Hop to it!

20/01/2017 09:23:41

How to learn to love craft beer and stop worrying about flavour and terminology

When does a trend or a fashion become the new normal? For craft beer, I’d say 2014-15. 
I’ve been writing about beer for fifteen years. When I started, the idea that there was anything even worth writing about beer was one that most people found amusing or absurd – it’s just beer isn’t it?

By 2010 the laughter had stopped, as an explosion of new breweries reinvented beer and took its flavours in exciting new directions. But for a few years craft beer was still dismissed as something that was exclusively a fad for East London hipsters – an accusation that came as something of a surprise to brewers and drinkers in places like Derbyshire, Brighton, Yorkshire and the north of Scotland where brewers like Thornbridge, Dark Star, Rooster and Brew Dog had making flavourful, hop-forward beers for years.

The last two years have seen many in the beverage industry finally come to accept that a seismic change has happened in beer. Every major brewing conglomerate that spent years insisting people drank for the brand image rather than the taste, that mainstream lager was the way forward, has begun snapping up craft brewers or launching their own ‘crafty’ alternatives. Articles on craft beer are common in newspapers, and after years of their being no consumer-facing beer magazine in the UK, there are now several.

Still, there are many who remain nervous about craft. What is the definition of craft beer? How is it different from real ale? These are the questions I’m asked more often than any others by people who work in the hospitality industry, and I don’t understand why. Do you know the technical definition of tequila? Do you know whether a gin and tonic should officially be called a cocktail or not? I certainly don’t, because it doesn’t matter. I know what a gin and tonic is. I know what it tastes like. I know that some gin and tonics are far, far better than others. But I have no idea whether it’s officially a ‘cocktail’ or not, and I don’t care. It makes absolutely no difference to my enjoyment of a well-made G&T, or my disdain for a shot of a standard brand topped up with tonic from a gun. 

When it comes to G&T I’m a consumer with no interest beyond recognising a quality gin (and a tonic) that I’m going to enjoy drinking. And the consumer is exactly the same when it comes to craft beer. They use simple cues to identify craft: are the flavour cues different from what I expect in a mainstream lager? Is it made by a brewery I haven’t heard of, one that isn’t in the supermarket on permanent price promotion and doesn’t advertise at half time when the football’s on? 

Craft remains a small percentage of the beer market’s volume, and it will never completely replace mainstream lager. But craft is making beer premium again, redefining the price point beer can charge, engaging new drinkers who previously thought they didn’t like beer, and making beer suitable for a whole host of drinking occasions and situations where a pint of Foster’s just wouldn’t work. 

And still, people ask if this is all just a blip, a bubble that’s about to burst. My answer to this is that from the start of the industrial revolution to the early 1970s, most Brits enjoyed beers that were full-flavoured and complex. When mass marketing and standardised production created national brands and commodified them, we spent forty years drinking the label rather than the beer. That was the blip. Craft beer is people getting back to normal, getting back to what matters: great flavour and great stories behind beers from great people. Whatever you want to call it.

Written by Pete Brown