Sunday 28 April 2013

Everybody's crafty nowadays

Pale imitations: Are the big boys 'watering down' the
craft beer message?
One sure-fire sign that a once-niche scene has made the dizzying leap into mainstream popular culture is when the big boys try and muscle in on the act. 

Happens in all walks of life. Not unlike the surly teenagers who'd delight in subverting an innocent park kickabout before nicking your ball or (worse) popping it, the bullying behemoths descend into hitherto unknown (for them) territory and ruin it for everyone wherever they see something new and interesting they can get their grubby maulers on.

Memories of interrupted cricket matches and broken home-made bows and arrows come flooding back as I read with interest and some surprise that brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev is questioning the very nature of the beer it makes. It's already bought the Chicago-based Goose Island brewery and has more recently signed distribution agreements with two other US craft beer makers. Clearly, this big boy is rattled and wants in.

Understandably so. From fairly humble beginnings, craft beer now accounts for around 6 per cent of the billion-dollar US beer market. That's expected to grow to 10 per cent in the next three years and it's this seemingly inexorable rise that's causing raised eyebrows among the brewing giants.

It's a similar picture in the UK, although not quite on the same scale. But you'd have to have been on a terrific, three-year-long bender to have missed what one particular brewer has called the 'craft beer revolution' happening on these shores. You can't move for the stuff. Whether it's on supermarket shelves, in specialist shops or at purpose-built bars that are seemingly bucking the pub-closing trend, distinctive, interesting and (largely) expensive beer is practically everywhere.

There are craft beer apps, craft beer books, craft beer companies, craft beer glasses and, best of all, a craft beer war. That's right, folks. In time-honoured British tradition, fights and mud-slinging have broken out across the land between traditional cask ale stalwarts (who, to be fair, have done much to keep British beer interesting despite being somewhat less good for its image) and the new, upstart beer aficionados who care not how their tipple is delivered, just value the taste and, in some cases, the cachet. There are reasoned arguments and irrational, crazed rantings on both sides, although I'm still scratching my head as to why there are two sides in the first place.

The crux of the matter seems to be the way the beer is dispensed. It's amazing how heated the debate can get. An editorial in the programme for this year's Wandsworth Beer Festival claimed that the single biggest threat to real ale was 'craft beer' before going on to posit some astonishingly ill-informed views. The craft beer lobby isn't afraid to bite back either, with some commentators, bloggers and even brewers more than happy to stick the boot in to CAMRA's more frenzied zealots. Cask versus keg is the battle and the debate's becoming more polarised as time drags on. Meanwhile, most observers wish people would just shut up and drink what they like no matter how it is served.

Predictably, there's been a lot of navel-gazing and discussion about what constitutes craft beer any way. Is it only served in keg? What about bottle-conditioned ale? Is there such a thing as 'craft cask'?

Not surprising then that, with all this kerfuffle, Britain's bigger brewers are waking up to the very real threat of dwindling market share. While more beer drinkers seek bigger flavours and higher-quality ingredients, the future looks less bright for the bog-standard bland ale. I should add I've got no figures to back this assertion up, but having talked to numerous head brewers, marketing executives and sales directors at the (not so) recent Craft Beer Rising festival in London, it's clear the bigger boys are diversifying in response to the challenge.

Some, like Brains or Thwaites, have opened up their own small-scale operations dedicated to innovating, while others such as Greene King and Wells & Youngs are complementing their core range with seasonal or limited-edition offerings. With varying degrees of success, admittedly, but one thing's for sure: the larger players are beginning to think about beer differently and are coming to the party.

Whether or not this is a good thing is anyone's guess. The worst-case scenario is that they pay lip-service to craft ale, flood the market with copycat 'innovative' beer and drive down the price to put the smaller operations out of business. No one's really predicting that and there's no reason to think it's what anyone wants to happen either. Most of the larger brewers I spoke to seemed to welcome the challenge that small brewers have laid down to them. Ever the optimist, I'd like to think that, as a result, we'll now see an ever-increasing supply and greater availability of beer that's well brewed with quality ingredients.

And if that happens, I can't imagine either side of the great beer divide will be particularly unhappy, whatever they tell you. All that will remain is pinning down that definition - one for discussion in the tap room over a pint of craft cask, I expect. 

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