Craft Beer is Rising
Go big or go home.
Craft beer is rising, that's the message. And boy, is it ever. It has become the unstoppable force of brewing, of the moment; new producers launch seemingly every week, adding to a sector of the brewing industry that is truly booming. As well as breweries, craft beer has encouraged specialist bars, magazines, apps, and also – festivals. Events now exist solely for craft brewers to showcase their products, and explain their philosophy to eager punters, as they line up, three-or-four deep, proffering branded tasting glasses with hopeful expressions.
One of the joys of beer festivals is, we think, the variety that they can provide - and it seems that you guys certainly agree. Take Craft Beer Rising, now in its second year at the cavernous old Truman brewery in east London. We were proud to return and take part once again, and it was great to help many an enthusiastic craft beer fan wriggle their way from our bar with something in their glass they may not have tried before.
Judging by the feedback, one of the undoubted successes from our stand was I Hardcore You, which flew out, relentlessly, in every session - despite tipping the scales at 9.5%. Its popularity came as no surprise to us, of course - it's a fantastic beer! But it did get us thinking; one of the (many) ways in which Craft Beer is Rising at the moment, is in terms of strength. Strolling around the hall, many of the beers that jumped off the chalkboards were north of 7%, and several had alcohol by volume (abv) levels approaching double digits.
Is this just part of the overall widening of the brackets as a result of the sheer numbers of new breweries that are springing up out of the ground these days? It could well be – more producers means more products, after all (even we can work that one out). Flicking through the beer list in the programme guide for Craft Beer Rising, it seemed many of the breweries attending were very definitely embracing the big-hitters – which is music to our ears!
In a quiet moment during the festival (i.e. between sessions, when the fevered tumult had dampened a fraction), it gave time to lean on the bar counter and think about this, absent-mindedly tapping a pen against the nearest empty glass. After a while, three small thought-clouds emerged, like snakes coiling themselves upwards. The relationships between craft beer and increasing abv – floating right there, magically!
(Ok, so we just wrote them in a notebook).
1. Craft beer plus freedom equals big beer?
Brewers, by their very natures, love to experiment and try new things. Before they turn pro, many have a backbone of years spent honing those imaginations through homebrewing. Going wild with styles in the kitchen or the garage pays forward down the line, once the day arrives when they can upscale to a brewery of their own. Craft beer, with its lack of boundaries, helps provide options - and therefore freedom - instead of a daily grind churning out the same lager, time after time. It encourages expression. Inevitably, this leads to stronger, bigger, beers.
"It's great," says Dominic Driscoll, production manager at Thornbridge, whilst standing in front of their stall, first through the door at Craft Beer Rising. "We can now make what we want and get away with it. There's more scope for making beers that we want to drink." This lack of restriction gives brewers the independence they need to be open and inventive. That's not to say craft breweries don't have flagships and core beers, of course, but it means they can push the boat out more, rather than endlessly reaching for the same button on the brewhouse control panel.
2. Dedicated followers of fashion
Everyone has influences, and many of the current boom of British craft brewers started their beery careers having looked over the Atlantic at the early-80's pioneers of the United States. Over there, US craft beer has gone big for a long time – in fact, many breweries are now investigating lower-strength session beers, such as the barnstorming Founders All Day IPA, released recently in a new, fifteen-can pack (now that's a session!). However, the perception of Stateside craft beer remains one of high-abv's, served in 650ml bombers.
One of the reasons why American beer is this way is the history that US craft brewers are trying to get away from. Prohibition decimated the American brewing industry, and when it was repealed in 1933 it left an empty market for industrial giants to exploit. Macro-lager flourished, and it was this bland, mass-produced light beer that the craft brewers revolted against. They showed how different beer could be, in terms of strength and style, instigating a beery gold-rush that is still continuing, and that brewers over here are now in tune with.
3. Spread the word
Festivals are the perfect places to try new beers – and with a list of dozens to peruse, attentions can – and do – turn towards the stronger options. With tasting measures and thirds available, curious drinkers have more capacity to try things they wouldn't ordinarily be able to shoehorn into a session. That's what festivals such as Craft Beer Rising embrace: people coming together to try new things, to learn about the well-made, stronger beers that are produced these days, in a responsible, welcoming, environment.
Of course, these festivals wouldn’t succeed, and wouldn't offer these settings, if there weren't a general attitude for it – but, increasingly, there is. "Beer used to be about a bunch of guys sitting around drinking, but it's changed. People want something more," says Ben Caruso of Lagunitas Brewing Company. "I always wish I was in New York in the Seventies when the Ramones appeared. This is what it's like now for beer. Strong beer is acceptable," he says. Eddie Lofthouse from Harbour Brewing agrees – "It's all about people being more calculating. Brewers can pack more flavour in."
So has craft beer become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Festivals encourage a growing number of drinkers to become interested in breweries, who end up making a wider range of beers for these new events, which then attract more people to attend them; is this the craft wheel turning? One thing's for sure - as this wheel spins faster, at the same time, it's also getting…stronger. More alcoholic. As we've seen, brewers are clearly revelling in the freedom to indulge their influences, in order to supply these craft events.
Beer fans now also have the time to consider what they are drinking. With so much choice out there, and so many options of where to enjoy it, you guys are becoming far more discerning. Brewers can push the boundaries as they see fit, festivals can feature stronger lines; both can only help to gain an audience. Just wander around your local craft beer festival, and checkout the high-abv variety on those chalkboards. Craft beer is rising in many ways, beer strength just happens to be one of them.
As if we need another excuse to crack open an I Hardcore You…