If you are a beer drinker it can’t have escaped your notice that craft ale is all the rage at the moment.
Here in Gloucester we have our first craft beer pub, in the form of Gloucester Brewery’s TANK bar. Elsewhere in the country, the UK’s craft ale pioneers BrewDog are going from strength to strength and there is talk of them opening a bar in Gloucester in the near future – I hope that goes ahead as it will be a great boon for the city.
I like craft ale a lot; but it does worry me.
Firstly, let’s be clear: I do not want to get into a debate about what constitutes craft beer. This topic has been discussed to death by proper beer writers and the consensus seems to be that there is no consensus on what it is.
All I am setting out to do is voice my own subjective and ill-thought out concerns, and they are broadly these:
From my limited understanding the whole craft beer thing came to us from America.
For a long time, the Americans were terrible at beer; they just didn’t get it. Even now, in many places in the US, if you ask for beer they’ll tell you they have all kinds: “we have Bud, Bud Lite, Miller, Miller Lite…” Elsewhere, however, over a number of years a superb micro-brewery culture has been burgeoning and it is this that has recently broken free and spread to the rest of the world.
This in itself gives me pause for thought as we embrace it into the UK in a ‘coals to Newcastle’ kind of way.
The thing with importing this beer from America is that, because the brewers were rightly very fussy about standards, it was bloody expensive. However, because it was new, novel and very good, people were willing to pay for it.
Because it was popular, British brewers began to abandon their more traditional beer styles and copy these newcomers. And because the Americans were getting away with charging eye-watering prices for the beer, they got in on that act too, despite their costs being much lower (although to be fair, probably still higher than for their normal beers).
Craft ale has now become intrinsically linked with the Hipster craze and a certain snobbery has risen up around it. This means that brewers almost have to charge silly amounts of money for it or nobody will buy it because it is not ‘craft’ enough.
Although I don’t intend to get into a discussion on what constitutes craft ale, I think it is uncontroversial to say that it is generally very hoppy.
Okay, that may not be entirely uncontroversial, I know there is more to craft beer than that, but if you were to pick one distinguishing feature I think that would be it.
So now, almost all brewers have to have something ridiculously hoppy in their range.
Although I am traditionally a dark ale kind of guy, I have come to love these hoppy beers. A nice pint of Gloucester Galaxy or Hillside Anzac, especially on a warm summer’s day, is superb.
But increasingly it is becoming difficult to find anything else to drink – real ale bars are full of hoppy golden ales and the trouble is, after a while, they all start to taste alike. And as my palette has become accustomed to these very hoppy craft beers, traditional beers that I previously thought of as hoppy now suddenly seem quite bland, so perpetuating the problem.
The brewing scene in the UK has traditionally been wonderfully diverse and inventive; it would be a shame if some of that gets lost as everyone rushes to chase this latest craze.
Cask vs. Keg
I hesitate even to broach this subject as it is potentially explosive, but here goes…
Back in the 1970s Britain was awash with nasty, fizzy, inferior keg beer. It was cheaper to produce and easier to transport, keep and serve. The trouble is it was horrible. Luckily, CAMRA came along and saved the day and in recent years we have seen a resurgence in excellently brewed cask ales.
Now along comes craft beer and it is frequently served on keg. Indeed, craft ale on keg dispense often sells at a premium over craft ales served from the cask.
This is fine whilst the beer is good, varied and interesting, but may set us up for problems later when the big breweries revert to form and work out that they can get away with going back to the same old rubbish only now at a higher cost.
You would hope that we, the drinking public, will be too discerning to allow that to happen, but I’m not sure I’d bet on it.
As I have previously alluded to, craft beer has become intrinsically linked with the Hipster craze along with flat white coffee, fixed wheel bicycles, cafe racers and Apple products. That is fine as far as it goes, but what happens when fashions change, as inevitably they must.
It can’t be long now before we are looking back and laughing about silly Hipster beards and fashion tastes in the same way that today we laugh about 1980’s perms and shoulder pads. What happens to beer then?
Maybe I am worrying needlessly and people will continue to drink good quality ale and beer styles will revert to their previous rich variety, with these new hoppy beers just a welcome addition to the range.
Or perhaps everything Hipster will become so cringingly uncool that anything loosely categorised as craft ale will be shunned, and people certainly won’t continue to pay the exorbitant cost of a pint. The brewing industry could suffer as a result, taking us back to the bad old days of limited choice and a resurgence of keg beer.
As worries go, obviously this all falls very much into the category of a first world problem, but beer is a subject dear to my heart and I’d hate to see it wounded by a passing fad.