By Jack Peat, TLE Editor
What is craft beer? It is a quandary that has perplexed the modern hipster for as long as their beards have been long and their hair has been an absent bystander amongst geek-chic glasses and lumberjack shirts. For most people the term is associated with ‘small’ or ‘independent’ brewers with a strong attachment to their locality, but it’s an image that some craft brewers are desperate to move away from.
The reason being that craft beer is enjoying a momentous surge of late and it does brewers no favours to limit their production or stall their growth because of semantics. Recent statistics show three breweries open every week in the UK and earlier this year the Office of National Statistics even went so far as to include craft beer in the basket of goods used to measure inflation, a sure sign of the mainstreamism that has gripped the industry. But surely that’s a contradiction in terms?
Before the craft and real ale renaissance Britain had become monopolised by multinational corporates. Newcastle Brown Ale moved from Newcastle to Gateshead and then to Yorkshire to satisfy the demands of owners Heineken and Leeds-based Tetley’s moved out of their historical city brewery as the world’s four biggest brewers bulldozed the market, accounting for over half the market for beer globally.
The vacuuming of breweries coincided with a prolonged period of pub closures. Punters, unable to distinguish the offering on the bar to the offering on the supermarket shelves, found it more economically viable to drink at home. The British Pub Association says up to 29 pubs close every week in the UK owing to high tax on beer and supermarket competition. Those who have survived have had to offer something different to keep the pumps flowing.
But amidst the doom and gloom in the pub scene the brewing industry has been rejuvenated. Determined to take the big boys a veritable smorgasbord of inventive brews have sprung up sporting creative names and branding. There are estimated to be 11,000 beer choices available in the UK, including one-off specials and seasonal beers. London has become a hub of craft activity. Shoreditch, awash with hipsters hell-bent on ripping up the rule book, is one of many spots in the capital where you can drink ale from tinnies with ‘360’ lids and ultra-hip vintage cans. London Craft Beer Festival has just passed and there’s a real sense that anything is possible for brewers willing to give it a go.
So there is more than a dose of irony in recent revelations that Meantime Brewery, recently bought by Dutch multinational SABMiller, sometimes brew their beer in the Netherlands. The news, leaked by Beer Insider, sparked debate over the authenticity of a beer that carries the slogan ‘Born and Brewed in London’ and waxes lyrical about “Kentish hops and East Anglian malting barley” and the state of the art microbrewery in Greenwich.
But should we be shocked? For me it came as no surprise at all that the brewery is bending the rule book to meet rising demand. Venture into most bars in London and you will find one of their brews on tap or stored in the fridge. If not Meantime then Brewdog, Camden or Fuller’s Frontier, but the principle remains the same; London’s craft revolution is actually very concentrated.
Aside from SABMiller’s acquisition of Meantime Brewery, Camden has recently sold 20 per cent of the business to a Belgian manufacturing family for £10 million and Brewdog has grown exponentially through crowdfunding schemes and is now found on tap in most Wetherspoons pubs. Frontier is owned by Fuller’s brewery which brought in revenue of £288 million in 2014.
Small, local and independent may soon be relics of a time gone by in this nascent industry. Brewdog’s second attempt at defining what it is to be a ‘European Craft Brewery’ emitted many of these founding principles in favour of a definition that would see a Fosters craft ale let off in court with the right lawyers. Although I remain enthused about the craft revolution that has gripped Britain, I am increasingly concerned that from the many it will soon become the few. In the same way the globally beer industry became monopolised by four brands, the craft industry is becoming similarly concentrated.