In the last few years, the rise of craft beer has triggered an explosion in the variety and quality of British beer, and the scene is still expanding rapidly. 200 new breweries are currently opening each year, and specialist craft bars are proliferating at such a rate (I could name 12 in central Leeds alone), that it’s difficult to keep up – particularly through a haze of electrifying 7.4% IPAs.
This month, in arguably the UK’s most significant gathering of the tribes, 5,000 beer hounds will descend on Manchester for Indy Man Beer Con (indymanbeercon.co.uk). It’s an event which encapsulates the vibrancy of the UK scene and so, in celebration of that, I am using this month’s IMHO to explain to the uninitiated, sceptics and unreconstructed lager drinkers, why craft beer is the best thing to happen to British food and drink in decades.
Of course, traditional English real ale has ‘flavour’. Some old-school brews are elegant beers of persuasive clarity, but even the best operate in a narrow spectrum of expression. They’re modest, meek, and sensible, where, for years now, American craft brewers have been creating riotously bold beers. Belatedly we caught that spirit of adventure, began to import powerfully bitter, tropical fruit-flavoured US hop strains (citra, columbus, mosaic etc.) and, suddenly, it’s as if British beer has been turned up to 11. Drinking a standard brown English bitter next to, say, Redchurch’s Great Eastern IPA or Burning Sky’s Devil’s Rest, is like switching from 1950s black ‘n’ white TV to IMAX 3D.
Curiosity is craft beer’s motor, that constant question: ‘What happens if we do this?’ That could mean adding espresso to a stout; brewing an American IPA with dry, spicy Belgian yeast; or using New World hops in a classic German wheat beer. You don’t have to like all the results – that’s not the point. The boozy liquor notes common in barrel-aged beers do nothing for me, and I find funky, farmyard-y, wild fermented beers challenging. However, what I do appreciate is that where British beer used to consist of a samey range of ales, bitters and stouts, it is now a crucible of ingenious creativity.
Critics characterise craft brewers as cavalier young upstarts pursuing crazy flavours with no respect for brewing history. This is nonsense. Generally, modern brewers are conscientious students of their artisan craft, who are keen to both modernise those traditional British beer styles ruined by big UK breweries (Marble, for instance, do a cracking best bitter), while popularising hitherto niche European beers, such as saisons or tart Berliner weisse beers. There are UK breweries making refreshing, slightly salty (!) ‘gose beers’, despite that style being almost extinct in its native Germany.
Rewind just 15 years and British beers all had names like Throstler’s Revenge and Old Billy’s Boat and were mired in twiggy, tweedy imagery or sexist Carry On-style packaging. Real ale was the preserve of old men (flat cap optional). Today, the marketing of craft beer is graphically sharp and witty, young and urban. Beer feels like a vital part of contemporary Britain.
The new wave beer festival
Nowhere is that cultural revolution more obvious than at festivals such as Indy Man, Newcastle’s Craft Beer Calling (Oct 23-25; craftbeercalling.com) or Birmingham Beer Bash, where the crowds are younger, women are highly visible, and the peripherals – DJs, street food, intelligent beer debates – acknowledge that the 21st century is happening. There are strictly no morris dancers. No Status Quo tribute bands.
Pre-craft, most attempts at food and beer matching felt forced, tokenistic and apologetic, as if beer felt it had to justify its presence alongside wine. Now there’s no cultural cringe. At Pint Shop in Cambridge or Leeds’ Friends Of Ham, to name but two, beer matching is an unsensational day-to-day reality.
Raising the bar
I write for olive. I love food. But I also treasure the distinctive atmosphere of food-free bars, boozers and drinking dens. Thankfully, craft beer has spawned many new specialist city-centre beer bars and it is giving impetus to a parallel movement of suburban micropubs (try Urmston’s Prairie Schooner or Sheffield’s Beer House). Meanwhile, many craft breweries open up, ad-hoc, as social spaces (often in random locations, such as trading estates and railway arches), which has given us a wealth of new places to drink.
Beer used to be all about keeping a good cellar. That still matters, but so does an enthusiastic bar staff, elegant glassware and extensive choice – all factors which craft is pushing.
The Campaign For Real Ale only considers cask-conditioned beer – which has undergone a secondary fermentation in the cask (or, occasionally, bottle) – to be real beer. It’s a ludicrous position, which, due to the skilled handling cask beer requires and its relatively short shelf-life, has threatened to inhibit the growth of good brewing. Instead, craft beer has proven that you can produce amazing beer in cans, bottles, longer-life kegs and, of course, in cask.
It used to be common to walk into a supermarket, pub or restaurant and find nothing you wanted to drink. Today, only the very worst places do not carry, at least, Brooklyn lager in bottles. Craft beer has affected that change and I raise my glass in salute. Cheers!
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