Thursday, January 19, 2012

Greene King and A Brief History of British Beer: Part 6

Thornbridge in the Peaks District
But there is another parallel trend in British craft brewing - one that takes it cues from the American craft beer renaissance. The existence of both makes the ‘craft’ beer scene in Britain a tale of two distinct types: the traditional cask ale producers that are enjoying a resurgence in popularity and the new, typically young iconoclasts that are brewing much stronger, much more hop infused beer that are also starting to gain popularity in Britain.

Dark Star Brewery in Sussex - They are all Dead Hop Heads
The perseverance of the traditional ale brewers probably has a lot to do with the tied pub tradition in Britain. It was only this year that UK customers began to consume more beer at home than in a pub. So the pub network is vital for the sales of beer and maintaining that network has been crucial to the heritage brewers or else they might have gone the way of their American counterparts and died off completely. But until the Beer Orders, access to pub outlets was severely restricted by the preponderance of tied houses. So while good for helping heritage brewers survive, this made it very hard for small, American style, upstart craft brewers to find a market.

As close to an American-style brewpub as I saw - Burton Bridge in Burton upon Trent is exceptional
But that is slowly changing. The renewed interest in cask ale has created openings for smaller, innovative breweries to get into pubs that want to supply the new demand. Brewers like Thornbridge are shattering the mold of low alcohol session beers and surprising punters with robust flavors all the while sticking to cask ales to gain a foothold in British Pubs. [This is not true of all new craft brewers, Dark Star in Sussex, for example, kegs almost all of their beer]. The off trade, beer sold in shops and supermarkets, is still difficult for craft brewers and heritage brewers alike. Green King alone has the scale to be able to turn a profit out of supermarket sales, where beer is often discounted heavily and treated as a loss-leader. Specialty shops are still rare in Britain where craft beer is still seen as simply beer: a working-class drink without the sophistication of wine.

Even in the capital - Meatime in Greenwich
So craft brewers that have had some success are quickly turning too pub ownership. Thornbridge has four, Meantime in Greenwich has two and Marble in Manchester has three. In some respects, then, this a bit akin to US brewpubs - though the idea of a brewpub in Britain is still carries with it the old rural agricultural smell – so most pubs do not have breweries on-site.

Marble in Manchester seemed to have the most buzz among beer geeks in Britain
The heritage brewers have, in general, recognized that they and the new craft brewers are all puling in the same direction. What is good for craft brewers is good for heritage brewers as both are generally focusing on ales and on cask, but even in keg form, craft beer is helping change the perception of beer in Britain. This understanding is turning into outright cooperation. John Keeling, Head Brewer of Fullers in London, for example, has teamed up with Marble in Manchester to brew a collaborative beer. And more tied pubs are bringing in guest beers from the craft sector.


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