing to ordinary drinkers is making beers they’ll like, not crazy hoppy sour ales. It worked with Brew By Number’s saison, it’s worked with BrewDog and no story is so successful as Camden’s Hells Lager.
“We made a distinct lager,” says Jasper, “Hells is why we started, we found we wanted something more – a beer we loved but one which was available with a story, a brewery you could get behind. That didn’t exist. Germany is full of wonderful regional lager producers but here we only had great local ale breweries. That is our mission – to be the UK’s favourite lager brewery. I think people forget lager doesn’t just have to be just blond and bubbly – great lager brings exploration of the style to market.”
The other factor of success for Camden Town Brewery was that they never set out to be niche or exclusive but for their beer to be drunk by as many people as they could make it for.
The future for craft beer is rosy, there’s little chance of it ever receding away and yet the gaps are closing. Big beer is trying to create craft beer, craft beer is trying to access the big beer markets and now both styles have turned their brew masters to lagers, ales and just about every other style of beer around. What does all this mean? Simply that Britain is in the best position it has ever been for beer with great brews produced by all manner of breweries and an increasing awareness of what the ordinary drinker, of what you and I, want to drink.