British beer – better than it has ever been

London is recovering from a week of beer festivals. The long-standing Great British Beer Festival has been joined in recent years by the Craft Beer Festival and London Beer City, a programme of mini-festivals taking place in pubs across the city. Having them all at the same time doesn’t seem to have created competition between the festivals though. If anything, interest in one seems to fuel interest in all the others – a vast week-long celebration of ale.

Earlier this week, the Telegraph reported that the number of breweries in Britain has tripled over the last fifteen years, reflecting the demand for beer produced by small breweries.

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In the 1970s, there were only four pubs in Britain that brewed their own beer. Received wisdom said that they were anachronistic and would soon go the way of all the others. Beer would be mass-produced by a few big breweries, just like most other consumer products. But the revival of interest in cask beer and the formation of the Campaign for Real Ale in the 1970s started a microbrewery revolution. Shortly afterwards, in 1979, Jimmy Carter deregulated the US brewing industry and American craft brewing took off.

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Real ale and craft beer have become divisive terms for some people. There is an element of generational tribalism about all this. In the 1970s, beardy hippies drank real ale. In the 2010s, beardy hipsters drink craft beer. I, from the beardless generation in the middle, enjoy both.

The two terms are not mutually exclusive. Real ale refers to the way a beer is kept and served. It has to be allowed to continue fermenting in the cask or bottle and be served without artificial pressure. Craft beer is a more nebulous term meaning beer brewed by small independent breweries. Because the term originated in the US and American brewers tend to serve their beers under CO2 pressure, a lot of people think craft beer = keg beer. The comments from beer festival drinkers in this Guardian piece are typical.

In fact, a lot of craft beer in Britain is also real ale. I spent a pleasant evening on Thursday working my way through Thornbridge’s range served from casks at Clerkenwell’s Craft Beer Co which, incidentally, always has over a dozen craft cask ales on the go.

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Most of the breweries in the UK that describe themselves as producers of craft beer serve at least some of their range as real ale. To blur the line that bit more, some of Britain’s long-established independent breweries are now adopting the term craft beer on the quite reasonable grounds that they have been brewing beer as a craft for years.

Some people complain that the influence of US craft brewers has made us all start drinking very hoppy astringently bitter beers. That may be so but even here there is now a reaction going on. Some craft brewers are now brewing darker and maltier beers. American brewers are even starting to brew milds. The traffic in beer influences is two-way.

One of the first things I noticed about the American brewers, when I first visited craft beer bars there in the 1990s, was their irreverence. Because their brewing tradition had been extinguished by prohibition they had no pre-conceived ideas. They were doing mad things like making English pale ales flavoured with strawberries, porters with coffee and wheat beers with grapefruit. It is the US brewers who must take most of the credit for reviving the India Pale Ale in its original strong and bitter form, as opposed to the blander version we had been left with after the beer weakening during the First World War. Like Halloween, the Americans took an old British tradition and sold it back to us. They then went on to develop the Black IPA which is, of course, a contradiction in terms. Brewing an IPA with dark malts is a ridiculous idea but one that has created a fantastic new beer style. We have the Americans to thank for pushing the boundaries of brewing and encouraging brewers everywhere to create some truly original beers.

The result of all this is that beer in the UK is probably better than it has ever been, in terms of quality, choice and availability. Real ale and craft beer are still seen by some as retro movements, harking back to some idealised form of beer from the past but, if ever this were true, it certainly isn’t now. The newer brewers, especially, are moving away from giving their beers oldie worldie names and logos. These are 21st century products with 21st century branding. British brewing is a modern industry taking beer off in all sorts of exciting new directions. Some people will still whinge about craft beer but you won’t hear me complaining. These days, there is a mind-boggling array of great brews to choose from. Beer has never been so good.

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