by Freddie Bruhin-Price
Papa’s got a brand new beer. Over the last three decades, craft beer has been slowly encroaching on the dominance of mass produced lager in the American beer market. The rise of the microbrewery began in the 1970s after President Jimmy Carter deregulated the US Brewing industry, enjoying steady growth until the 1990s, before reaching the palates of cool kids and aging hepcats in up-and-coming quarters of Britain’s cities in the last decade. Today, a wide variety of craft beers is offered to any wanderer who finds his throat slaked with thirst, in country pubs, new bars and Wetherspoons across the nation.
It would seem that at some point during the rise of the craft beer, hip drinkers passed the pint glass to Joe Public and his six merry mates down at the town’s dingiest Bird and Bee. Suddenly ale houses have started to pop up on every street corner, selling craft beers, as well as their elder cousins, locally brewed British real ales. Vendors charge a premium for craft beers, to try and capitalise on these beautifully nuanced bevvies where many pubs have failed. Can an American phenomenon save the UK pub industry?
Things certainly seem to be changing, as sustainability-conscious microbreweries in the UK are altering practices in beer production. As recently at March 31 this year, craftbrewingbusiness.com (CBB) proclaimed that, over in the USA, “We have entered a golden age of craft brewing.” Drinkers are increasingly turning to craft beer, despite its higher cost, for its flavour, and for its reduced environmental implications when compared with more established beer brands.
Names like Heineken, and Carlsberg, probably not the best beer in the world (and consumed by many with a grimace usually induced by the ingestion of urine) have dominated the market for years. These two giants alone account for 15% of the international beer industry. Along with a trolley-full of big-name lagers from Europe, these brands are so ubiquitous that we know not only the beers, but their logos, nicknames and slogans. It’s a Good Call, or the King of Beers, claims which subvert the sad reality: a cheap, mass-produced variant on dishwater that is largely indistinguishable from its market rivals.
The contrast with local microbreweries is staggering. As are many beer drinkers of a Friday evening. Alas, I digress. An essential ingredient of craft brewing seems to be personality. Take Outstanding Beers of Bury, Lancashire for example. Their website proclaims “We don’t want to be ok, average or ordinary.” The brewery’s “About Us” page includes a crudely drawn portrait of each of the company’s five main players, accompanied by pearls of wisdom like “Glen: Glen’s grandfather invented the question mark.” Or Old School Brewery, of Warton Crag, whose use of of “quality ingredients which we hand craft with love and patience” is mixed with “respect of our beautiful environment to produce first-class hand crafted beers.”
Speaking about the more carefully managed practices in the craft beer sector, craftbrewingbusiness describes a “triple bottom line model of profits, planet, people” which is common among those craft breweries who are aware of the need to appease environmentally-inclined consumers to succeed in the modern market. This equates to a philosophy of sustainable brewing, waste reduction and compassionate treatment of employees. British drinkers are gradually becoming aware that buying craft beer contributes to their local economies. Many UK Craft Breweries, including Outstanding Beers and Old School Brewery, provide vital employment opportunities in their local areas.
Some brewers have also undertaken measures to reduce waste, doing what is referred to by sustainability experts as “adaptive reuse.” In practice, this is the distribution of “spent” hops to farms, where they can feed farmyard animals such as pigs. Who knew plunging barrels and pulling pints could help feed hungry swine?
What’s more, consumers who drink local craft beers also cut down on so-called “beer miles,” ie. the distance the beer has to travel to your local’s draught or fridge. However, there are also many craft beers which travel across Europe, or even across the Atlantic to your glass, so perhaps simply drinking any craft beer isn’t enough. This separates craft beers from real ales, with the latter term denoting exclusively British, cask-conditioned beers. However, the plentiful selection of local beers, craft or otherwise, that is now available here means that even the discerning craft beer drinker can have a decent leg-wobbling drinking sesh whilst trying a different local beer with every round (depending on your constitution, of course.)
Following the initial popularity of craft in the city, now even drinkers with the smallest of carbon feet, who rarely leave town, have already created an entrenched craft and real ale culture. In my local town of Clitheroe there is pride in local beer and scorn for mass produced lagers, made manifest by tuts and sneers whenever Foster’s is ordered instead of White Witch, Hobgoblin or Blueberry Bitter. This popularity is partly owing to the variety and individuality of craft ales. Scott Williams of Williams Bros Brewing Co says “We [craft breweries] can be a lot more experimental,” which although incurring higher costs per litre, results in a unique-tasting pint. Perhaps this means there is room for new breweries to develop craft beers with individual flavours, and find their own place in the market – before it becomes sozzled.