Something rather spectacular is going on down the pub – something you don’t see written about among reports of binge drinking and recession-hit pubs turning into bookmakers. There’s a revolution going on. Away from football sponsorship and mainstream media, beer has been reinventing itself. Across the country, small breweries are refreshing, reviving and reinventing beer as we know it.
You’d have to go back 70 years to find as many breweries in the UK as we have now. From genuine Czech-style pilsners and golden ales that pack a pint full of flavour at alcohol levels as low as 3.8% ABV, to zingy India pale ales (IPAs) and mighty export porters and imperial stouts – today, there is such an incredible variety that if you think you don’t like beer, you just haven’t found the right one yet.
The future for the UK’s beer industry wasn’t always this rosy. Once, Britain was the greatest brewing nation on the planet, but there was little evidence of that by the Seventies. Traditional British cask ale – revered around the world but less so at home – was dying out in favour of mass-produced keg bitter and low strength ersatz lager. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) formed in 1971 and saved real ale from oblivion, but saddled it with a socks-and-sandals image problem. With an aim to save an old tradition, the focus was too much on the past to appeal widely to image-conscious drinkers.
And then chancellor Gordon Brown did something clever. In 2002, he introduced Progressive Beer Duty, which gave tax breaks to brewers below a certain size. The number of small brewers in the UK began to grow.
“The choice, variety, creativity, innovation and proliferation of styles we’re now enjoying can all be traced back to that single fiscal measure,” says Julian Grocock, chief executive at the Society Of Independent Brewers.
Initially, the independents brewed cask ale, just like the older, more traditional concerns. But then they started hearing about beers from outside the UK – beers that had flavours no one had tasted before, beers that were so strong they were drunk from brandy balloons, beers that were so intense they changed people’s lives. And stranger than any of these beers was the fact that this new scene was coming out of the country that made the blandest beer in the world…
Except it shouldn’t have been a surprise – not really. In the US, three identical beer brands accounted for 80 per cent of the market between them. So craft brewers started digging up forgotten beer styles and reinventing them. West Coast hops created bombs of citrus and resin flavour compared to more traditional British ales.
CROSSING THE POND
In the UK, pioneers such as Dark Star in Sussex started importing US hops, and Meantime in Greenwich unearthed original recipes and recreated strong, forgotten beers for the modern bar and dining table. Thornbridge started out in Derbyshire in 2005 with a pair of young brewers (Martin Dickie and Stefano Cossi) who embraced the new global mash-up of ideas and were given freedom to experiment with them. And when Dickie left in 2007 to start up the brash, punkish BrewDog with James Watt, British craft beer had a full cast of heroes, and headlines.
Demand exploded. There are now more than 1500 breweries in the UK – higher than at any time since the Forties with about 80 openings each year. Camra itself has seen membership more than double in the past decade, and its beer festivals – once the preserve of hoary stereotypes from the cultural fringe – now sell out in advance. Even the dimpled pint jug has been re-appropriated by real ale-loving hipsters. Watt, Brew Dog’s ‘Captain’, is in no doubt as to why the change took place: “We were becoming increasingly disillusioned with what was available, and wanted more than cold fizz and generic big brands.”
Counter-intuitively, the recession lit the touch-paper for this pent-up demand for something better. Emma Cole manages the new Craft Beer Co in Brighton. “People don’t have as much money so they go to the pub less,” she says. “But when they do go out, they want something different and better than the usual. Our clientele is aged 25 to 45, settled down but with a bit of money to spend. They’re the kind of people who think about what they buy, especially when it comes to food and drink.”
A large part of craft beer’s appeal is that anyone can have a go. Brewers such as Gazz Williams and Brad Cummings, who launched Newport’s Tiny Rebel this year, were enthusiastic home-brewers in Cummings’ garage before deciding to turn pro. “Brewing’s just like cooking,” Cummings says. “You mess around with recipes and different ingredients, and we soon realised we were brewing beers better than those we could buy down the pub.”
These references to food are telling: the foodie revolution that has swept Britain over the past 20 years is predicated on localism, natural ingredients, bolder flavours and artisanal methods. Small-scale brewing ticks every box.
Evin O’Riordain worked for Neal’s Yard Dairy and was setting up a cheese shop in New York when he discovered US craft beer. “If you go into a British pub, the person serving you knows nothing about the beer,“ he says. “I thought there was room to treat beer with a bit more respect.”
Back in the UK, O’Riordain started to create US beers on a home-brew kit. When he succeeded, he quit cheese and launched the Kernel Brewery.
Kernel’s beer range typifies the current flavour of craft beer: big, hoppy pale ales and IPAs challenge wines like sauvignon blanc in the intensity of their citrus, pine resin or tropical fruit aromas, while stouts and porters are full of espresso and dark chocolate notes. But craft beer isn’t necessarily finished once it’s brewed – the big trend at the moment is ageing beer in wood, adding further layers of character and complexity.
Scottish brewer Harviestoun signed a deal five years ago with distiller Highland Park, and matures its ‘Old Engine Oil’ beer in malt whisky casks of different ages. The 40-year-old finish goes almost exclusively to New York, where it retails for upwards of $50 (£32) for one 330ml bottle – proof that the cask beer special relationship works both ways across the Atlantic. And long may it continue.