Friday, April 12, 2013

The Rise of Craft in the UK - As Viewed by the BBC

Jeff, doing the legwork for his book at Thornbridge
I was about to simply tweet this article from the BBC about how US beers (once only a subject of scorn and derision) is inspiring brewers in the UK.  They are talking about craft beers of course, but what I found fascinating is another echo of something that Jeff and I found on our beer tour of Britain: the presentation that the establishment against which craft beer is rebelling includes old traditional producers of "Real Ale"  
British firms like Darkstar, Meantime and Marble have all manufactured drinks influenced more by California and Colorado than Cornwall or Coventry.

These do not always qualify as "real ales" - a term popularised by British beer lovers when they launched the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) a generation ago in rebellion against the prevalence of mass-produced carbonated beers.

According to Camra, beer should be left to ferment "live" in casks.

Craft beer, by contrast, is often pasteurised in kegs with added nitrogen or carbon dioxide - a technique which makes traditionalists shudder.

It's a reaction that enthusiasts for the new wave of American-inspired beers are happy to provoke. Indeed, they are often keen to dissociate themselves from Camra's beard-and-cardigan image.

While Camra has held its annual Great British Beer Festival since 1975, February 2013 saw London's first Craft Beer Rising - an event complete with modish DJs and trendy pop-up restaurants stalls, dedicated to the upstart movement.

"It's a more exciting product," says Neil Taylor of the Scottish brewery-cum-pub-chain Brew Dog. "It doesn't taste like anything else. People who are willing to push themselves are going to get more out of it.

"The establishment in the US is bottled lagers; here it's lagers and real ales.
This is a point of much debate in the UK.  Coming from America Jeff and I were, of course, in thrall to the ancient and traditional breweries like Greene King and Fullers.  But these are old, fuddy-duddy breweries that make bland beer and are resistant to change, say some of the young upstarts like the Brew Doggers. 

But the sentiment of folks like Brew Dog are not universal.  Fullers for example has made a point of collaborating with craft brewers in the UK like the aforementioned Marble.  Jeff and I thought it was great shame that there was a tension between these smaller, traditional breweries and the upstart craft breweries.  But markets are hard to penetrate in the UK and the image of Fuller's and the like is Grandad's beer and something craft brewers are hesitant to associate themselves with. 

The rigidity of the CAMRA types does not help.  It is clearly time for CAMRA to embrace both real ale and craft beer. These two groups are really allies and have a lot to teach each other, which is why it is great to see collaborations like Fullers and Marble.  The US experience has shown that there is plenty of potential market to share.  While Greene King and Fullers have the pubs, Dark Star and Thornbridge have the hip American style beer the kids love.  Together, it would seem they could totally compliment each other.  Craft beer would bring in the youngsters to the staid old pubs and re-introduce them to real ale.  Traditional brewers would provide craft brewers market access and advertising and publicity. A win-win. 

The horror!  Dark Star putting its (exceptional) beer in kegs...
What is certainly true is that the UK craft brewing scene is very heavily influenced by the US, and why not?  It is is tremendous success story here and generating a very coveted consumer base - young, hip, money to spend.  Brew Dog, Dark Star, Thornbridge are all very clearly inspired by US craft brewers and make no apologies. 

It should also be mentioned that the UK has just as many bland yellow fizzy lagers as the US (some thanks to the US) and it is also true that beer is losing out to spirits in the UK as well as the US. The bland fizzy lagers have a virtual lock on supermarkets making the challenge for craft beer that much harder. But I have no doubt that craft will eventually see the same success in the UK as it has in the US.   

Now, if we could just get Brazil going...


Brewers Union Local 180 said...

My mates up at Hardknott in Cumbria did a collab. brew at Fullers. Far from bland from what I'm told. There's a write up on his blog about it.

Patrick Emerson said...

I saw that: I retweeted a tweet from Anne that showed Dave and John Keeling at Fullers. It was cool, I hope the beer is a big success.

Jeff Alworth said...

My suspicion is that far from threatening CAMRA's cask tradition, Thornbridge et al will revitalize it. By making booming kegged American IPAs, Thornbridge has impeccable cred. So when they make classic bitters--as they do--they do not bear the stain of fuddy duddiness.

Traveling around the world impressed me that local tradition is very hard to eliminate. I think the kids who want something new will find, as they mature, that the old is pretty damn special, too.