The craft beer revolution explained
The craft beer revolution is a way of describing, in simple terms, the point at which beer became exciting and interesting once again.
Lots of people baulk at the phrase, guffawing “what does that even mean? It’s nonsense!” But, often, those are the same people who are blinkered to what has happened to beer over the past 20 years and, more recently, the past 10 years. Beer is brilliant and yet it wasn’t for a short time leading up to now.
But its redemption has arrived.
To explain the craft beer revolution, we need to cover how it became a commodity. It’s not a happy story. But fear not, adversity can generate spirited determination. Beer is the beacon of light in a darkened tunnel. It has its own happily ever after where good always conquers in The End.
As addressed in For the Love of Beer, mainstream corporate companies made and marketed many alluringly-branded beers and their domination created the public consensus that all beer was of that ilk. It’s not. But still, it took a long time for people to see anything other than those of the fizzy yellow kind.
In addition to this domination of the market, those running pubs were tied into contracts with their pub companies to buy certain mainstream brands (often at a marked up price) which meant they either needed to raise their prices at the bar or make smaller margins on brands they didn’t particularly rate. The general public just saw the same variety of beers available everywhere. A bit like going to another town or city and seeing the same chains of shops and restaurants on the High Street. Making places in the UK a bit uninspiring and lacking in identity or personality was the hallmark of success for some businesses. And the proliferators of homogeneity backslapped one another all the way to the bank.
Consumption choices governed by people who don’t care
Many pub companies, around that time, had no interest in the beer. The Business Development Managers wanted pubs to thrive sometimes as much as the licensee, but often at the top, many pub companies were run by people who just wanted to eke out as much as they could from the business without thought or care for the tenants, the products, or the customer experience. Consider the management companies that maintain leasehold properties and how interested they are in the people who live there compared to an independent landlord. It’s just like that for pubs. It’s like this for drinks companies too. Some are good and some are very bad. The ones that are best are the ones that show that experience matters and people matter. It’s really that simple.
But we have had to come a long way, as a nation, to even realise how our experiences have been controlled rather than nurtured.
This is what happens when you put people who replaced the words ‘food’ and ‘drink’ with the acronym FMCG in charge of your palate. Don’t ever let them plan your night out. They have forgotten that enjoying a bar is not about ‘surveying an interesting offer’ and a drink’s flavour is not it’s ‘taste profile’. They have forgotten how to be people.
In the past, relatively bland beers have grown in popularity not because they are great, but because we have been misguided. Also, such beers are often consistently unchallenging (you always know what you’re getting) and people feel a certain reassuring safety with that kind of thing. The rest is just marketing.
All of this had a great impact on buying patterns. But that is only one side of the story. Some other events also contributed to the craft beer revolution. The influence from the rest of the beer-producing world – especially the maverick brewing scene from across the pond.
Influences from the US
In Britain, we have always felt that having so many traditions was a good thing. But if you always create something by looking at how it has been done historically, you’ll probably never innovate. In America there were fewer established traditions for brewing, so instead microbreweries began experimenting and, guess what? They got better and better. The sheer breadth of interesting beers coming across from the US and most of Europe is now exponential.
From America, the fact that traditions for brewing were not as established as in the UK was due to the Prohibition Era having impacted on society. A whole generation of people grew up having never tasted beer, but when Prohibition was repealed it coincided with the Great Depression. Brewers were forced to cut brewing costs and this led to them reducing the amount of flavourful ingredients which meant bland beers. But even bland beer was better than no beer and so for decades Americans drank what they were given.
Home-brewing was against the law in many parts of America, so experimentation was a gradual process. When the law finally changed, Americans looked to Britain’s heritage of ale and developed similar IPA styles, but began using American hops that had grown in sunnier climes meaning bigger aromas and flavours. What they had that the Brits hadn’t had for a long time was a desire for exciting new flavours. This, combined with the fact that there were no pub companies or traditional well-established breweries in America, meant that there was a certain freedom.
As travelling became less of an expense, people everywhere began discovering that there was more to beer. Beer lovers became inspired and they brought some of that inspiration back home. They began brewing again – excited by the possibilities of what they might create.
Aloofness and dismissal among traditionalists
What also happened was that many of the long admired brewing veterans and campaigners who were meant to ignite passion in beer and uphold it as excellent, failed to see how people’s habits were changing. The frustrating thing is that they didn’t just miss the revolution because it happened really quickly, or because there were no signs to suggest that consumption patterns where changing while lifestyles changed around them. They actively dismissed it.
Take a collective group of people who fear change and tell them that something exciting is about to happen. They won’t like it and they’ll feel empowered and superior by refusing to acknowledge it.
So, where did it start? When did people begin to demand something better, more interesting and more memorable? Some brought their enthusiasm back from their travels. Others adapted because Britain was changing.
Social habit transformation and the revival of premium goods
The pinch point of the smoking ban in 2007 changed pubs dramatically. With those changes, socialising in pubs changed too. Pubs began to level out what they offered and venues adapted from male-dominated drinking dens to offer food. Mostly, businesses needed customers and, to gain them, they needed to find a whole host of new and different ways of attracting them. Pubs began adding soft furnishings, flowers, offering coffees, breakfasts and learned a lot about what people now wanted from restaurants, the expanding café culture and the casual dining scene. Many people complained that this was a rather un-pubby way of being a pub. Others enjoyed the diversification.
All of this is relevant to beer. Why? Because when people’s habits and routines change, their preferences flex a little too. With more choice available for where to drink and dine they became more selective, which in turn bred an interest in more premium products.
An interest in better quality products and services led to a greater interest in ingredients, eco-values, traceability and organic food and drink as well as the virtue of knowing that our choices are also empowered with a sense of doing some good for independent producers, the planet and our egos.
The desire for ‘craft’ amidst the scarcity of authenticity
The timeline of events affecting our need for all things ‘craft’ – and by that let’s say ‘meaningful’ or ‘real’ began at the turn of the millennium, during our stages of advancement. When reality TV shows hit our screens and a whole raft of instant fame-propelling contests followed purporting to make ordinary people stars in their own right.
With shows that revealed to us that there was a fast-track to fame, the new famous-for-being-famous celebrity culture on TV, in newspapers and in magazines became the noughties version of how we now view fast food from the eighties – a bit tasteless, convenient but not altogether a wonderful role model for good living. This is why craft culture needed to be revived. We grew nostalgic for true talent, simplicity and things that were genuinely good.
By 2005 we had social media and within the next few years, largely due to the availability of smartphones and apps, the way we began to communicate and create communities changed. Everything that survived and thrived during that time needed to desperately stay relevant in such a fast-changing society. It needed to stay honest and worthy.
The newly established micro-brewing scene did that. It gave us creators who cared about ingredients, process and results. It also gave us transparency between beer and businesses. It gave us drinks that were full of flavour, that tasted of their ingredients – drinks about which you could have a conversation. We hadn’t had that for a long time. And it was long overdue. Things got exciting. In the sunshine everyone wanted to know where to find their nearest beer garden or what bottles to stock up on for a back garden barbecue. When it rained or blew a gale we holed up near open fires in the local to sample the seasonal ales. Beer has a wonderful quality – it is pivotal to mood or weather.
The brown ales brewed by many of the traditional family brewers, although great in their own sessionable, well-balanced reliability had sadly begun to stagnate a little. This is what happens when drinks categories become reinvigorated, some benefit from the influx of new interest and others fall by the wayside. Terrified of losing their core audience, many brewers didn’t embrace opportunities immediately, but hoped that the new wave of beer styles emerging was a blip.
Perhaps it is really hard to take a chance when you’re a multimillion pound company – there are often shareholders to consider, but big brewers are now either buying up smaller brewers (who know how to brew creatively) or they are tentatively experimenting in a pilot brewery where their scale doesn’t scare them into producing something too avant-garde that may alienate their brand loyalists.
And there it is. Here we are. That is what has happened and yet it is the future that is more interesting. There are great things around the corner, but only if we continue to uphold beer as a drink that is truly great.
Beer is our barometer
The diversification within the brewing scene today and the sheer confidence and enthusiastic expertise being cultivated by the next generation of brewers is truly something to behold. It has welcomed in many new beer drinkers. People who thought, once upon a time, that they didn’t like beer.
Sadly, not all of the new experimental beers from UK breweries are great, but then it is a wonderful time to have a go.
For those who don’t really drink beer and are put off by bitterness, do remember that not all styles are big-hopped pales. Some have a malty backbone, or a rich chocolate coffee creaminess or lingering sharpness or funky fruitiness. Beer is a social drink and can have a divine impact on our taste buds. As such, it is something that lends itself well to being enjoyed among friends; talking, smiling, laughing friends.
Friendships that didn’t partially form over a beer or two often take longer to establish. There’s an unspoken understanding between two people nursing a beer over a pub table that the other person is a decent sort. They like a beer.
That’s what beer does. And what makes it so special. It is the drink that we consume in a crisis as well as a celebration. It is a hug in a glass. It is a salve for the bereft and the fluid that binds friendships.
Please don’t make it meaningless.