by Rick Kempen Beer Sommelier at Het Bierplein
The Craft Beer RevolutionWhat is craft beer?
The craft beer revolution has changed the world immeasurably - what else would you expect from a revolution? But there’s something weird going on: nobody seems to know what craft beer actually is. No definition exists for it, yet it’s caused a revolution!
Funnily enough it’s quite hard to actually define craft beer. The Cambridge Dictionary definition of craft beer is “beer made using traditional methods in small, independent breweries”, but most berweries that we would now consider to be well-established even started out that way. There are no strict criteria for what makes a craft beer crafty but, there are some loose guidelines. The criteria falls under; size, independence, taste and quality, but even this is vague and variable. Maybe a definition isn’t even necessary: craft beers are immediately recognisable by their taste and appearance. The craft beer revolution lives in the heart of the beer drinker and that is where the battle has long been fought!
How is craft beer made?
Craft beer combines all the usual suspects for brewing; water, yeast, malt and hops. These are the key ingredients for almost all beer brewing, craft or otherwise. The thing that sets craft beer apart is the artisanal and often rare ingredients used and traditional, smaller scale production methods. Craft brewers often pride themselves on their passion, integrity and painstaking commitment. Craft brewers invest a lot of time and effort, love and attention to create the artisanal beers, we know as craft.
Why is craft more expensive?
The price of a pint is often a hot topic for debate within the beer industry. Last year, Craft Beer Co made headlines for their Stout, retailing at an astonishing £22.50 a pint. Articles of mind boggled outrage were published detailing the price of the chain’s imported US beer. In its defense, they argued, that customers could purchase 1/3-pint measures, the ingredients are expensive and the Stout in question had a particularly high ABV of 12%. This is of course, an extreme example, but here lie the principles of why you may pay more for a craft beer. We often see craft beers sold at these premium prices to reflect the raw ingredients, time and skill needed to produce them. Craft beers are intended to be enjoyed and savoured, hence in this case the smaller measure. Perfecting the layers of flavour, creating complex aroma profiles, refining the alchemy of notes and procuring artisanal yeasts, takes time and expertise. Craft brewers obsess of the minutiae, the ensure every drop they showcase is as perfect as the last. Without mass-production and large-scale machinery this is a huge investment. Yes, you may pay more per ML for a craft brew, but it tastes all the more delicious for it.
Prohibition and craft beer history
You actually write the ‘Craft Beer Revolution’ in capitals to signal a form of American English. We have the Americans to thank for the ‘craft beer’ phenomenon, it began there. We can pinpoint the exact moment when the revolution broke out: in 1978. President Jimmy Carter signed a law lifting the ban on home brewing, a remnant of the Prohibition era during which the production and sale of alcohol was banned (drinking alcohol was, oddly enough, not banned). Prohibition lasted for thirteen years: from 1920 to 1933.
Before prohibition, brewing was mainly a local activity. Because of America’s large immigrant population, the beer made it easy to trace where people came from: wheat beer in the German areas, Ales in the English areas and wine in the Italian areas. At the beginning of the nineteenth century (1801-1900) there were more than 4000 active breweries: by 1900 there were less than 2000 remaining. 20 years later, by the time prohibition was declared (1920), there were 1300 breweries left. Only a few dozen started up again after the end of prohibition. What is also remarkable is the prevalence of Pilsner, this was almost exclusively the only beer breweries produced. It benefited from large scale production, which went hand in hand with mass advertising, an invention of the second world war. Fast forward to the mid-sixties and there were just 63 breweries left. The beer brewing model had evolved into a mass-produced industry, a far cry from “craft”. Just one of them, Anchor Brewing Company from San Francisco, did not brew a Pilsner.
The rise of homebrewing
Beer imports were slowly rising and as a result Americans were starting to get their hands on Belgian beers. So, once the ban on homebrewing was lifted (1933), hundreds of enthusiastic beer fans started brewing beer, primarily inspired by the ‘new’ flavours they had discovered through trying imported beers. Some of these homebrewers turned their hobby into a business, meaning several hundred new small breweries were established. Consumers embraced them and by the turn of the new millennium, business was booming. This was the beginning of rapid experimentation and innovation to embrace craft brewing. By the 1990s “craft” was well established, a formula had been recognised and people were adopting clever marketing strategies that allowed these smaller breweries to make profit. Currently, 2 breweries are launched every day in America and there are more than 5000 breweries on American soil!
The revolution and craft beer UK
This then is the ‘Craft Beer Revolution’, loosely translated as ‘the revolution of artisanal beer’. It started with consumers looking for an alternative to the Pilsner. Also, don’t forget that American Lagers are even flatter and more uniform than our Pilsners. To explore how it really penetrated the British beer scene, we must look back to the influx of imported foreign Lager around 50-60 years ago. These were lighter, fizzier and less alcoholic than traditional British Ales. A group of enthusiastic beer fanatics, CAMRA, formed an alliance in direct response to the rise of mass-produced beer. This had huge impact on beer in UK. Additionally, the input of Gordon Brown and his beer duty back in 2002 also had repercussions for craft beer. The introduction of his beer duty cut tax for smaller breweries, they were allowed to pay 50% less tax. The resulting phenomena was the number of breweries more than quadrupling. In 1995 there were just 92 registered breweries, by 2017 the UK had reached record numbers, totalling over 2000. In 2017 alone, 424 new breweries opened. A number that had not been met since 1930s. Now, there are in fact more independent breweries per head than anywhere else in the world!
As discussed, craft beer has taken many turns in the past few decades and come a long way since the early 1900s. Since the demand and yearn for beers beyond the original Pilsner, thousands of enthusiastic brewers have jumped to fill this gap: from Stouts, Porters and India Pale Ales to Gose and Saison: they’ve rediscovered the beer styles of old and given them a new lease of life. The craft beer scene is wide-ranging and widespread. Excitingly, exploring all the many styles and substyles this prodigy now affords could take you a lifetime. A good place to start however, is the exhaustive selection at Beerwulf, check out all the delicious bottled and canned beers we have to offer. Not only this but you can even draught fresh craft beer from your home. More recent developments in fulfilment and specialised equipment has meant craft beer is also available for home draught systems. You can now buy 2L kegs from small, independent brewers who brew high quality and tasty beers.
If you consider yourself a bit of a hophead, then then try the Session IPA from London-based Fourpure. It’s crisp, refreshing and at only 4.2% ABV it’s very drinkable. The Fourpure Barrel Yard Stout from the same brewers, is for those slightly more adventurous beer fans. It’s has a milk Stout base with a vanilla, Bourbon backbone. If a Belgian blonde is more your thing, perhaps you should load your SUB with 2L kegs of Delirium Tremens or La Chouffe. And finally, for something a bit more fruity, Wild Beer co, Tepache is a must. Don’t be fooled by the pineapple twist, this is strictly for grown-ups!