Today, there are more than 1,400 breweries in the UK, and that number is rising. And what are these small, local breweries producing? Easy, craft beer. “The choice, variety, creativity, innovation and proliferation of styles we’re now enjoying can all be traced back to a single fiscal measure”, as the then chief executive of the Society of Independent Brewers, Julian Grocock, explained to ShortList in 2014.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown might seem an unlikely hero for the UK’s independent breweries but when he was Chancellor in 2002, he set in motion a process that has seen the UK return to the forefront of the brewing world. The Progressive Beer Duty meant small brewers got tax breaks. As a consequence, the number of independent breweries in the UK exploded.
there are more than 1400 breweries in the uk, and that number is rising.”
Talk of the UK’s pub industry is often couched in doom and gloom scenarios — understandable when around 30 pubs close their doors every week. But the unstoppable rise (and rise) of this island’s craft brewers is cause for much celebration.
Those involved in craft beer might not be able to single-handedly save the British pub industry, but they’re giving it a good go. So, whether you know your Kernels from your BrewDogs, or you’re new to the world of Pale Ales and IPAs, here’s how craft beer can give your bar or pub a shot in the arm and keep it relevant to the needs of the modern beer drinker.
What is craft beer?
Without wanting to muddy the waters at the outset, this isn’t as straightforward as it should be. There is no universally accepted definition of what craft beer is. Daniel Sylvester, one of the men behind the London Craft Beer Festival, (twitter) describes it thus: “Beer that has been created with an individual recipe that is of a more experimental nature. It’s usually a lot more flavoursome and a lot more extreme in taste than what people are generally used to with, say, standard lager.” Think big flavours, big tastes and a fresh alternative to mass produced fizzy lager and bland ales in other words.
Is it similar to real ale?
No. Real ale is often produced in a cask and can be quite flat — hence people talk about the English liking warm beer. Craft beer is usually produced in kegs — KeyKegs — and it uses a lot more experimental hops, usually based outside of the UK. Hops from New Zealand and the US are currently very popular. Most right-thinking beer fans, however, are just celebrating this golden age for ale.
What has the USA got to do with this?
It’s often said that when America sneezes the UK catches a cold, and in this case that’s absolutely the case. Craft beer exploded in the States in the late 70s following the deregulation of brewing. Beer enthusiasts bored of mainstream lager experimented with hops and, hey presto, a movement was born.
How big can it get in the UK?
Daniel Sylvester: “In the States — especially on the East and West Coasts — the split between the traditional beers (things like Budweiser) and craft beers is 33 per cent craft beer and the rest traditional. In the UK, it’s three per cent craft beer and the rest traditional. So in the UK all the big breweries are petrified that this situation is going to be replicated.” Craft beer will only continue to expand in the UK.
Is it just bearded hipsters?
No, it’s for everyone. In the States beer lovers have been drinking craft beer for decades. Real ale devotees over here have started to admire many of the beer’s bold, punchy flavours too. Moreover, it’s not just for men. Sylvester notes that at his festival the gender split is 50/50.
we were bored of the tasteless, lowest common denominator standard in the industry.”
Anarchy in the Beer Market?
BrewDog is typical of the irreverent attitude of the craft beer market. We asked them what the story was behind its brash approach. James Watt, Brewdog’s founder, explained: “We were bored of the tasteless, lowest common denominator standard in the industry. Faceless suits continuing to destroy the perception of what quality beer should be. We never compromise quality or flavour, beer is the priority and the reason we’re here.
“We’d rather spend time (and often do) developing a beer that’s a little more difficult to create than quickly throwing together something bland for the sake of a sale. Nothing leaves the Brewhouse until we’re completely happy and it’s these steps that set us apart from the mass-produced rubbish big corporations produce. We’ve amassed a kickass army of fans who share our passion for craft beer.”
there are festivals all over the uk, in every major city — you can’t really be more than 30 miles away from a festival.”
How can bars/pubs get on board?
Daniel Sylvester: “Come to a festival like mine, try all of the stuff. We have a session on the Friday afternoon that is just for the trade. It’s a chance to speak to the brewers directly, try the beers and then I invite all the distributors as well, so you can start to make links with the distributors. They know all these breweries around the country. Most beer festivals put on trade sessions. There are festivals all over the UK, in every major city — you can’t really be more than 30 miles away from a festival. Go to a festival, speak to people, try the beers — you can kill five birds with one stone.”
people want to try these beers — people are naturally inquisitive; it’s human nature.”
Can craft beer help safeguard the pub industry by developing a new generation of beer lovers?
Daniel Sylvester: “There are people that want to go to a pub, drink seven pints of Stella and sit around eating crisps. And then there are people that want to try different things, particularly among a younger audience. They are information savvy — they know that there are people out there doing interesting things, even if you’re living in a remote place in the middle of nowhere. So I don’t buy the idea that people will be ignorant about it. People want to try these beers — people are naturally inquisitive; it’s human nature.”
There are now independent breweries up and down the country — from high profile operations such as BrewDog, Kernel and Marble in Manchester to smaller, but no less discerning, affairs such as Hastings Beer Co, Hardknott in Cumbra and plenty more besides.
Craft beer drinkers are willing to pay a premium for quality; craft beer itself is a rejection of homogenous lager and flat real ale. Drinkers tend to be on the younger side (but not exclusively), which is good news for the future of pubs, and evidence suggests more women are choosing craft beer too. If your bar or pub has yet to sample craft beer’s robust hoppy delights, what’s stopping you? This is one ongoing revolution worth tasting.