Matthew Curtis asks if craft beer’s defiant era is coming to an end
Monday 20 January 2020
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What does the idea of rebellion look like to you? Is it discontented hordes marching on Westminster, placards in hand, or is it a quieter, more personal touch? Perhaps choosing to buy less plastic, or eating less meat in order to help prevent climate change; a quiet revolt against cultural norms in an effort to make the world a better place, in your own little way. An act of rebellion comes in many forms.
Naturally, rebellion exists in the craft beer world too. Most recently it cropped up in the manifestos of smaller, independent breweries, fed up of the market-at-large and its domination by near tasteless, mass-produced lagers. Stone Brewing in San Diego, California was arguably the first among these vocal rebels, using beers like its punchy amber ale, Arrogant Bastard, as propaganda.
“You probably won’t like it,” Arrogant Bastard’s label spits. “It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality.”
It’s an attitude that has spawned a thousand imitations. Most notably from BrewDog here in the UK, which, with beers like Punk IPA (now the largest selling craft beer in the country), fought its own version of a guerilla war in the beer aisles. The brewery, which now produces beer on three different continents, even held “craft beer amnesties” at its chain of bars, where you could trade “macro” beer for a pint of its own.
Now, however, breweries like BrewDog and Stone are no longer small, they’re as much a part of the corporate system as breweries that are considerably larger than themselves. They’ve also helped to turn a niche product into something well and truly mainstream, in turn helping breweries much smaller than they are to get a foothold in a crowded market.
And it’s not just the market that’s changed. As these rebels have gradually succumbed to the siren song of capitalism, the attitude of smaller breweries has also evolved. With that extra breathing room created by their predecessors – and a maturing market that means brewers are more interested in improving processes, or sourcing better ingredients than they are railing against industry Goliaths – that spark of defiance has diminished somewhat. Does this mean beer’s rebellious period coming to an inevitable conclusion? It kind of feels like it to me.
“Things always move on and mature. Quality and consistency are hugely important for any company and you need investment in training and plant for that,” says John Keeling, who until his recent retirement was the brewing director at London’s Fuller’s brewery. “[To do that] you have to be serious and demonstrate that you are able to attract the money. Then you become the establishment.”
Hot tramp, I love you so
Contrary to popular belief, the likes of Stone and BrewDog didn’t invent the concept of rebellion in beer. It’s been a crucial part of smaller breweries’ attitudes to their market for decades. If you look at breweries like Marble in Manchester, or Salisbury’s Hop Back – which changed the game with the introduction of its lauded golden ale, Summer Lightning in 1988 – you see rebellion against the norm in spades.
It wasn’t BrewDog that first introduced the world’s most popular (and most cultivated) hop, Citra, to the UK. It was Oakham, with its eponymously named cask pale ale, and quickly followed by Fyne Ales with the superlative Jarl. Thanks to the off-kilter attitudes of breweries like these, we get to enjoy the diverse and varied beer market as it is today. These acts, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem, were acts of defiance against the normalcy of beer culture at the time.
“There doesn’t seem to be much point in running a business if you can’t challenge the status quo, whether it was the sandals and beards that looked down their noses at an upstart women in this industry 30 years ago or the – sometimes similar – present generation,” Jan Rogers, the founder of Marble Brewery, tells me.
Things always move on and mature. Quality and consistency are hugely important for any company.
When Marble opened in 1997, the beer world looked very different to how it does now. The northwest was not the realm of juicy DDH pales and cacao and vanilla laden imperial stouts like it is to some extent now. This was (and of course, still is) a cask ale heartland and, thanks to the forward-thinking attitudes of breweries like Marble, was able to push forward into the 21st century, capturing the attention of a new wave of beer drinkers in the process.
“Marble has a reputation for following its own line and that may lead people to believe it’s ‘rebellious,’” Rogers continues. “We’re not doing it for show, but because of our ethos. Whether that’s remaining small but profitable, seeing room for all in our pubs and bars as well as the bigger beer world and still believing in a supportive community within the brewing world.”
Although she can appreciate the importance of the market advantages and employment that the likes of BrewDog have brought to the industry, Rogers also feels the attitude of her own business is quite different. “We didn’t have the self-belief that meant we set out to save the world, rather we set out to ensure individuals had decent beer, food and service in nice surroundings,” she says.
Depending on your viewpoint, Fuller’s former brewing director John Keeling could also be seen as one of the modern brewing industry’s great rebels. While these days it’s easy enough to turn your nose up at a beer like London Pride and see it as something that’s pretty bog standard, without Keeling’s influence the brewing world today might look very different indeed.
For example, if not for Fuller’s influence then once young and impressionable American brewers such as Doug Odell, Gary Fish and John Hall would never have gone on to found Odell Brewing, Deschutes and Goose Island respectively. And regardless of how you feel about any of those breweries now, they shaped the US beer scene into what it is today, and in turn inspired modern brewing the world over, perhaps most of all here in the UK. They only achieved this because they too decided to rebel against what was considered “mainstream” at the time.
Even so, the uprising of the past decade – that thing we so often refer to as the “craft beer revolution” – still gave brewers like Keeling pause to take notice.
“So much convention was blown away [over the past decade]. Brewers were becoming more important and marketing became a new ball game,” he says. “At Fullers we were probably more open to change because we were naturally gregarious brewers, but not our board, who had to be led kicking and screaming into the new age.”
Sleeping is giving in
When I ask Marble’s Jan Rogers what her idea of rebellion in brewing looks like, she mentions two breweries specifically: London’s The Kernel, and Burning Sky in Sussex. She even points to another Sussex Brewery, Harvey’s, which has been brewing since 1870, as another example.
“While there is a noticeable homogenisation within the industry, there are still breweries following their own ‘rebellious’ paths,” she says. “It’s a funny world where Harvey’s seems more rebellious – because of maintaining its tradition, ethos and investment in brewing knowledge – than some newer breweries.”
An idea exists to some that building a brewery is a purely commercial pursuit. That as soon as you are selling as much beer as you’re able to make, then you invest any profit in expansion, so that you can make more, and so on. The idea of rebellion and revolution is appealing to customers, to the point where you may even initially believe in this concept too, but when it helps you sell lots more beer this often-repeated message slowly starts to become irrelevant. You may even tell your customers you’d “rather burn your money than spend it on advertising”. But before you know it, you’re paying for a primetime advertising slot during the finale of Game of Thrones. Such is the allure of capitalism.
For some breweries, growth and profit will forever be their goal. There is not a lot of money to be made by making beer unless you’re able to make a lot of it, and we’re talking millions of litres here. For others, the reason behind opening a brewery is somewhat more noble; it’s not to increase volume or worry about growth, but to work on making the very best beer they can.
Punk rock changed my life. It changed many other people's too.
Somewhat bizzarely, these breweries – the Marbles and the Burning Skys of the world – are the true rebels in this respect. The non-conformists that do their own thing without worrying too much about what the industry-at-large thinks, without requiring a David vs. Goliath stance against the industry to buoy their business plan.
“Are we non-conformists? I don't know,” Burning Sky’s founder Mark Tranter, tells me. “Punk rock changed my life. It changed many other people’s too. It changed the aesthetics of our world but it didn't destroy the tyranny of big record companies. And I guess that’s how I view this game.”
Before launching Burning Sky in 2013, Tranter had never made a barrel-aged saison. He cut his teeth at Dark Star Brewery, where he helped to develop a now very popular beer called Hophead. But when he started his own brewery he started making barrel aged saison because that’s what he wanted to make. The beer his brewery makes now is considered to be some of the best in the country. Tranter doesn’t feel the same need to rebel against the big multinationals as some of his peers did before him.
“[Big beer] has been there for yonks and if 'we' really think 'we’re’ going to single handedly bring down the trust funds of the super elite tied up in Anheuser-Busch InBev (the largest brewing company in the world) etc, then 'we’ are wasting our time,” Tranter says. “Better to just get on and make beer as best as we can and rebel in our own way, hopefully winning a few hearts and taste buds along the way.”
As pure as Tranter’s own form of rebellion is, there is also an argument that the biggest brewing companies – the Heinekens, Asahis and AB-InBevs of the world – are truly a danger to the livelihoods of the small, independent brewing sector.
Around 86% of the beer consumed in the UK is produced and sold by macro breweries such as these, with the remaining 14% pretty evenly split between the modern craft and traditional cask breweries. The tactics employed by the biggest breweries means that it is near impossible for the smallest breweries to chip into that market share, no matter how much they’re able to grow. As such the UK’s small, independent beer makers – some 2500 of them – are forced to compete against each other in the smallest sector of the market.
Sam McMeekin, founder of the Gipsy Hill Brewing Company in South London, feels that being vocal about his brewery’s independence is crucial. He wants to grow his business and support his growing number of employees, but he also wants the independent sector to be able to grow its market share. But does he see this attitude as a form of rebellion?
The most important thing to do is what feels right to you instead of being a consumer-led imitation.
“The most important thing to do is what feels right to you instead of being a consumer-led imitation,” McMeekin tells me. “Being vocal about independence is about making a level playing field. It isn’t rebellious, it should be smart and progressive.”
Perhaps his rhetoric is not one of rebellion, although it could be argued that it is the continuation of the attitude born from the “craft beer revolution” of the past decade. What is clear is that rebellion comes in many forms, and it’s an attitude that some of the very best beer makers thrive upon, whether they realise it or not.
“‘Rebel’ has strong imagery attached to it,” McMeekin laughs. “Our head brewer would like to make a bright, caramel coloured and bitter DIPA. That would be rebellion in this day and age!”
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