Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Mainstream Craft



I was rather intrigued by the piece yesterday on Boak and Bailey about the post craft world. It got me thinking that perhaps there isn't just one set of "craft" brewers, but at least two. (Well more really if you count all the small cask brewers). The first set are those that actually know what they are doing, do it on a reasonably big scale, do it consistently and with a clear idea of what kind of beer they want to produce and what sort of business outcomes they have in mind. Whether that may be to get bigger or better, or more trendy, or to attract a certain kind of customer may vary, but they all have something rather grander and more ambitious in mind than, say, brewing muddy beer under a railway arch - even if they started out somewhere similar. They are the grandees of this craft business and while they may have been pioneers, they aren't really operating in the same world as they were any more, but in a rarefied version of it. These would include BrewDog, Thornbridge, Hawkshead, Summer Wine, Dark Star, Magic Rock and maybe even Hardknott.

At the other end of the scale is the trendy craft breweries of London, which, although they vary considerably in business models,  operate at the trendy end, more as a hand to mouth kind of business.  There cash is supplemented (maybe even generated) by opening their breweries up to fanboys and hipsters.  These wander about getting pissed of a Saturday by tottering between the new outlets, drinking overpriced and (often) underwhelming beer in overcrowded breweries, which themselves have in effect been transformed into pop up pubs for a day each week. When we think of craft though, it is increasingly those that spring to mind first, either by joining the Bermondsey boozers, or by vicariously doing so in trendy bars mainly in London, but increasingly elsewhere too. And always at top dollar.  These are not the same at all as the vast majority of cask brewing micro-brewers, although micro-brewers they undoubtedly are.

Of course I suppose I could and probably should have added a third bunch to this craft set.  That is the bigger brewers producing more interesting (that is short run, more challenging beers) within their own breweries, usually by having, as in the case of Thwaites and Brains, dedicated breweries within a brewery and a label that says craft very prominently indeed.  Given the resources that go behind these beers, they are usually pretty damn good too which also helps a lot. In fact it would not be that difficult to make a case that in many ways, Thornbridge and BrewDog  have much more in common with Thwaites and Brains than with the Shoreditch mob.  The flip side of this argument is no doubt that these breweries within breweries are parts of, but not the whole of their brewing operations and therefore lesser entities because of it.  Not a convincing argument if you believe that beer quality should be the ultimate determinant though.

British brewing is in a kind of odd flux at the moment.  The reawakening of London from its long sleep has profound inferences for beer drinking, not just there, but everywhere, as like it or not, London influencves almost everything in this country.  It will though be limited in how it exports itself, by that old North/South divide, so eloquently illustrated by Evan Davies in his recent series "Mind the Gap".  To a large extent, London will do its own thing, as there is sufficient population and more than enough money to sustain it, no matter how poor the product there often is. (In fairness, there is often too a lag before quality and consistency kicks in when anything new is offered.For the rest of us that aren't in London, maybe we should just enjoy the diversity, affordability and quality of what we have and if that means buying mainstream craft from BrewDog, Thornbridge et al, we should be glad to have the opportunity to do so, usually at a decent price. Either way, such diversity is good, but surely just underlines that as long as there is a demand for more interesting beer, it will be met, one way or another by those that have the nous to supply it.

 
It is a fact of revolutions too, that almost invariably those with the highest motives, those that gained the power first, are later knocked off their perch by those who come along subsequently and usurp the early adopters by outdoing them in the zealous department. We see this in the craft beer business too, where it is important to many to challenge how beer is produced currently, to buck existing practice as for example, in forsaking clear beer and to convince a receptive elite, that somehow this is better and tastier.  It is instructive (to this writer at least) that you don't see BD or Thornbridge producing muddy imprecise beer, but beer which is produced to the highest standards, while still maintaining in taste terms, a clear divide from bigger and more established operators.  But it does put them in a position where there interests lie more with the establishment than the usurpers.

That probably means that BrewDog and Thornbridge will be increasingly regarded as mainstream craft brewers.  One of them at least may not like that, but it's happening already.

And no. I have no idea what the formula means either.  Just thought it fitted somehow.  And of course we could sub divide this even more, but really, I regard "craft" as a synonym for "better keg."

And while the UK beer scene is in flux, it is worth pointing out that to most ordinary drinkers, it just passes them by.  As it should.

30 comments:

Graeme said...

Friedel-Crafts - nice :)

Beermunster said...

That diagram brings back a few memories. The mechanism for Freidel-Crafts alkylation if I remember correctly.

Cooking Lager said...

mainstream craft? eh? where did that come from? Is it an oxymoron like black IPA?

StringersBeer said...

... or a 4th set, or a 5th. You can partition this anyway you like. I should point out that it's perfectly possible to know what you're doing, and be pretty blinking consistent on the smallest scale. Indeed, lack of consistency is, perhaps, as often associated with growth as it is with incompetence.

py said...

There are two markets for craft beer; deliberately trendy, craft beer destination bars, and the mainstream pubs and supermarkets. Breweries will either serve one or the other, but probably not both. It will be interesting to see which side of the divide some breweries end up on.

Cooking Lager said...

Only 5th, Stringy? I'm waiting for Tandy's book "50 shades of craft"

steve said...

@Py brewdog most definitely do both

DavidS said...

So do you actually want to name some of these inconsistent, overpriced, poor quality breweries whose ambitions don't extend beyond brewing muddy beer under a railway arch? Or are you just going to stick to snidey implication and knowing nods?

DavidS said...

I'd agree, though, that there's an increasing divide - or at least, a range of different approaches - between craft breweries that prioritize value and consistency over constant new stuff and ones that, er, don't. Call it new wave versus punk if you want. And I'm not sure that it's a pure London thing or whether it's just that the London ones make the most noise.

And to an extent you wonder how many small and somewhat inconsistent breweries are on their way to becoming larger and more consistent breweries as they figure out what works, improve they recipes and sell more beer...

Matt Curtis said...

"opening their breweries up to fanboys and hipsters" - You mean customers, right?

If it makes you happy I'll stop going to the pub. x

Tandleman said...

You are going to breweries. See how mixed up they have made you? Lucky I'm here to put you straight!

And you have to read that line in the wider context.

Matt Curtis said...

I just feel like you used the terms fanboy and hipster in a negative context. If these breweries are courting business why should it matter where or who it comes from.

StringersBeer said...

OK Cookie. Or n-th. But, your main point, yes I'd love to read it... "He removed the blindfold. As her eyes adjusted to the light she realised she was surrounded by a circle of sweaty bodies. And what was this place? The curve of the brick, the stained masonary. A railway arch? She reflexively arched her spine in shivery anticipation. He spoke, "What are you having love?"

StringersBeer said...

"masonary"? Masonry? missionary? I'll ask Dr Freud when I see him.

Tandleman said...

Matt. Maybe I was. But then again. Maybe I wasn't. Maybe there was as I said a wider context and a deeper meaning. You Dear Reader, decide.

Cooking Lager said...

She looked at the barman, locking eyes with an intensity that could only mean one thing "Can I see the craft beer menu?" She inquired.

As a small booklet of exotic delight was placed softly on the bar, she noted the tension in the room could be cut with a knife. The aroma of hop varieties mixed with the drying of rain water on gortex.

She licked her lips provocatively, racking the sexual tension up to a new height. "I am in the mood to be ravished by a Bengali Tiger IPA" she said in an almost inaudible sultry whisper.......

StringersBeer said...

Nice one Cookie. Has anyone got the number for Boak & Bailey's publishers? I reckon we're on a winner.

Coxy said...

as Keg and bottle brewing go, Kernel are out there in their own league.

py said...

agree Coxy, but somehow I would be genuinely amazed to ever see them in a mainstream pub outside the capital. I see plenty of Meantime, Camden, Thornbridge, Brewdog on keg, and a whole range of (what I would consider) craft breweries on cask.

But kernel feels different somehow, I don't think they're ever going to be a mainstream craft brewery, nor do I think they want to be.

Birkonian said...

To be fair there are plenty of micro-breweries producing crap cask beer. However, as inferred by previous posters the murky brew from a London railway arch is probably never going to reach towns up here like Birkenhead so we can happily ignore them.

Erlangernick said...

So now we have "mainstream craft" as well as "hipster craft"? Hard to keep up!

Christ, people, just call it what it is: new wave microbrewery beer à la Yanqui.

On Thornbridge. I haven't been to England in nearly a year and a half. My last proper real ale was the Thornbridge day at In de Wildemann in Amsterdam in January. All the beers were in top nick, as good as I've had them in Sheffield.

And none of them was "crafty". Just really, outstandingly fucking good. Why is Thornbridge "craft"? Because they're new? They brew non-traditional beer styles (arbitrarily defined based on what was brewed in England, say, 30 years ago)? Because they also brew keg stuff like the Yanks do?

The term "craft", as I've gone on about before, arose to refer beer like Sam Adams and Pete's Wicked Ale that was brewed under licence at megabreweries like Stroh's, since they couldn't be called "microbrewed". Since Thornbridge is a proper microbrewery and not a contract brewer like Sam Adams, why not just call it a "microbrewery"?

py said...

That's largely my argument that I've been making for a few years now, the term craft is redundant, anything you mean by it could be expressed more accurately by simply replacing it with another word.

Bailey said...

You might say that, once they get their feet under the table, bigger 'craft' breweries such as Thornbridge and Meantime have a powerful incentive to start talking up consistency, and (explicitly or otherwise) doing down 'bathtub' brewers.

It's important, for the sake of diversity and 'vibrancy' that new entrants can join the game without £500k to invest.

Cooking Lager said...

I think part of the "craft beer movement" if you want to call it that isn’t just about better beer. Sure that’s part of it, but it’s also about an anti-corporatism and the homogenous imprint that sticks in a society of mass produced goods, services and culture. Where the people of New York watch the same films, eat the same burgers and wear the same trainers as the people of Old York, halfway across the globe. It’s part of the dislike of most national chains whether Tesco, McDonalds or Wetherspoons. There is something fake and soulless about any place which is an identical copy of a dozen other places you have visited. The same values can be seen well beyond beer geekery, and are at the root of most sub cultures.

The challenge of Brewdog, as it enters the mainstream, is the avoidance of being disliked. Not disliked as a backlash against its provocative self-promotion but a simple dislike of it as it rolls out a set of identikit craft bars, with identikit craft beer that is the same everywhere you go. The more successful it is the more it looks like a McCraft outfit and will come in for the same withering dislike many have for the McPubs of Spoons.

I think Brewdog, more than most, is going to struggle in the mainstream as what it means to be mainstream is against its ethos and reason for being. Mainstream craft reminds of that bit in the film “Withnail and I” where Danny the drug dealer laments the sale of hippy wigs in Woolworths.

DavidS said...

"They're selling craft brewer beards in Wetherspoons, man..."

On Kernel, I think the really unusual thing about them is that they're basically fairly user-unfriendly - I'm not totally un-geeky, and I have trouble remembering which "India Pale Ale: series of hop names" beers I've had and which of them I liked. They don't do an obvious always-available flagship beer, and the beers they do tend to be fairly challenging - ie hoppy in a dry way rather than a sweet and fruity way. And as far as I can tell they can succeed despite this because they tend to do it consistently quite well.

It'd be fair to say that Partizan and Brew By Numbers are pretty much following the same path, but I've not really had enough of their beers to say how well they do it.

Most of the other trendy London breweries I can think of (Hackney, London Fields, Camden, ELB, Weird Beard, Pressure Drop etc) go down a more traditional route, though - recognizable, long-running beers with relatively descriptive names, and consistency as something to be at least aspired to... you get the feeling that they'd quite like to be, in five years, where Thornbridge or Magic Rock are now.

StringersBeer said...

I think Cookie nails it. "McCraft" is good. But of course, the pooches have to be building the brand with an eye to the eventual money-shower when they sell a real share. Incidentally, what's the pooch brewery's share in the bars? Or are they mainly owned by the founder(s) separately?

Phil said...

In the case of Thwaites' the dividing line between 'independent micro' and 'micro subsidiary' is particularly artificial at the moment - the subsidiary's all they've got.

Keg as a shibboleth is an interesting idea, but I think it's only BD and a couple of others who have actually abandoned cask. "Is the beer lineup in a constant state of experimental flux?" would be one way to divide craft-A from craft-B; that, and "is the beer likely to taste soupy and unfinished (and are people raving about it anyway)?"

Final thought - in the early days of CAMRA, back when real ale was something you'd seek out in country pubs where they hadn't got round to taking it off, I seem to remember that unpredictability was something of a shibboleth for real ale. Partly this was a way of emphasising the inherent qualities of cask beer (this is real ale, it's a living thing, it develops and changes over time...), partly it was just an in-crowd marker (what's the matter, kegboy, doesn't it taste exactly the same as last time?). Either way, back then the idea of beer being a bit inconsistent & a bit twiggy was embraced by CAMRA people - people who were (by and large) young-ish and relatively hip. Plus ça change eh, plus ça change.

Phil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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