Friday 9 August 2013


Currently enjoying Tom Acitelli’s Audacity of Hops, an occasionally breathless but incessantly fascinating gallop through the past 50 years or so of American craft beer history. I’ve just passed the mid 1990s and coming closer to the time when a major shakeout in breweries was on the horizon and then I notice an excellent article in Draft by the ever lucid Joe Stange. There’s an interesting coda to the debate from Lew Bryson here. It’s all very enthralling.

And of course this all poses the question: could it happen here? There are lots of breweries and I personally don’t always feel confident when I go into a pub and are faced with a row of hand pumps or keg taps for breweries I’ve never heard of. Is this still about pub quality? I’ve had flaccid cask beers and sterile, still craft keg, which I am sure could have been sorted out in the pub, but then I’ve also had dull, unimaginative beers that were surely brewed by committee. 

However, does this mean that I should be actively calling for a shake-out? That I should be hollering for the closure of breweries up and down the land? I don’t think so. A certain amount of these new start-ups represent someone’s dream, while others are the cold calculation that this brewing lark can make money in the short term. Who am I to say that someone should lose their business, whether I agree with the ethics or not? I would never want anyone’s brewing business to fail, no matter how bad the beer is, I think the lack of quality would do for this hypothetical bad brewery — the market, as is the case about the argument with lads mags that was so succinctly argued in the Guardian here, will sort things out. If a beer is bad, you don’t drink it. I wonder if there is an element of mean-spiritedness, elitism and sheer arrogance in wanting breweries to fail? The flip side of craft beer is perhaps smugness?


  1. It's important to be able to think and talk about The Industry in the abstract, but there is a risk in doing that that people's feelings get hurt.

    Last week, a brewer (somewhat out of the blue) told us that we 'don't have much respect for [brewers] as people', which rather stung.

    What is also interesting is that, within the industry (generalising madly) self-consciously 'craft' brewers think 'boring' old real ale brewers are for it when the revolution comes; while the real ale brewers seem to think the silly, unskilled hipsters will be first against the wall.

    1. I think you are ploarising the Industry when in fact that doesnt exist, accept in some Craft brewers minds, think Scottish. Brewers of "Boring Brown Bitter" are also making "NewStyle" beers , wether these are "Craft" of course is a different matter. The crunch is a beer has to be commercial,ie make money for the brewer and also of consistent quality, . If the beer is not than that brewer will go

    2. Hmm. It's not polarised so much as a spectrum, but I think it's wishful thinking to imagine those camps don't exist, and that there isn't some hostility between them.

  2. One day we will look at the craft brewers and the cask beer brewers and realise we can no longer distinguish between the two.

  3. I don't think there's a true desire of seeing breweries fail, well, at least not in most people. It's more like seeing the inevitable, sooner or later the fad will pass (because, whether some people like it or not, much of what is fueling a certain segment of the industry in many countries is a fad, and I don't see anything wrong with that), and there's always the question of who will survive that and will happen afterwards, and there's also the understandable fear in many enthusiasts that those who got into this mainly to cash in on a fad (not that I see anything wrong with that) will end up dragging everyone with them once the bubble bursts.

  4. Having worked in The Industry since the days when Boddingtons was still the cream of Manchester, I've become genuinely puzzled at the quality of beer since the term 'craft' has become ubiquitous. The problem I often encounter is that 'craft' is a term used in place of 'enthusiasm'. Yes, a lot of so-called craft brewers have the energy of a springer spaniel on amphetamines, and they create some very bold beverages, but too many of them are almost completely unskilled and thus cannot produce a consistent beer. A friend who owns a craft beer bar was recently bemoaning the lack of consistency in one of the best known so-called craft brewers in the country, showing me pictures on his phone of 3 glasses one with beer from bottle, another from can and a third from keg and the colour difference was remarkable. He also bemoaned the lack of consistency in the hopping and the refusal of the brewery to take back kegs that he considered to be so far from the product that he ordered that he could not sell it under that brand.

    There is nothing wrong with wanting unskilled brewers to fail; if they have so little respect for the consumer that they would rather sell us swill than learn how to brew a decent pint then they deserve to fail and any argument to the contrary would be ridiculous. The problem with the contention that the market will sort things out is that this relies upon consumers having 'perfect information' which would enable them to always journey to a pub that will keep its beer well and have the beer that they enjoy in the condition in which they enjoy it. With the number of specials being pumped out by most craft breweries and the lack of product consistency coupled with the pressure upon pubs to have an ever changing beer list, the average consumer really has a very slim chance of being satisfied every time.

    The sad fact seems to be that new 'craft' brewers are concentrating so hard on their efforts to use the most fashionable hops (single hop Simcoe IPA anyone?) or create the most obscure sours that they haven't realised that the brewers who pioneered these styles had years of education and experience informing their controlling of each variable in the brewing process.

    I bloody love beer and am wholeheartedly in support of the rise in small independent breweries, but many are hubristic in the extreme and the mutual back patting between them and certain bloggers on the subject is incredibly objectionable, and with any luck it will be a fad.

  5. I'm not so worried about the craft brewers who are playing around using Simcoe etc as I am about those that don't. There are plenty of breweries that could be described as 'craft' but produce basically dull or low quality beers.

  6. Just dry hopped a beer tonight with Simcoe and some Cascade funily enougth, already had loads of New World hops in as a late addition. Of course we are Long Established Brewers of Boring Brown Bitter

  7. I'm getting frustrated with muddy beers that substitute excesses of hops for real brewing skill.

    Now that London has decided it is the Capital of Craft Beer we're getting a lot of stuff that's samey and simply not well made. On one level I think you're right and the market will sort it out - and that's all we need to worry about on that score. But the problem I worry about here in hipster North London is that a lot of people are coming into beer for the first time because it's trendy, and finding beers that are not good. There are an awful lot of unfinished drinks on the tables in my local pubs at the end of the night, most of them pale and cloudy - sorry, "unfiltered". As soon as beer is not trendy any more these punters will be running a mile from it and that will hurst brewers good and bad - it's going to be a lot more difficult to persuade someone to try a well-made, balanced craft beer if they've tried a few beers that taste of one-dimensional yeasty grapefruit and decided it's not for them.

    Why does that matter? Because I want more people to love great beer - I think that benefits us all because it attracts more talented people to the industry and makes their beers more available to everyone.

    I guess the best thing is, rather than calling for a shakeout, which I almost seem to be doing, is to keep drawing attention to the beers that really are great and quietly avoid those that aren't.

  8. One feature I have noticed lately is 2 breweries (Hardknott & Moorhouses) moaning about wholesale prices. This suggests that the number of micobreweries supplying a declining number of pubs is forcing lower wholesale prices. Doesn't have to be a bad thing for punters, and doesn't have to push down quality if customers turn their nose up at crap.

    This could be expected to cause problems for the least efficient operators or half arsed amateurs, though.

  9. Pete's comments about cloudy unfinished pints resonated with me.

    In North America, with some exceptions, real ale in my experience usually comes cloudy. I believe this is wrong from a palate and digestibility standpoint and also wrong historically. Most authors I've read from earliest times in Britain stressed the importance of a clear pint - not necessarily brilliant but clear - it was part of the process of conditioning.

    Why was real ale presented that way here? I think it was a misunderstanding of the concept of unfiltered, simple as that. Still, it became the norm, and (some) people accepted it.

    However, most craft beer until recently was filtered at the brewery whether for bottle or draft. This preserved the old idea that a clear pint was more attractive but also had a balanced taste: the yeast didn't overwhelm the palate or fight with the hops for dominance at any rate.

    But today, much of the draft and other craft beer, even when not real ale, comes cloudy. This is relatively new here, and it seems it is happening in the U.K. too (I saw the phenom in its early stages on a trip there 4 years ago).

    In my view, this does not favour the growth of the craft beer movement. At some point many people, especially the foodies/hipsters the brewers are hoping to convert to their cause, will stray from the beers after trying them a few times. Yes, wheat beers are an exception and the big companies' versions seem well-established, but I doubt the mass of the market will go for those or their ale equivalents. The kellers and such in Germany are a very small percentage of the market...

    Good beer comes in different forms, to be sure. But this particular direction is not favourable to expansion of the craft beer franchise IMO. In this sense I believe traditional cask brewers who hew to the older ways will retain an advantage, but so will new-school brewers who learn the best from the old.


  10. Postscript on the point of critiquing: it's hard to do because taste varies. You can say what you don't like, but the beer should be described as objectively as possible. E.g. I recall Michael Jackson used to use a term, "cellar note" or to that effect, to describe a kind of damp cellar-like taste in a beer. To me that denoted a beer with a defect, but he never put it that way. And maybe indeed some people like that. When one considers especially today how wild beers and similar beers are lauded, it gives reason to pause when saying something is not correct or up to par. Same thing with the cloudy pale ales. Personally I don't really like them but some people do evidently and I think it is better to say, if one will mention them at all in magazine and book writing, that the beers have pronounced yeast flavour which tends to dominate the palate. Or e.g. that a given lager has so-called green flavours of sulphide or diacetyl or whatever. Better to be objective, not as a solidarity exercise with brewers, but because in the matter of taste so much is subjective and also historically driven - the very taste of beer might be said to be "non-natural" in a sense, as is the bitterness of hops. I agree the blogging world gives more scope for frankness though.


  11. Thanks everyone for your comments, this is a subject I’m going to revisit soon from another angle.