Tuesday, 8 September 2015

“Craft beer” crumbling




I didn’t go to Craft Beer Rising at Drygate last year because I have no interest in craft beer. How can you be interested in something that doesn’t exist?

I’d found CBR rather irritating in advance, because it was, at the time, at the forefront of “craft beer” hype in the media, along with journalists who smelled the promise of a lucrative stream of articles misinforming the masses.

I went this year. I’ve changed my tune on Craft Beer Rising. I now think it’s great. But possibly not for the reasons they hope.

I like it because it’s so transparently opportunistic and cynical. Not for them the tedious discussions of what “craft“ means. They’re only interested in one criterion: “Have you got £1200 for a stall?”

This allows all manner of brewers to take part who are otherwise sneered at by “craft” enthusiasts: Caledonian, Greene King and the like. Even the hated Tennents/C&C are there, in the shape of Heverlee, their Belgian lager brand.

This in turn devalues the c-word, making it more and more obvious to all that it’s a marketing term, as meaningless as “premium lager” or “world beer”. This is an excellent development. Once it’s completed we can all get back to actually talking about beer and what it tastes like.

What of the very small brewers who balk at ponying up the reduced-rate £700? It might put most of them off, but then “craft” has never been about them. It’s always been a label for industrial breweries to distinguish themselves from rather larger industrial breweries with better quality control. Nearly every actual microbrewer I speak to thinks it’s nonsense. Observe who shouts the loudest about “craft beer”. It’s not the people who brew in railway arches, it’s the people with PR agencies.

Speaking of PR agencies, it must be awful for Brewdog. They’ve been placed right next to the supposedly “faux-craft” Meantime, and just three stands away from the presumably even faux-er Blue Moon, in a venue, Drygate, that James Watt once pompously declared was “exactly the sort of thing that should not be allowed to call itself craft”. In line with the purported principles of their United Craft Brewers club, to defend the term from being hijacked by bigger operators, by rights they should be boycotting this event and denouncing it loudly. On the other hand, there’s a shitload of money to be made here, which any brewer can tell you is more important than principles or consistency.

It is, though, mildly interesting to observe who’s here and who isn’t. Stewart of Edinburgh. Harviestoun. Belhaven/Greene King. Brewdog. Meantime. Inveralmond. Heverlee. Blue Moon. Budweiser Budvar. Thistly Cross cider. Oakham. Hardknott. Beer52 the online retailer. Caledonian. Dent. McEwans/Charles Wells. Lerwick. Wooha. Dunns wholesalers. Thornbridge. Nobody would call this the cutting edge of fashion. But it does represent a strata of producers ready to fill the retail space that the interminable “craft” hype has helped create. It doesn’t matter really that, actually, hardly any of them are the small brewers that “craft beer” ideologues pretend it is all about.

I was complaining that I wanted to be talking about beer, right? Let’s get on. My first drink is from Dent, a brewery from Cumbria which I am slightly surprised to see here; it has always struck me as a typical country brewery happy with serving its local market. The beer is unsurprising: Aviator, 4% bitter, but splendidly fresh-tasting. Another beer, Kamikaze, has unfortunately been attacked by diacetyl beetles.

On the other side of the room is Hardknott, also from Cumbria but in a way the polar opposite of Dent; much newer and with aspirations from the start not to be limited to the local market. They’ve brought along Intergalactic Space Hopper, which brewer Dave thinks may be the hoppiest beer at the festival. He could be right. Although Dave says there is only a small bittering charge, the beer has a big, clean, aspirin-like bitterness. It’s quite fun but gets heavy going after a while.

At Harviestoun, new beers are on offer. While they have flown the pale’n’hoppy flag longer than almost anyone else in Scotland, only now have they produced a beer actually called IPA. It’s resinous with English hops and has a bit of caramel, tasting slightly heavy.
For the tickers, there’s a raspberry imperial stout at 10.5% which may resurface at some point in the future.

Belhaven are masters of producing beers that you can’t actually buy anywhere. What intrigues me about this stall are the bottles of Wee Heavy. I’ve never seen this beer in a pub in twenty years of drinking in Scotland, and assumed it was all exported, but I am assured they sell it here. In the Belhaven pubs, perhaps? Well, no, because it’s down to the managers what they order. Isn’t the point of having tied pubs so that you have a guaranteed outlet for your grog?

This is a shame, because the Wee Heavy is excellent – rich and sticky with huge flavours of raisins, raisins and more raisins. If they wanted to, Greene King and Belhaven could  run pubs with a killer range of beers: XX Mild, Abbot Reserve, Twisted Thistle, Wee Heavy, Strong Suffolk. Probably a bit conservative for today’s market, but hell I’d drink there.

At the Oakham stall, Green Devil on keg is a good example of why cask beer is better. It’s somehow sweeter than the cask version and tastes “closed”, without any unfolding of its flavour. Good luck to anyone trying to sell this at crafty prices, when the superior cask version is flowing out elsewhere in the city at £3 a pint.

Budweiser Budvar has a stand, so I guess that means craft breweries can be state-owned too. There’s a tankové pale lager on draught. I have to try that, but I can’t say it tastes any better than the bottled version. Try this too, says the bloke. Unlike other Czech dark lagers I’ve tried (which often deliver the rich maltiness that German dunkel beers promise), the flavour of Budvar Dark is mostly roast malt and liquorice. I’m not too impressed by anything here, but then I’ve always preferred Pilsner Urquell anyway.

I was wrong earlier. Tennent’s are here too. Although their stall has been banished inside, where a lonely-looking rep is giving out samples of Tennent’s Whisky Beer. This seems to have gained more whisky flavour than it had when it was launched.

My permanent quest for decent lager leads me back to Thornbridge’s stand, where the magnificent greenish-yellow Bayern pilsner is being poured. Now this is what it’s all about. A beautiful beer with soft carbonation and gentle bitterness – possibly in the top three British lagers I’ve drunk this year. For a moment the idea crosses my mind that they could send all the other breweries home and just serve Thornbridge Bayern all weekend. In litres.

I liked Inveralmond Sunburst lager previously, but it doesn’t stand up well against Bayern. Too biscuity, inappropriately fruity and badly poured. Of the many lager brands on show, only Thornbridge seem to have bothered teaching people how to pour the stuff.

Once I got there, I liked Craft Beer Rising much more than I was expecting to. A friend was complaining about the lack of “real” craft brewers and about the non-craftiness of some of the brewers who did turn up. I kind of liked it for precisely the same reason. It lets us see which “craft mavericks” are charlatans; whose premium lager is all piss and wind; and which mass-market accountant-led brewery still has a decent beer or two lurking in its portfolio.


7 comments:

  1. Interesting take Rob. Must seek out that Thornbridge then!

    ReplyDelete
  2. A well written piece. Interesting to see who's filling the gap between the railway arches and the macro breweries. As expected it's the 'craft' beers with enough volume to sell in supermarkets (Thornbridge included). Although I have to say, from what you listed, the beer from Thornbridge in general is a step ahead of the other stands.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I knew it was over when they rang up to <strike>offer</strike> sell us a spot.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great post. Glad I skipped it for a second year in a row.

    ReplyDelete
  5. There has been some right tripe show up at the CBR in London. Not a thing I'll go to again. It wasn't _bad_ mind you, there were plenty of good folk there... and if you're in as a trade-day freebie it's a decent way to hang with folk.

    But the regional presence mostly makes it a bit of a joke. And then there is all the other crap. Beery rum flavoured alco-pops in clear glass... not even sure what sort of drink that stuff was trying to be. And the US imports that really aren't worth importing... Point, Dominion, others...

    "transparently opportunistic and cynical" is spot-on I think. There's no attempt to hide it, they're part of the marketing machine that drives folk like Greene King to try and position bland beers as "craft"... if they keep on telling people this it becomes true, right? They seem to think so.

    In a way CBR actually uses the smaller breweries with discounted stands as a way of adding authenticity to the brand-led crap at the event. I wouldn't be surprised if they actually market to the regionals in this way: For only £2000 have your beer at a "craft beer event" alongside the likes of Beavertown, BrewDog, and Thornbridge - add craft authenticity to your branding exercise!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thought this rather well considered post was worth more comments than it got. Maybe you don't piss hard enough on the craft chips?

    You must try harder.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Bit offensive: On the other hand, there’s a shitload of money to be made here, which any brewer can tell you is more important than principles or consistency.

    ReplyDelete