Craft Beer is Rising

Go big or go home.

Craft Beer is Rising

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

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Comments (10)

Barry S 21st March, 2014 6:34pm
Craft beers have come a long way...I recall tasting the first American beers to hit our side of the pond at the Great British Beer Festival back in the 90s. I love the citric taste explosion that come with American hop strains such as Cascade and Williamette! I agree with other contributors that lower ABV beers would be an asset to any craft brewers range!
Sion 21st March, 2014 8:59am
I have to admit, high abv does not massively appeal to me. I like the thurst qurenching characteristic of the 3.5-5.5 % range.I have no doubt in my mind that the stronger styles of the likes of Imperial Porter, Double IPAs and so forth are very much stunningly crafted beverages, but I like at the same time being able to have the two glasses of say a schwarzbier of an evening without drowsiness or the nagging feeling of This is almost as strong as wine this....I can genuinely see the next challenge being low ABV beers. Making them taste substantial will be a real test.
Bugman 20th March, 2014 6:42pm
I really enjoy the flavours brought out by the stronger beers, but also enjoy excellent lower abv session beers which there needs to be more of. Magic Rock Simpleton, Siren QIPA and Kernel Table beer have shown that a 2.5% abv beer can be truly excellent and just wondering when Brewdog are going to do one!
Kyle 20th March, 2014 5:37pm
If its under 9.9, then its sessionable!
Pete H., Nottm 20th March, 2014 12:27pm
This point of high ABV beers has been discussed down the pub for some weeks now. Any brewer can make a (reasonable) strong beer .....The new challenge seems to be making a (weak) session beer of 3.5% or less, but one that still tastes fantastic. Magic Rock, Thornbridge, Brodies and others have already started on this new challenge ......
M4RKM 20th March, 2014 12:20pm
Ive just done 2 weeks out in the USA, both NYC and Chicago. You go there and look at the amazing selection and you do struggle to find beers under 6% on a regular basis. Also, no one is bothered out there whether it is a smaller pour, because they get what theyre drinking, something that still needs to change in the UK. However, when on all day (week/fortnight) drinking explorations, that sessionable circa 4% beer is a must.
Gary 20th March, 2014 12:01pm
Beer drinking has changed from its blokey stereotype. I was in Ol in Copenhagen last week and there were about a dozen people in at the time and I was the only bloke. Everyone there was drinking beer too.
AleTales 20th March, 2014 10:46am
This is a really interesting point. I noticed the increased ABV at CBR but really loved a lot of the very exquisite experimental beers coming from Uk brewers especially. The fact that the US is knocking back the ABV as well is hopefully a trend that the UK will follow in good time, but Im quite happy to try the bigger beers for the time being ;)
Charlie from Barking 20th March, 2014 10:44am
I dont know, Ive not noticed it so much myself...perhaps the fact that bars will struggle to sell the huge beers more frequently will impact?
Tina T 20th March, 2014 10:44am
Yeah its an interesting point. I dig session beers but love experimenting with some of the weirder and whackier higher hitters coming out of the uk right now