We have to talk about Craft Beer June 18 2014, 0 Comments

Part 1:  Have you seen what the neighbours are doing?

In November 1999, with an eye to its Millennium edition, I sent an article to CAMRA’s national newspaper, What’s Brewing, about the new tendency of small breweries in North America and across Europe, to make strikingly good ales in old British styles and call them “craft beers”. 

I saw the dawn of the new century as a good time for CAMRA to rethink its stance on what the word “good” should mean in the name Good Beer Guide, given how many cask-conditioned ales had become like dull keg beers from the 70s with a dash of yeast, and how many ‘unreal’ ones were gaining character.  A book from a consumer groups should be what its cover says it is, I suggested. 

My piece was spiked and fifteen years on, the group that started the global beer revival still refuses to discuss how it should deal with its greatest success. 

Foreign affairs

By 2011, I had written sixeditions of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide Belgium and was adjusting to having been picked to write the beer equivalent of Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson’s highly regarded World Atlas of Wine, for Mitchell Beazley, the publisher behind Michael Jackson’s original 1977 World Guide to Beer

For the last four years my co-author and friend, Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont and I have spent an unhealthy amount of time getting and keeping up to speed with the magnificent fortunes enjoyed by beer around the world in the subsequent four decades. 

The position in Britain is roughly like this: led the original consumer revolt but got caught up in the technicalities and fell behind – now reliant on foreign brewers to revive its unique and unparalleled beer heritage. 

In the early days we in CAMRA limited our ambitions to steering cask-conditioned ale away from its carefully prepared grave.  Had some time traveller warned us that we would live to see dozens of countries making competent interpretations of old-style British ales like pale ale and IPA, porter and stout, wee heavy and barley wine, we might have raised our sights. 

The state of play

Since the mid 1970s and more noticeably since the late 1990s, the state of beer in the world has improved incomparably. 

Stark divisions have emerged between mass-production industrial brands and hands-on craft beers, as public tastes have moved gradually but inexorably in the direction of the latter.  In no country is the craft segment shrinking, as in every established beer-drinking economy industrial beer is steadily giving ground. 

The prediction that craft beer will go out of fashion has not happened and there is no reason why it would.  Tastes may mature but once converted, drinkers stay with it because it is better.  And as politicians spot that it is craft brewers that will grow exports and create jobs, a different form of support will grow.

The numbers game

Credit for this monstrous jack-knife in drinking trends should be shared by early CAMRA for articulating consumer objection; obstinate family brewers in Belgium for sticking with traditions well outside industry-imposed norms; Michael Jackson for telling the world about its heritage of beer styles; and those mostly American entrepreneurs who took the risk to make businesses out of importing or respectfully imitating the best. 

In  1977, the first World Guide to Beer featured mostly four countries in which “artisanal” beers still enjoyed public support – the UK, Belgium, West Germany and Czechoslovakia.  The rest was about a few survivors clinging perilously to an inhospitable cliff, a couple of optimistic new arrivals and the story of what had been. 

When Steve and I turned over 2011 to researching our first World Atlas we found 45 countries with an active beer culture and a dozen or so that showed promise.  For Pocket Beer Book 2015 the numbers have risen to 67 and 74.  The point at which a fashionable idea became a global movement is long passed.

Fear of the future

For beer drinkers everywhere this must be good news. Yet in Jackson’s original big four beer countries, growing pains are apparent, not least when older beer drinkers are challenged to accept a new world order in which what was once exceptional has become relatively ordinary. 

The Belgium ducks the issue by relishing its position as the world no. 1 exporter – over 60% of beer made there goes abroad and if it maintains its standards and originality the future remains bright. 

In Germany and the Czech Republic, success is stunted by a global mistrust of lager brewing since it became the focus of industrial standardisation in the mid 20th century, while older beer drinkers struggle to come to terms with the next generation taking to pale ales and stout. 

In the UK, the problem is different.  While we may be the nation that created a majority of the beer styles that are currently wowing the world, we make precious little of them, because British beer drinkers prefer to deny any beer heritage beyond the sort of cask-conditioned light ales found in pubs. 

This is a problem.  Not just because it clips the wings of Britain’s best brewers but because, as I will try to show in the second of these pieces, our most popular ‘real ale’ styles are about as traditional as plastic furniture and neon light.

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Tim Webb served on CAMRA’s National Executive for seven years, running the Great British Beer Festival for the first two, then heading up publicity and publications.  He has since written numerous best selling beer books, thus far translated into nine languages.  In his spare time he runs a small publishing company and booksellers (booksaboutbeer.com).