Walk into any pub in London today and you will find a craft beer on the bar. You will find a shelf dedicated to gins, a fridge stocked with multiple tonic options, a spirit rail with an unfamiliar brand of vodka and perhaps even a cocktail list devoid of Woo Woos and Fizz Bangs.
Pertinently, you will find choice, which is a stark and welcomed contrast from a decade or so ago when your tap options would be limited to an Australian or Danish lager brand, an Irish stout, creamflow bitter and a brand of teeth-rotting cider. It seems just as the mega corporates secured their grip around Britain's food and drink industry the public rebelled, and we're without question all the better for it.
But now the wave is moving back in the other direction. You may find craft beer in every boozer, but it's likely to only be one of four brands and most of those are being swallowed up by the sort of conglomerations we rebelled against in the first place.
Take Meantime Brewery in Greenwich. As Roger Protz notes in this year's Good Beer Guide, Meantime has already been passed from SABMiller to AB InBev and then to Asahi as part of an initial £120 million sale, and Camden has also been gobbled up for £85 million by AB which will help it undercut competitors. For a market supplied by supposedly small-scale brewers, that is potentially problematic.
In a special interview for the Guide, Professor John Colley of Warwick University's Business School, who is an expert on global companies, says the likes of AB InBev and SAB Miller can strip costs from production as a result of their ability to bulk buy such raw materials as grain and hops at enormous discounts. Big brewers enjoy 40 per cent lower costs than even medium size producers. He says that when AB bought Modelo of Mexico it stripped 20 per of costs from the company. With Beck's in Germany it took out 15 per cent of costs.
With craft beer, as well as the democratisation of spirits and other such drinks, there are certainly reasons to be optimistic. More than 200 new breweries opened up in the past year, with 1,540 now operating in Britain. But are we at risk of spoiling a good thing before it has barely started? BrewDog has done a marvellous job of homogenising an encyclopedia of beer varieties, but has it missed the point in doing so? Is the notion of 'craft' beer really about having everything under one roof, or is it, as the Scottish brewers themselves would like you to define it, simply about creating new and interesting beer?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not just rebelling for rebelling's sake. BrewDog have created a lot of very good beers and can consider themselves pioneers of the industry. But I also don't feel compelled to be trendy for trendy's sake, and for reasons unbeknownst to be, there's something that really gets under my skin about them. Most likely, it's their presumption that they own the craft beer industry when there's fifteen hundred other brewers doing the same thing. It could even be their Steve Jobsesque approach to selling their beer in their BrewDog stores and BrewDog bars that offer the full immersive experience thanks to their BrewDog geniuses, who coincidentally often know sod-all about beer.
But mainly, it's because deep down I really wanted craft beer to be about the democratisation of beer production, not the homogenisation. I wanted it to be about micro not macro, local not country-wide, good beer not branding gimmicks, and I certainly didn't want to feel compelled to shave my head and grow my beard out just to fit in. As craft beer becomes increasingly popular, we should be looking at ways of promoting smaller brewers rather than feasting on large-scale producers who just tip extra hops into the mash tun and charge an extra quid on the pint for it.
That's my ten pence worth. Rant over. I'm going down the local for a pint of Chiswick's finest Frontier. At least they won't sell.... Oh for f*ck sake!
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