“Craft Beer” = Permission To Err?

It struck me that we in the UK hadn’t had the navel-gazing debate of what constitutes “craft beer” for a while, so I, while quite literally gazing at my navel in the shower, had a revelation.

Would a definition of a “craft brewery” be one that is allowed to make mistakes and not be lambasted or lampooned for it? Would such a definition allow for the creativity, openness and experimentation inherent in bringing an industry forward, which is what craft beer at its best does?

Hear me out on this.

I’ll break this down into three categories, in which errors and how they are both managed and perceived play a role. These are Openness, Experimentation and Authenticity of Voice.

Let’s treat these in turn.

 

Openness

As per Jonny’s excellent post on social media employed by UK breweries, openness is a huge selling point for the smaller breweries gaining respect and retaining traction. When things don’t go to plan, openly communicating it and taking the financial hit of any recalls or reclamations proactively rather than after being called out on is, for me, a mark of a “craft” brewery.

I am more than aware that breweries exist in a capitalist society as enterprises needing to generate revenue to remain in business. But there’s a social capital aspect to craft brewing that stems from wearing your heart on your sleeve. Coming out and saying your beer is sick and should get better with time is one way of being open. Another one is not hiding behind “trade secrets” but rather sharing knowledge in the knowledge that more good beer is better for the world. What Jonny calls the blurring of a personal and business account blends into the third category of authenticity of voice, but plays a role in this openness category too. If you can feel that a brewery is open and honest, much like a brewer can be when you meet them, you will appreciate their craft all the more.

Experimentation

This is where errors and mistakes and how they’re handled really come to the fore. There isn’t a person who’s “into beer” who doesn’t respect Dany Prignon of Fantome for what he does. Is it always a success? Is it hell. There’s a reason you “spin the wheel of Dany” even with a known variant of his ever-inventive saison. He admits to errors, but couches it in an incredibly candid statement: “pas TROP commercial!“.

Experimentation is at the very heart of craft brewing. Who would have thought a few years ago that the conventional wisdom of “you have to put bittering hops in to your beer at the start of the boil” would be so completely upended by the wave of New England brewers and their worldwide imitators? As such, a craft brewer should be able to try something new and untested, and hold their hands up if it doesn’t work, while providing details on the process they took. Think of it as the scientific method, but for brewing, brought crashing into a market ever hungry for new things. Although, that said, I’m not advocating for a fully open-source approach to recipe development – more a kind of “by the way, adding lactose to a Brett-spiked braggot that was aged on hedgehog nests in grappa barrels doesn’t work, if you don’t believe it, come try Trash Bear before we pour it out”.

If you take the opposite of “craft beer” to be “big beer,” craft beer talks about hop varieties leading to changes in beer, whereas big beer comes at you with polished, refined product that has gone through numerous focus groups and brand massagers, possibly ending up utterly bizarre.

It doesn’t have to be utterly out there and then coming to the buying public with Catholic-levels of apology, but rather a balance of trying new things and shooting for the stars with an admission of failure when things don’t necessarily pan out.

Craft beer is not a mature industry. It has matured a lot, as it would be expected to, but the barrier to entry remains fairly low, especially in Europe. As a conceptual category it’s ripe for open, experimental new entrants, who don’t necessarily have to get everything right every time. But they need to be open and genuine about their efforts in doing it.

Authenticity of Voice

For me, the strength of “craft brewing” is in the stories it tells. This figures into the sense of a voice of the brewery, whether it be playful, deadly-serious about its craft, or anything else. There’s a sense of dialogue, a talking “with” a craft brewer, rather than a one-way advertising communication of large-scale business. That means that honesty plays a role, and might require the admission of mistakes or inherent bias informing a brewer’s decisions.

Being smaller-scale, as many craft breweries are, also brings the day-to-day of production and decision-making closer to public scrutiny. Craft breweries can solicit opinions on branding, recipes, and so on, without appearing hapless or not knowing what they are doing. That said, having a solid branding and an identity is crucial in establishing oneself first of all, and critical in forming that sense of authenticity.

The best craft breweries have a voice that communicates with you, takes you along for a ride and makes you feel part of the excitement of what they’re doing. Going back to the relative immaturity of the industry sector, there is much to be excited about, and lots of people to engage with. Craft beer can – and should – be fun, rather than about absolutely polished image projection. Craft brewers are real people, and craft breweries employ real, honest, imperfect folk. Let those imperfections shine, I say.

Independent Manchester Beer Convention 2015

There are already multiple excellent writeups of this year’s Indyman Beer Con, but I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts mainly for personal reference if I ever would have to look into putting on an event at any scale. (Also, I seem to not have taken any amount of pictures of the festival, so I apologise for the text-heavy post)

Venue

The Victoria Baths just south of Central Manchester is a great venue for a beer festival, the sloping floor of some of the pools notwithstanding. The grand Edwardian surroundings have plenty of air in the main halls to not feel cramped, but also feature nooks and space for socializing. The key is to get the number of attendees to match the available space without the whole thing turning into a giant noise pit.

The distance from the immediate city centre surroundings worked really well too, meaning that it was a destination. You came for your session(s) purposefully, without distractions from around. However, it did mean that you were limited to the food offering on site, which while good, did clearly best work if you were at the festival for only a single session.

Money

I may be in the minority in liking paying for the food stalls in tokens just like I did for beer, given that by Saturday the stalls were accepting cash as well. It was nice to know that I could get an amount of festival currency and not have to worry about change and someone taking card.

On the other hand, by and large the prices were quite steep. The general average price for a third-of-a-pint pour was (by my reckoning) two tokens, equating to £2. This worked great if the beer was something I would not be likely to see elsewhere, such as the excellent Against the Grain Brewery stuff, but for standard-strength UK stuff it wasn’t cheap. Special commendation must be made for Magic Rock Brewing for their £1 Simpleton pours, though!

Events

I genuinely wish there had been a better way to communicate the events and any changes to programming. I know this comes back to the venue and its limitations, multiple rooms and outside space, but a man talking into a megaphone while the piped-in music still blasts at full volume was not conducive to getting attention.

I also have to critique the music. I know it’s incredibly hard to please everyone over the four days the festival was happening, but the live acts were in my opinion dire. While I love Dolly Parton covers as much as the next guy, a hipsterrific quintet with a vocalist who didn’t face the public and swayed like a stereotypical mentally-disturbed character in a movie while singing really didn’t grab anyone. Perhaps better suited to a basement bar, not a high-energy beer festival.

BrewDog doing a live brew outside on Sunday did attract attention, but I felt it could have used more of a platform (quite literally). It seemed a bit tucked away the way it was, next to the food trucks and marquee.

Beer

20151009_164756

BrewDog’s brewer, Franz, will teach you about beer

I tried some fantastic beers over the weekend, and met some wonderful people involved in their making. I find this is the optimal way to run a festival – make sure that staff from your brewery are actually present and able to give you a run-down of the beers, knowingly explain your business ethos/history and share in the love of the beverage. The attending breweries were clearly chosen with care, but I found it strange that reportedly the festival organizers chose the beers to be exhibited from lists provided by the breweries. Surely the breweries themselves should get final say on what they showcase?

That said, I have to be honest and say that I found the inevitable “what beer(s) did you like most?” questions both during and after the festival incredibly difficult to answer. On the one hand, being summoned to try some “funky farm shit” from Brew By Numbers showing off some barrel-aged Belgian-style beers stood out, but I count those guys as friends. I was very impressed with Põhjala beers, with their stout being a standout, but while excellent, didn’t do anything new as such. I know this shows me off as a jaded hipster, but so be it. However, if you get your hands on any Magic Rock/Arizona Wilderness Cross-Pollination heather honey IPA, you can thank me later.

Overall

I can see why people raved about Indyman previously. I liked my first time going. The crowd is friendly, the brewers are in attendance, the venue is beautiful and intriguing, and the selection of breweries/beers is excellent. It’s not without its issues, but I would definitely recommend it even as is. That said, a full weekend of it left me wrecked for an entire week if not more afterwards, which is why I am only writing this now.

Other Half Brewing in London, 30 September 2015

I had a chance to collar Sam Richardson, one of the partners of Other Half Brewing, on the occasion of the Brooklyn brewery’s tap takeover at the King’s Arms on Buckfast Street at the end of September. After that brief candid chat, a few choice quotes stuck in my mind. Here they are, in no particular order, along with my thoughts.

“I don’t think the IPAs travelled particularly well. If I was to do this again, I’d have them flown over.”

This statement of candour from the person who made the beer was more than appreciated. Quite often, you get a brewery rep, excited about the prospect of opening or expanding a market, wax lyrical about the quality of the beer the punters are sampling. While around me London beer fans were sampling and complimenting the flavors of the various IPAs the pub had on from Other Half, I couldn’t help but think there was a certain muted characteristic to them, or a lack of balance. The double IPA, All That and Then Some, in particular had a harsh boozy heat to it that I wouldn’t expect from such a hyped brewery.

According to Richardson, the beers had arrived via normal channels, by definition spending about a month at sea. However, with the size of their production, getting enough kegs for an event of this type meant that some beers inevitably waited for some time before the full quantity was shipped out. Compared to the freshness of India Pale Ales in the United States, the difference was marked. At the same time, it highlighted the quality and freshness of IPA available from domestic producers in the UK.

“This isn’t a sales thing for us. It’s an excuse to get over here, see what’s happening.”

Other Half are a small brewery. They are not in a position to export outside New York state, let alone outside the United States. This one-off was as much a learning experience for the brewery partners and a chance to network as it was for us drinkers to get to try their beers. Richardson did mention that they had space in their marketing budget for events like this, and I am glad they chose to use it this way, as the beers were by and large very, very good. The wood-aged and sour beers, in particular, were absolutely stunning.

“I don’t go to the Great American Beer Festival anymore”.

The US craft beer scene is huge compared to anything that is happening in the UK. The fact that a brewer can choose to deliberately distance themselves from the hoolabaloo that is the spectacle of GABF and still gain a momentous following is encouraging to artisan producers who do (necessarily) court mass markets. The fact that in a country as brimming with fresh, innovative beers as the United States, a brewery that is less than two years old can make waves like Modern Times have is encouraging to everyone interested in beer. There is scope for cool things, and we can expect to see plenty, even with the consolidation and acquisition initiated by the big breweries.

Classy Nuance – A Sign of the Times

The beer scene in London has arguably never been as healthy as in 2014. Pubs previously catering to drinkers from the least-common-denominator supplier lists now have surprising amounts of locally-brewed bottles if not more unusual draft choices available too. Traditional bottle shops have expanded their selections to include breweries from the Bermondsey Beer Mile, and new specialist beer shops have opened around the city in the past 12 months.*

There are clear trends that breweries follow. While you can’t exactly pin these to calendar years, variations on saisons have certainly been a feature of 2014. Beavertown Brewery bust out canned versions of their hoppy Quelle Saison, The Kernel released various versions of their Bière de Saison (including a Burgundy-barrel aged, sour-blended one that hits like all the hipster credentials), Brew By Numbers really made a splash with their spiced saisons, and just to prove a point about the versatility of the style, Anspach and Hobday released a pfeffernusse-spiced saison as their Christmas beer.

Over the several years I’ve been involved in serious-level appreciation of beer, on various sides of the bar and brewery, a constant feature has been an American customer asking “Do you have anything hoppy?” meaning strongly-punchy C-hop-flavored IPA. Subtler, lower ABV English counterparts have rarely cut the mustard for them. Of course, there are breweries catering for that hop craving lovers of American craft beer may want to satisfy: Magic Rock’s Cannonball and Buxton’s lovely Axe Edge are just two examples. But while a new, small brewery might be expected to produce an IPA (because let’s face it, it is the style that defines “craft” beer more than any other, given the whole movement is aping recent American history) UK breweries can and thankfully do play with subtlety.

It’s that subtlety that I’d like to toast, and it’s saison I’ll choose to highlight, given it seems to bend every which way in its loose style categorization. We are lucky as drinkers in London to be able to not just have to endure hop bomb after hop bomb, but to have breweries making more measured, nuanced and balanced drinks which nonetheless lack nothing in flavor. If anything, by not shoving a drinker’s mouth full of hops they can be enjoyed for longer. It may even be a sign of a maturing of this newest wave of beer brewers, not to mention consumers, that they can take a style which relies on nuance for its character and create successful products.

So, in 2015, please do keep brewing crazy new beers. Please do keep brewing those C-hop IPAs so that our homesick (or stuck in their ways?) American friends can get their haaawp fix. Please keep consistency in mind, but brew one-off beers because why not. But please also showcase those more nuanced beers, beers of quaffable strength, beers with enough character to savour if wanted, but not required. Because in order to truly win over the market and their drinking habits, we can’t blow through our palates constantly.

*Full disclosure: I’m involved with one of these bottle shops.