Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November 2015
Craft vs Real Ale is a pointless antagonism that has been largely fanned by the crafties
IN THE mid-1970s, there were only 44 brewing companies left in the whole of the USA, and the beer market was dominated by bland, light lagers. So the conditions were ripe for the development of an “alternative beer” movement, initially referred to as microbreweries, but more recently morphing into “craft”. They were able to draw on a wide range of brewing traditions from all around the world, including a substantial influence from British real ale, to produce a huge variety of interesting, characterful beers, and even developing their own entirely new styles.
Not surprisingly, beer enthusiasts looked at this and thought there was a golden opportunity to extend that buzz over to this side of the pond. However, there was a little problem. Britain already had a thriving craft beer scene, comprising both the established independent breweries that CAMRA had originally been created to champion, and hundreds of micro breweries that had sprung up since then in a similar way to the US.
Some of it could be conservative and stick-in-the-mud, but there was a huge amount of innovation and variety in beer styles. Yet it was this “real ale scene” that the new evangelists of craft chose to tilt against. Britain was surely ready for mega-strong beers, teeny measures, craft keg and cans, weird flavours, eyewatering prices, and check shirts and fancy beards.
A key tipping point was when BrewDog, the leading lights of the craft beer movement, stopped producing cask beer entirely and deliberately portrayed themselves as standing up against everything CAMRA represented, something that came across as a crass publicity stunt. There seems to be a continuing brush war between craft beer hipsters and real ale traditionalists, but surely everyone interested in good beer shares a huge amount of common ground. And it’s clear that most of the antagonism comes from one particular side.
Brewers who want to experiment should master the basics first
ONE THING that the craft beer movement has brought is a marked increase in innovation in brewing. We have seen numerous variations on existing categories, mashups of multiple beer styles, and even entirely new types being dreamed up. However, innovation can be a double-edged sword, and brings with it potential pitfalls.
For one, you can never be quite sure if an experimental beer is off, or just something that isn’t to your taste. If you see a new beer in an established style such as Stout or IPA, you’ll have a reasonable idea whether or not it’s in good condition. But for something entirely new, how are you expected to know? And, for beers aping Belgian and German “sour” styles, there can be a fine line between challengingly astringent and downright vinegary.
Experienced brewers are well-placed to know whether whether something unusual makes sense or not – locally, Cloudwater are a good example of this. However, some newcomers to the industry have a tendency to chuck whatever comes to hand into the mash tun and take pot luck as to what comes out. Unless it’s utterly vile, they can generally put a positive spin on the result. Apparently one new brewery produced a batch that was heavily affected by diacetyl, a common brewing fault that, while not unpleasant as such, gives beer a pronounced caramel character. But, rather than pouring it down the drain, they marketed it as “Butterscotch IPA”.
Innovation, within reason, is a good thing, but it does help to have a sound background in conventional brewing before striking out on a more adventurous path. Picasso is famed for his distorted, abstract paintings, but in his early years he had a thorough grounding in the principles of draughtsmanship. Perhaps experimental brewers should first demonstrate a track record in producing sound beers in established styles.