Tuesday, 18 March 2014
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.