This once great nation of brewers and beer drinkers has grown used to bad news at the bar. Our pubs are closing at a worrying rate and for years we watched as decent breweries vanished like the head dissipating from a pint of fizzy, yellow homogenised cooking lager. And as they disappeared, we drinkers turned as one and blamed the bean-counting money men for ruining a trade that once oiled the wheels of the industrial revolution and became our best export.
But now the top accountants in the land have brought us boozers some good news (though, no, this has nothing to do with the Treasury and Mr Osborne’s Budget). The number-crunchers at the Office of National Statistics (ONS) have revealed the latest goods to be included in the “basket” which they, with a tedious lack of imagination, use to calculate inflation. And among them is “craft beer”.
Everyone outside the ONS uses this assembly of items (of which there are currently 703, so it must be a very large basket) to chart how our lifestyles keep changing. Yesterday’s announcement, for example, revealed that satnavs are out, because only people who have yet to work out that their phones will do the job for free buy them. Of course, we’re still eating junk food and smoking (though e-cigarette refills have made their debut). But best of all, independent, artisan beers – feted for their niche appeal – have finally made it into the mainstream. Those chaps at the ONS are on to something.
There has never been a better time to be a British beer drinker. After decades in the doldrums, Britain, once the greatest brewing nation, has rediscovered its micro-brewing mojo – and in spectacular fashion. The once calamitous brewing situation in our capital has, in under a decade, been transformed, with London now home to a thriving craft brewing scene, with more than 70 micros making beer within the M25.
Across the land last year, more than 170 new micros fired up their mash-tuns, bringing the number of breweries in the UK to more than 1,300, incidentally the highest figure since the ONS first brought out its inflation basket almost 70 years ago.
Despite our rich history in the business, we’re making better beer than ever. A new wave is creating funky farmhouse brews from wild yeasts; there are barrel-aged beers, intensely aromatic India Pale Ales seasoned with potent, pungent American hops; immense Imperial stouts; and cellar-dwelling barley wines.
All of these qualify as “craft beer”, which makes you ask, what is craft beer?
Well, no one really knows. Unlike cask ale, which undergoes secondary fermentation in the barrel, there is no clear-cut definition. A recent Mintel survey revealed that 36 per cent of consumers have no idea of what the term “craft beer” means.
If anything, that number is higher within the inner, often acutely geeky sanctum of beer boffindom where the definition of “craft” is argued about in debates that manage to be both heated and rather dreary. Suffice it to say that craft beer can come from anywhere and in any format: keg, can, bottle or cask. The term “real ale” is widely rejected by the “craft beer community” for being far too socks and sandals, but most craft beer is consumed from cask and, as such, the pub remains craft beer’s heartland.
Fundamentally it is about flavour and taste. Craft beer is an artisan antidote to the blandness of big brands. It is to mass-produced beer what a freshly baked farmhouse loaf is to sliced white; or a
28-day hung sirloin steak is to a motorway café burger. Craft brewers are enlightening drinkers to the fact that beer is just as complex in its aromas and flavours as wine. As a nation with far more barley fields and hop gardens than vineyards, we should be serving it at state functions rather than offering a glass of chardonnay.
Beer is a far more flexible friend to food. Liver, another addition to this year’s ONS basket, is as a case in point. In the film The Silence of the Lambs, the deranged killer Hannibal Lecter famously claimed (human) liver went best with fava beans and “a nice Chianti”. But while I wouldn’t say it to his face, Mr Lecter doesn’t know what he’s talking about – the best thing to drink with liver is a London Porter – it’s got the carbonation to lift the fatty textures, the caramel notes that dovetail deliciously with the caramelisation of the meat and the sourness to cut through the thick texture.
So although crafts are still relatively small beer, constituting only 2.5 per cent of total beer sales, yesterday’s announcement represents a breakthrough. In America, however, this week has brought news that it now represents more than 10 per cent of beer sales. Which suggests that craft beer, whatever it may be, will be in the ONS basket for years to come. We should all raise a glass to that.