A few days ago I had a discussion online regarding the popular perception of craft beer and those who drink it. We both took different positions on the subject. My opponent believed that craft beer was a broad and open church that was working hard to convert the non-believers to the true faith. My feeling that whilst this may well be the case for many breweries who want as wide a market for their product as possible, it is not necessarily the case for some hard-core craft drinkers who actively like the small footprint of craft and feel that they are part of the beer cognoscenti.
I’ve been thinking more and more about this issue. I’ve written previously for an online magazine about my love of beer and how impressed I’ve been with craft beer festival organised by a collection of local Croydon businesses – http://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/event-review-the-croydon-craft-beer-festival-ii-17th-19th-march-2016/. That I happen to be a CAMRA member is not, (I believe) an issue because I drink a lot more “craft” at home than I do “real ale”, my fridge often having a few Beavertown, Kernel and Wild cans for when I get home. My point is that I genuinely love drinking the stuff. The bitter, hoppy, refreshing flavour of a cold craft ale is just what I crave after a long day of making the unpalatable slightly more acceptable. I like the fruity notes of new style pale ales and understand why some of the new style porters / stouts are looking to repeat the “big flavour” style, despite (if I’m honest) preferring Guinness on draft as I think the gas provides body and there’s something comforting about the creamy texture of Dublin’s most famous export.
I’ve been thinking a bit about the development of “craft beer / ale” in the UK and how I now react to what might be loosely termed as “the Craft Beer Scene”.
Not that long ago, real ale was for old men in flat caps and was dull in both flavour and as a lifestyle accessory. Few youngish men wanted to be seen drinking Youngs or Fullers on a Friday night. Even fewer youngish women fancied it either. On the other side of the fence, the big multinationals made a repeatable product that may have been more socially acceptable to men in their 20’s-30s but the flavours were deliberately conservative and increasingly unpalatable as beer was “brewed” as a concentrate then mixed with water and carbonated in different countries, despite being branded as something aspirational and of heritage; Peroni probably being the best example.
Craft beer in the UK was therefore born out of a reaction to products that didn’t tickle the taste buds and was a reflection of the massive success of the same process in the US, where small breweries rebelled against the mass produced power of AB et al to create a flavour and lifestyle alternative. I’m also delighted that this process happened. As mentioned I drink a lot of craft beer, particularly the breweries from Bermondsey that have done so well.
I’ve always felt that craft either always was or has essentially become a brand in of itself to help define and create a sales market. Craft beer in the UK, particularly with the likes of Brewdog, was attempting to appeal to a specific sort of personality, one that wants to be seen, or wants to see themselves, as different, rebellious, discerning etc. Of course flavour matters, but even then the original idea of making a hop forward style of beer that offered a flavour alternative to John Smiths or Becks morphed into a need to push the envelope and develop flavour extremes that if I’m honest are great for a sip but aren’t my bag for any sort of enjoyable night out, especially given the hefty ABV in play.
Craft Beer, at one time or another, became a product for those that wanted to be seen as outside of the mainstream. This concept was picked up in their branding, visual identity, copywriting , marketing and PR, which meant that the concept snowballed. The success can be seen by the US end game recurring in the UK, where AB / Imbev etc buy out successful craft operations and big established brewers like Fullers create their own craft offerings.
The reaction by the craft beer community / market market to these takeovers is instructive. For a vocal community, it’s like someone’s harmed their sister. There’s a lot of ranting online. Comments that the corporates will change their favourite beer for the worse. I’ll never drink their beer again. All of the above comes before they’ve tried the batches made under new ownership, or before they’ve considered quite how slick and corporate Meantime, Camden and the defiantly independent Brew Dog have become.
The aggressive reactions and opinions on craft beer are at the heart of my issues with the term. The attachment to either craft per se or particular brands demonstrates an emotional attachment that will delight the brewer’s marketing departments but also show that it’s no longer just about flavour. It’s about how drinking craft beer and being seeing to drink and talk about craft beer matter to a certain section of beer drinking society.
If I’m honest, this is where my problem lies. Craft beer bores that are convinced that they’re right, and I’m wrong, but more specifically, they have a level of knowledge and sophistication which allows them to belittle others that might have a different view.
When drinking after work in Shoredtich, I’ve been known to strike up conversation with fellow drinkers at the bar and chat about beer. Most of the time this is a brief, fun exchange of views about a product we all like. However, a few times after chatting, I’ve heard a number of people return to their groups of mates and say something along the lines of “what would a @?*+ suit know?”
I know this makes me sound deeply chippy but it does make me wonder. Why is the craft beer community so engaged with the brands and identity of craft beer? Is it the British love of an under(brew)dog? Is it the perceived and real conservatism of organisations such as CAMRA which have helped create a narrative of conflict for the new craft scene to fight against?
Either way, I’ve got to the point where I’ve written 1000 ranting words which describe my frustration at an attitude I’ve found to be far more representative than many craft cognoscenti would want to recognise.
Make great beer. Drink great beer. Just don’t sneer at anyone that dares to prefer something else, even if that is John Smiths, Fosters or Stella.
I’m going to go and open a can of Beavertown Neck Oil. Cheers.